By Domenico Valenza
The next five years are likely to witness significant changes in the relations between Brussels and Moscow. Three will be the main challenges: prospects of cooperation in the shared neighbourhood, and particularly in Ukraine; EU willingness to reset its posture towards Russia; and what will happen with the Russian presidency.
“Pushing Russia away from Europe is a major strategic error, because we are pushing it either toward isolation […] or toward alliances with other great powers such as China”. On the occasion of the Ambassadors’ conference on 27 August 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a major political reset with Russia, inviting the EU to raise its strategic autonomy and develop a “common front” with Moscow. The initiative came at a crucial time, after the European Parliament elections and with a new Commission that is meant to take office at the end of this year. Macron’s discursive reset is only the latest of a series of events that could anticipate a new phase in the relations between the EU and Russia. While predictions may fall short, there are at least three inter-related challenges that can affect relations for the better or for the worse in the coming years.
A Changing International Environment and Ukraine as the Main Stage
According to President Macron, the EU should “offer a strategic option” to Russia, based on the understanding that its foreign actions have raised qualitatively and quantitatively since the last decade. The MENA region provides a good example of this engagement, witnessing Russia’s attempts to operate as a great power in Syria and Libya. However, it is in the so-called shared neighbourhood that requests for improved relations have become more vocal, based on the principle that a full Russian inclusion at the negotiating table would be a pre-requisite for a successful outcome.
As paradoxical as it sounds, it is in the most convoluted dossier that today prospects for improved relations are significant. While under Ukraine’s former President Poroshenko opportunities for dialogue were almost nonexistent, Zelensky’s pro-peace campaign and its successful election gave new impetus to the talks. Earlier in September, the two neighbours completed an exchange of prisoners, and on 2 October Zelensky agreed to hold elections in the Eastern region of Donbas, which is a first step to re-discuss the status of the two separatist regions. Overall, this unexpected window of opportunity may help the EU contribute to a peaceful resolution and thus advance its role as a norm-maker in the shared neighbourhood.
No doubt that Zelensky’s constructive engagement sparked great enthusiasm among some European officials, and that rapprochement is no longer a remote prospect. However, what enthusiastic statements overshadow are the place and fate of Crimea. The region has in fact disappeared from official declarations and discourses addressing relations with Moscow (one need only use the search feature in Macron’s speech to confirm this), as if Sevastopol and Simferopol were destined to be and remain Russian. Here European aspirations to norm-making clash with realpolitik.
The EU Domestic Debate: To Sanction or not to Sanction?
Changes in the international environment may then lead to a new European approach vis-à-vis Russia. In case of positive developments in the Ukrainian dossier, Moscow-friendly member states could request to re-evaluate the current sanction regime. Although a removal of all instruments seems unlikely, some EU member states could push to ease economic and diplomatic measures.
The debate over the sanction regime highlights a more acute problem, that is, the absence of a common ground among EU member states when it comes to relations with Moscow. Together with France’s growing leadership, in Germany calls for improved relations with Russia have come from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Social Union (CSU). Both parties are members of the current governmental coalition. SPD co-chair Ralf Stegner encouraged further economic cooperation between the EU and Russia, while CSU MP Peter Ramsauer invited the German government “to pressure the EU for a partial lifting of the sanctions”. As for Italy, another EU member state with historical ties to Moscow, back in July Prime Minister Conte met Putin in Rome and confirmed the excellent state of bilateral relations, wishing for a prompt review of the sanction regime.
This Russia-friendly stance has been repeatedly questioned by some states calling for tougher policies and measures. According to this group of allies, including Poland, Sweden, and the Baltics, the West still lacks a realistic understanding of Russia’s foreign policy. In March 2016, EU foreign ministers and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, agreed on five principles guiding EU policy towards Russia. The principles successfully balanced these different views. Whether they will be maintained is another story.
The 2024 Problem: Who’s Next?
Finally, there is the question of where Russia is going. To some observers, recent actions have further determined its Eurasian orientation and pushed the country away from the West. Perhaps the best example comes from the 2019 Valdai Forum, the most prominent political arena to present Russia’s foreign orientation. Interestingly, this year Valdai ignored the West and instead signalled a “Dawn of the East” (the title of the Forum), and particularly of China.
While it is true that China has become Russia’s privileged partner in many spheres, this unprecedented level of mutual trust, to recall Putin’s words, should not be overestimated. For instance, Moscow and Beijing have their own differences when it comes to regional cooperation in their shared neighbourhood. In Central Asia, China’s increased engagement faces scepticism from Russian authorities, considering the region within their own sphere of influence. In the Arctic, China has raised its strategic ambitions to an unprecedented level. In addition, although both actors aim at countering the US and Trump Administration, their alliance seems to be based rather on a common antagonist than on a shared worldview.
Russia’s foreign policy re-orientation comes perhaps at an even more important point that is, Putin’s second and last presidential term. There is an historical precedent in 2008, when Putin assumed the role of Prime Minister under President Dmitry Medvedev after two consecutive terms. Recent history and Putin’s repeated denial to amend the constitution make the possibility of a fifth term unlikely. Same goes, however, for the possibility of competitive free elections, something that should not be expected soon in Russia.
As such, the assignment of a long-term successor seems to be the most likely possibility at present. Together with a number of renowned figures, including Prime Minister Medvedev and the Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov, Defence Minister Shoigu’s chances are on the rise. Shoigu is the most popular Russian politician after the President and heads the Army, that is at present the most trusted body. While far in time, the presidential election could give new impetus to relations with the West and the EU, should Putin’s progressive retirement take place, and provoke political unrest in Moscow and elsewhere, if Russia’s ‘liberal soul’ will be further excluded from power dynamics.
Overall, developments in the shared neighbourhood, EU internal debate and the Kremlin’s presidential fate will heavily affect future relations, and unpredictability is likely to persist for years to come. At a time of frosty interactions, selective cooperation and people-to-people contacts should remain on top of the agenda, especially when it comes to cultural relations. This assumption is even more valid now. Engaging with Russia’s societal forces and shaping a more open country should remain at the core of any long-term European approach.