Understand more, condemn less

Europe's World

Picture of Anna Matveeva
Anna Matveeva

The way ahead for Russia and the EU

Anna Matveeva is Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and a member of the department’s Russia and Eurasia Security Research Group

While liberal politicians and media lamented the results of Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union and the outcome of the American presidential election, Moscow reacted to these events with hope.

The momentous developments of the past six months will not have any direct bearing on Russia’s interests, but they will re-shape international politics, bring new people into power and give the Kremlin a chance to ‘re-programme’ its relationship with the West.

Europe is the immediate concern. Moscow wants the EU sanctions imposed over the war in south-eastern Ukraine – and its own subsequent counter-sanctions – to be lifted. At a minimum, it wants to continue to fight the introduction of new sanctions over Russia’s actions in Syria – a goal that the Kremlin managed to achieve last October.

And now, Russia’s hand is stronger. Some of the most vocal and hawkish European critics of Moscow are facing significant domestic pressure. Angela Merkel has lost much of her popularity in Germany and her fate is uncertain as she runs for re-election in 2017.

Britain – as the most prominent opponent of Russia in the EU – has had its voice muffled even before it triggers Article 50. London’s European influence is on the wane, and a Donald Trump-led United States may not need Britain to amplify the American voice in Europe.

This new moment in the history of Russia and Europe presents an opportunity for change. New presidents and officials may form fresh relationships

Bulgaria has elected a new president who does not demonstrate hostility to Russia. France is set to do the same in May: the likely final-round candidates – Marine Le Pen of the National Front and François Fillon of the Republicans – are far more Russia-friendly than the current president, François Hollande.

Italy, Spain and Greece, which were most negatively affected by the sanctions, feel that little has been achieved by a confrontational approach. There was almost no impact on Russian policy, but very real damage to their own countries’ tourism- and export-oriented economies.

This is not to say that Russia-EU relations will become rosier after the next wave of elections.

The Dutch are not going to forget the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine unless Russia can produce evidence that it was not responsible for the crash. Trade deals have been made to exclude Russia.

And most importantly, trust has gone out of the relationship. The state of mind among many Russians has moved from ‘Europe does not understand us’ to ‘they mean us harm’.

The Russian intelligentsia – intellectuals, opinion-formers, academics and cultural figures – are excluded from the common European space where they can meet their peers and exchange views and ideas. Given the country’s position outside the EU’s Eastern Partnership, Russian participants are not invited to regional events and platforms where they could meet their counterparts from Eastern Europe. They no longer feel welcome.

Europe has a strong record of supporting well-intentioned but marginal causes in Russia’s domestic development. But interaction and dialogue with mainstream society and opinion-shapers has been largely ignored.

This new moment in the history of Russia and Europe presents an opportunity for change. New presidents and officials may form fresh relationships (although as British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has recently demonstrated, they can also deepen enmity).

Military build-ups and dangerous encounters in Europe are becoming too frequent. We urgently need old-fashioned confidence-building measures that were practiced during the Cold War era – because it is evident that the notion of ‘liberal peace’ is not working.

Russia is a part of Europe; a notion that politicians and the media in the European Union too easily forget

Previously-agreed deals suspended after the events in Ukraine – energy projects such as the South Stream pipeline via Bulgaria – can be revived. Mediators in the Minsk process aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine will hopefully make a more concerted and decisive push towards a peace settlement, leaving less room to manipulate differences in the Russian and EU positions.

And countries in Europe’s and Russia’s neighbourhood – such as Moldova, Belarus and Armenia – should be able to develop and preserve relations not on the basis of choice between mutually-exclusive options, but on a sensible combination of links to both of their large neighbours.

Finally, Russia is a part of Europe; a notion that politicians and the media in the European Union too easily forget. The tone of the discourse in Europe is that Russia is always a problem – either an existential evil or a lame duck punching well above its weight – but this attitude does not bring us closer to solutions at the time of an escalation of tensions on a scale unseen since the end of the Cold War.

Political leaders should talk to each other and establish new rules of engagement in Europe. They should acknowledge that the relationship will not progress in conditions of distrust, and that the discourse of ‘values’ has limited resonance.

Instead, the relationship will have to be rebuilt on the basis of mutual interests and in full sight of the fact that Moscow will seek to avoid deep interdependency. Crucially, societies have to assume their share of responsibility for how low the relationship has fallen and make their own contribution to creating a common European space.

Russia is not Putin, and Putin is not the omnipotent president many think he is. Perhaps we need a Putin-light paradigm, in which we understand more and condemn less.

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