EU-Russia: An unlikely partnership

The Kremlin prefers indirect confrontation, while Europe still relies on its “soft power”

Photo: EPA Josep Borrell and Sergey Lavrov.

Disinformation, hybrid war, lack of predictability, attempts to divide Member States on many issues, full neglect of the international law and order. All this has characterised Russia's attitude towards Europe in the last decade. As if it was Moscow's main enemy.

At the same time, the EU has stubbornly tried to pretend that sooner or later Moscow can be turned into a partner through the use of European “soft power”. Looking back, to the annexation of Crimea, disinformation campaigns on many issues, diplomatic non-understanding, and many more, it is clear that such an approach is a European self-delusion.

The latest visit to Moscow of the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, only proved that this is an obvious illusion. While Brussels once again tried to restart relations, saddled by a wide number of issues, Moscow chose to humiliate the toothless EU diplomacy by expelling several European diplomats while Borrell was speaking to journalists. Even Borrell himself admitted later that “it's clear that Russia is on a confrontational course with the EU”.

Expectedly, Borrell's visit was labelled as a “catastrophe” and new sanctions on Russia were urged by several Member States. Small wonder, few days later they were even agreed and announced. But if anyone expected real sanctions that would be able to make Russia think twice before taking anti-European steps, they would be deeply disappointed.

Last Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed only to impose sanctions on four top Russian officials, without naming them and without specifying the sanctions. A real symbolic response! And the Union is now set to discuss the framework of restrictions, including asset freezes and visa bans against individuals responsible for the repressive actions against protesters in Russia.

It was German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who best expressed the way the EU is trying to deal with Russia. “I am in favour of ordering the preparation of additional sanctions, of listings of specific persons,” Maas said on his arrival to the foreign ministers meeting. “At the same time we need to talk about how to keep up a constructive dialogue with Russia, even as relations certainly have reached a low.”

But such an approach has proved futile for many years. Russia has already been hit with sanctions following its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its backing of insurgents in Ukraine, and nothing has changed in its policy. It has even hardened. And in the last decade there were several attempts to officially relaunch relations with Russia. An eagerly expected EU-Russia Partnership for Modernisation collapsed even before properly starting. In 2016, two years after the invasion of Crimea, the EU put forward the so-called principle of “selective engagement”. In the summer of 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron launched a major effort to reset relations with Russia as well.

All of these attempts spectacularly failed, simply because while the West sought a reset based on mutual concessions, Russia does not want to reset its own foreign policy at all. The Kremlin is firm on the idea that Russia made too many unilateral strategic concessions in the 1990s and 2000s, and now it is the West's turn to do so. Furthermore, Moscow is not interested in keeping the status quo, it is keen to regain positions it lost in its Western neighbourhood - in the Baltics, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe as a whole.

But while there is some kind of cooperation with Russia on many issues, such as gas sales, investment, Iran's nuclear programme, etc., and while the EU is trying to practice the art of the possible, Russia is stubborn on its own interests, making the West step back. Which, at the same time, makes Moscow become even more aggressive.

In order to be successful, the EU should learn to deal with Russia using its own weapons. When Moscow speaks hard, Brussels should be even harder. Paradoxically, a more confrontational approach to Russia on some issues, coupled with offers of talks, might actually achieve much better results than regular, and futile so far, offers for reset.

But is Europe ready for such an approach? Or will it prefer to continue relying on its traditional “soft power”? I bet Europe will choose the second, while confrontation and alienation will continue to grow. Until at least the change of guard in the Kremlin, which - optimistically - may happen in the late 2030s.

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