The EU and Russia: towards a thaw?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Tom Casier
Tom Casier

Reader in International Relations at the University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies

Over the last months, pieces of the complex puzzle of ‘EU-Russia relations’ have shifted. Small steps were taken that suggest a window of opportunity for a normalisation of relations may slowly open.

Important new signals came from Ukraine itself, a country at the heart of the confrontation between Russia and the West. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who took office in May 2019, campaigned on a promise of establishing peace in Eastern Ukraine. In an unprecedented move in early September, Ukraine and Russia swapped prisoners, heralded by Zelensky as “the first step to end the war”.

Moreover, the Ukrainian President suggested that he was willing to consider the so-called Steinmeier formula – an initiative that was meant to foster the implementation of the Minsk II agreement, signed in 2015 to end the war in Eastern Ukraine. It is based on the idea of holding OSCE-monitored elections in the separatist areas of the Donbas region before recognising local autonomy in the Ukrainian constitution. Yet, Zelensky also added clear conditions: the withdrawal of Russian troops and the restoration of the international border.

Russia needs to be included in a ‘European civilisation’ project to prevent it from either allying with China or facing dangerous isolation

At the European level, other important steps were taken. In June 2019 a deal was reached to restore Russia’s voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). This step was strongly contested by Ukraine and by several Central and East-European EU member states.

The most important initiative came from French President Emmanuel Macron. A week after he received Russian President Vladimir Putin in Brégançon, Macron launched an appeal for reconciliation with Russia in a speech for the French ambassadors on 27 August 2019. The French President called for a fundamental reassessment of relations with Russia. Macron – emphasising he was speaking without naivety – argued that “pushing Russia away from Europe is a major strategic error, because we are pushing it either toward isolation, which heightens tensions, or toward alliances with other great powers such as China, which would not at all be in our interest”.

Macron’s initiative was significant for two reasons. First, his motivation to restore relations with Moscow was driven primarily by geopolitical considerations: Russia needs to be included in a ‘European civilisation’ project to prevent it from either allying with China or facing dangerous isolation. It goes without saying that concerns over transatlantic relations are as big a driver for this call as are direct concerns over Russia.

[Macron’s plan] lacks detailed policies on achieving rapprochement

Second, Macron’s speech stood out because it was the first time that an EU leader formulated a long-term vision on reconciliation with Russia since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. This vision is highly needed, but has long been considered politically impossible because it risks being seen as overly conciliatory. Yet, Macron’s plan also has major weaknesses. It lacks detailed policies on achieving rapprochement. Moreover, the call was dismissed in several European capitals.

Despite the signs of progress, the window of opportunity for a breakthrough seems to have closed again. The envisaged new ‘Normandy summit’ with Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France over Eastern Ukraine has yet to take place. There are different reasons for this.

First, despite showing continued coherence in maintaining sanctions against Russia – for well over five years already – the EU remains divided over the way forward. Put differently, it is easier to maintain unity over sanctions against Russia than it is to create unity among the member states over long-term objectives.

It will prove extremely difficult for President Zelensky to push through any concessions on autonomy

Second, there is also a division within the Kremlin. While some believe it is difficult to make major concessions on Eastern Ukraine, others believe that concessions are the only way to get sanctions against Russia lifted.

Third, the fundamental issues that obstruct an implementation of the Minsk II agreement continue to exist. Ukraine wants to restore the international border with Russia first, while Russia wants political autonomy for the separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk first.

On top of all of this, it will prove extremely difficult for President Zelensky to push through any concessions on autonomy given the mounting protests over the issue. So-called ‘Ukrainegate’ has done little to help, as his credibility has been impacted by allegations that Donald Trump made American military support to Ukraine dependent on Zelensky’s support for an investigation against Hunter Biden.

Little is left of the ambitious intentions behind the Charter of Paris of 1990

It is disappointing that Macron’s call for rapprochement did not provoke a bigger debate. Half a decade into the Ukraine crisis, Russia and the EU still find themselves in an endless staring contest. Meanwhile, the European post-Cold War security order crumbles further in a way that should worry us all.

Little is left of the ambitious intentions behind the Charter of Paris of 1990, which had promised a Europe without dividing lines, based on the indivisibility of security. The annexation of Crimea, and to a lesser extent the Kosovo crisis, have tested the European border regime to its limits. Last but not least, the nuclear and conventional arms control regime – key to Europe’s security – is falling apart, with only one of the four major treaties standing.

With this in mind, a debate on long-term ambitions for a new European security order and Russia’s place within it, is not a luxury, but a necessity. While Macron’s call for rapprochement may have failed to trigger such a debate, it has at least tried to open it.

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