Relations between great powers have worsened in recent years, prompting High Representative Josep Borrell to assert that the European Union must learn to “use the language of power”. When it comes to the EU’s relations with Russia in particular, the need for such a language has become evident. Borrell’s trip this week to visit his counterpart Sergey Lavrov takes place amid major protests over Alexey Navalny’s poisoning and detention, prompting calls for a tougher European approach towards Moscow. However, a shifting global landscape ensures that Russia will remain both a challenge and a partner for a more strategically conscious EU.
Post-war Europe has traditionally been conceived as a peace project based on shared values and a rejection of geopolitics. Nonetheless, a power-centric conception of Europe is the inevitable by-product of EU expansion. The uniform norms that Brussels has sought to promote now find themselves in tension with the diverse geographic space that the EU occupies. For all the talk surrounding the “geopolitical” character of the von der Leyen Commission, the EU has already been a de facto geopolitical actor for years, bordering the post-Soviet space since 2004 and seeking to attract newly independent states towards its regulatory orbit through the Eastern Partnership since 2009. In other words, EU norms applied beyond the borders of the 27 may not be geopolitical in intent, but given the realities of European geography they are geopolitical in effect.
The conflict over Ukraine was caused in no small part by competing visions of what constitutes a legitimate pan-European security order. Dreams of a ‘Greater Europe’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok have since faded amid reciprocal sanctions and mutual recriminations. This highlights the need for a new paradigm to govern the EU’s relationship with Russia.
The ‘interim’ paradigm that has guided the EU’s approach to Russia since the onset of the Ukraine crisis, based on the Mogherini principles first adopted in 2016, appears to have run out of road, even as military and political dynamics continue to impede the advent of a new framework for relations. EU-Russia ties remain hostage to the situation in eastern Ukraine and the need to achieve full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Meanwhile, the promise of “selective engagement” has largely failed to produce a substantive roadmap for cooperation, despite the growing trend towards a world framed by a bipolar Sino-American standoff, in which neither Brussels nor Moscow has an interest.
This stasis owes itself partly to the consolidation of a European economic and security order around the EU and NATO that has left Russia outside the Euro-Atlantic area’s core political community. Moscow has compensated for its exclusion by attempting to secure recognition of its great power status through the deployment of hard power and disruption. EU criticism of Russia’s assertive behaviour has proved ineffectual at persuading Moscow to change course, given the secondary nature of such criticism when compared with questions surrounding Russia’s place in Europe’s political and security architecture.
Russia’s role as the country that inaugurated today’s era of great power rivalry in 2014 highlights the need for an EU approach that incorporates the “language of power”. In many respects, Moscow currently looks past Brussels and prioritises the dynamics of its rivalry with Washington, considering the EU to be little more than an outgrowth of American power. The Russian leadership has settled into a view that sees the ‘liberal international order’ as little more than a front for the projection of Western power and norms. There is therefore little reason for the EU to profess that its aims do not relate to the realm of power. Brussels would be better equipped to pursue its interest of a stable (albeit not always amiable) relationship with its Russian neighbour if it engages under terms more understandable to Moscow – a more candid approach that could also help to put the EU’s relations with China and the United States on a more equal footing.
However, the EU is also unlikely ever to possess fully the same capabilities as a Westphalian state. For Brussels, speaking the language of power is first and foremost about learning to navigate an increasingly rivalrous world in a way that secures its core interests and ups its global profile, gradually growing its ability to exercise influence on issues of strategic significance to the future of world order. This is a fight for which Brussels is better equipped, given the central role occupied by geo-economics and international institutions in the emerging great power rivalry, both of which play to EU strengths. To that end, the EU should pursue two courses of action vis-à-vis Russia.
First, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) should be incorporated into the EU-China Connectivity Platform. This would provide a forum for dialogue that tacitly acknowledges the instrumental and secondary nature of technical disagreements over EU-EAEU harmonisation when compared with Russia’s quest to be treated as a ‘respected equal’. Moreover, it would encourage Brussels to adopt a more strategic and comprehensive approach to Eurasian affairs. This trilateral grouping would allow all parties to emerge as winners: Russia’s great power aspirations would be legitimised at little cost to the EU, pressure on countries in the shared neighbourhood to ‘choose’ between rival regulatory orders would be reduced, and China would be granted a wider Eurasian platform through which to advance its Belt and Road Initiative.
Such a move could sidestep the difficulties associated with Belarus’s non-membership in the WTO, as it will not involve the formal negotiation of a free trade agreement. It would also offer a model for a limited economic rapprochement with Russia, whose greater value is the platform that it offers for sustained engagement, not dissimilar to the logic underpinning non-preferential trade agreement signed by China and the EAEU in 2018. The initiation of a dialogue that is strategic in substance but technical in guise is also unlikely to upset US-EU relations in any significant fashion. This proposal would also avoid a return to the failed romantic ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ imaginary by instead emphasising the integrated character of an emerging Eurasia, while also taking a step towards transcending the current ‘interim’ paradigm for EU-Russia relations through the juxtaposition of ‘high-level’ dialogue with strategic implications alongside existing ‘lower-level’ working groups on issues such as the environment, health, food and aeronautics.
Second, given continued and likely abiding disagreements over the crises in Ukraine and Belarus, Brussels should shift its focus towards identifying shared EU-Russia interests on extra-regional issues. This would allow the EU and Russia to find new avenues to cooperate – including with third parties such as India – on an area where their interests more clearly overlap: their common desire to avoid a world framed by US-China zero-sum competition, which jeopardises the rules-based international order on which Brussels relies and to a certain extent threatens Moscow’s place in the pantheon of great powers. These efforts would centre on an EU-wide approach to engaging with Russia, contrasting with Emmanuel Macron’s proposed rapprochement where intra-European consultation was initially lacking, and should be undertaken by the European Commission over the short term in an exploratory capacity. The possible rise of Armin Laschet to the German chancellery and re-election of Emmanuel Macron to the French presidency could imbue the initiative with greater substance and momentum at the member state level over the medium term.
The ongoing Ukraine crisis has generated heavy EU investment in Ukrainian politics and civil society. It has also raised sensitive questions pertaining to how Russia perceives the boundaries of its national community. The result has been a protracted standoff between Brussels and Moscow that even the worst pandemic in a century has failed to arrest. Recent disputes over Russian political interference, the protests in Belarus and the poisoning of Navalny – occurring against the backdrop of an already fragile and strained continental order – go to the heart of debates over European values and security. The pursuit of extra-regional cooperation could provide a means through which to counterbalance these tensions without giving Moscow a ‘free pass’ over its actions in Ukraine, while also creating opportunities to increase the EU’s impact in theatres where Russia’s diplomatic and strategic presence is an established fact.
Given the speed with which the US-China rivalry has engulfed global geopolitics during the pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding Vladimir Putin’s political future, Brussels cannot afford to wait for change at the top in Moscow to pursue its global interests. These two initiatives will not provide for a complete EU-Russia reset, given the unresolved nature of Russia’s place in Europe, the persistence of clashing interests in Eastern Europe, and the continuation of Moscow’s rivalry with Washington. But taken together, they offer a path for Brussels to emerge from this decade as a more strategically engaged global player in a world of competing powers, capable of buttressing the international order that underpins its internal workings as a rules-based system.