Europe and Russia: an Agenda for Post-Pandemic Relations

June 2020

Europe, now Russia’s normative opponent (again), cannot return to the days when its relationship with Moscow was based on trust. But Europe can try to create more effective mechanisms for managing mutual suspicion and offer incentives for Russia’s future transformation.

by Lilia Shevtsova

Moskau Russland Kreml
Adobe Stock / Anna Alferova

Russia and Europe are awkward partners: their civilizations are opposed but they are tied to each other, too, above all economically. This incompatibility, on the one hand, and interdependence, on the other, makes outright confrontation a non-option but also undermines cooperation based on trust.

Today, in the pandemic world, Russia and Europe face new challenges. The question is how they will affect their relationship.

The state of play

The Coronavirus crisis has delivered a blow to Russia’s stability, undermining not only its economy but also public support for President Vladimir Putin. Thus, the Kremlin has to think about new means to legitimize itself if Putin hopes to survive the crisis. His aggressive “Fortress Russia” formula may still have supporters but it is rejected by a majority of Russians who are tired of confrontation. Polls show that two thirds of Russians want partnership with the West. The Russian rentier class is already integrated into Europe and would warmly welcome reengagement with Europe, which was sacrificed during the Ukraine conflict since 2014.

Indeed, the Kremlin must urgently rethink its foreign and security rationale since today it threatens domestic stability. In the past, Putin’s “escalation in order to deescalate” strategy forced countries to accept Moscow’s demands. The mantra about Russia’s great-power role and “areas of influence” are still at the core of this strategy, despite limited resources. Militarism, war rhetoric, and the nuclear blackmail of the West defines Russia’s approach.

Yet, the Kremlin understands that having its own galaxy of satellites means paying for loyalty -- which it can’t afford today.  The Eurasian project, for example, is on the back burner and even Belarus is allowed to flaunt its independence. Moscow has toned down the saber rattling.      

The Kremlin wants to re-enter dialogue with Europe

While relations between Moscow and Washington remain toxic, the Kremlin wants to re-enter dialogue with Europe, its leading energy customer – but without making concessions on the annexed and occupied regions of Ukraine. The EU, though, is not its primary partner. Moscow still believes that Brussels is not a geopolitical power and thus will pursue, above all, bilateral relations with European states.

This is not to say that the Kremlin will give up on efforts to undermine Europe. Its arsenal is the creation fake expectations, exploiting rifts among the Western states, and the support of anti-liberal forces inside of liberal democracies. Instead of kicking over the global chessboard, the Kremlin offers its interpretation of the rules and presents itself as the defender of international law. Suffocating Europe in embraces, and presenting itself as the promoter of peace and defender of sovereignty – this is the new Russia’s role. Could it return to a stance of outright aggression? Yes, if seduction fails.

Russia’s geopolitical successes are overrated

The Kremlin will continue to test Europe but its power to do so and its geopolitical successes are overrated. Europe has complained bitterly about Russia “eroding” the liberal order with its disinformation campaigns, the battle over norms, and the meddling in other countries’ internal affairs. But the liberal order has been crumbling for decades anyway and Europe’s unity is fragile due to its own problems. Russia has no values or vision that it can offer the world. Nor has its mechanism of interference and subversion really been effective.

In fact, you could argue that the Russian campaign has backfired. Moscow has only undermined its own stature in Western public opinion, for example. Polls show that in Western Europe, only 31 percent see Russia favorably. Only in Slovakia (60 percent) and Bulgaria (73 percent) do majorities see Russia favorably. In reality, the Kremlin’s so-called tactical successes have been strategic disasters. For instance: Russia has complicated Ukraine’s way to Europe, but Russia lost Ukraine as a friendly nation. 

The post-pandemic world threatens Russia with formidable challenges: it will gradually loose the role of the energy superpower and will have to limit its military great-power role. It is questionable whether the system will survive at all if its ruling elite does not change the way it operates.

The Ukrainian crisis forced Europe to consolidate around sanctions against Russia. This demonstrated both Europe’s ability to contain Russia’s military expansion by applying painful economic restrictions and the limits of European impact on Russia. But it could not force Moscow to respect the sovereignty of its neighbors.

In recent years, Moscow and European pragmatists have started to think about how to resume dialogue without waiting for resolution of the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s return to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and French President Emmanuel Macron’s rhetoric about reengaging Russia created expectations in Moscow that the EU is ready, not only to re-open channels of communication but to accept Russia’s view of normalization, namely Ukraine’s partial occupation. 

What is realistic?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia imitated Western Europe’s democratic institutions – and established a partnership with Europe – while at the same time instating personalized rule and returning to an empire-state. Russia succeeded in forcing Europe to accept this state of affairs more than Europe succeeded in aiding Russia’s liberal transformation.

Until the current system is transformed, the EU’s relationship with any Russian regime will be prone to episodes of misunderstanding. There is no chance that under Putin Russia will agree to backtrack on Ukraine – and this will remain the key bone of contention. Even a post-Putin Kremlin will have issues with recognizing Ukraine as a sovereign state. Russians have come to see Ukrainians as part of the Russian nation. Thus, the basis for European sanctions against Russia will remain.

Management of mutual distrust

Perhaps just the management of mutual distrust could be the way forward for Russia and Europe while they remain systemically incompatible. Paris and Berlin will be the key actors in this process. Germany is crucial for the Russian economy and the Kremlin’s European policy. This is why Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure in 2021 creates many unknowns for the Kremlin.

Europe faces a dilemma. Reengagement with Russia will be used by the Kremlin to push its own agenda. The Kremlin is astute in exploiting European rifts as well as the naiveté of part of the political class. At the same time, EU attempts to emphasize normative principles will provoke an aggressive response.

Europe does not have transformative impact on Russia. But Europe can stop acquiescing to illiberal Russian overtures and create an external environment that will deter the Kremlin’s most hostile impulses.

The European agenda could include several aspects:

  • Firstly, Europe has to lose the old clichés with regard to Russia and assess the new, imposing challenges that Russia faces.
  • Secondly, Europe should reenergize the Eastern Partnership, an EU project of the late 2000s that extended a hand to Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Belarus. This could help Russia’s neighbors secure sovereignty and maintain integrity. It can be an effective way of preventing Moscow’s expansionist ambitions.
  • Thirdly, Europe should engage Russia on such issues as Iran, North Korea, the Euro-Atlantic region, the pandemic, and climate change. Concerned by its own dependence on Chinese technology, Russia might even seek a more productive relationship with Europe to balance its ties with Beijing. 
  • Fourthly, Europe has to ease the visa regime, which can expand channels for engaging Russian society and strengthening people-to-people contacts.
  • Fifthly, the European agenda should combat the Western enablers who assist the corrupt Russian elite through legal loopholes, tax havens, and lax law enforcement of anti-corruption laws.
  • Finally, Russia’s trajectory depends on whether and when Europe returns to acting as a normative icon and presents a successful example to follow.

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