The divide between the European Union and Russia is getting wider, in fact wider than those in Brussels who are calling for a rapid normalization of relations with Moscow out of ideological or economic reasons think. While normalization is very unlikely to happen this year, what is at stake is much more than the bilateral relationship between the EU and Russia – it is the very nature of the EU and Russia themselves.
Moscow hopes that given the changes in Washington coupled with its own domestic challenges, the EU will soften its stance on the conflict in Ukraine and especially the sanctions. Getting the sanctions removed is one of Russia’s most immediate objectives. On the flip side, the EU is mostly concerned about the future of the bloc and the strength of its transatlantic link and especially NATO – the most tangible expression of the current rift between Brussels and Washington. The recent history shows that Moscow knows how to exploit anything vulnerable in the EU-US relations and the period of Euro-Atlantic crisis seems propitious for adventurous moves by the Kremlin.
Brussels and Moscow no longer see each other as strategic partners and this is not going to change in the near future but still their relations will continue to be strategic for both sides. While the evolution of each will have a direct and meaningful impact on the other, the Kremlin has displayed increasing determination to challenge Brussels strategically in two sensitive areas: in the ideological dimension and the “shared” neighborhood, though this very expression greatly irritates Russia.
On top of the rattle around the word “strategic”, the clash of perceptions and symbolism will play a central role in the geopolitical dispute between Brussels and Moscow in the years to come. From the European perspective, the struggle is about how to contain Russian aggressiveness and figure out what its objectives are. The EU is simply weighting how to respond to the many uncertainties produced by the Kremlin. From the Russian perspective, movements in Ukraine and Syria are both defensive as well as meant to restore the balance previously violated by the West.
In the foreseeable future, the lack of trust will remain the main obstacle in the mutual relations between both sides. Vladimir Putin still perceives the EU and European values to be a potential existential threat and the EU actively believes that Russia is encouraging all parties with an anti-EU agenda. To describe this very complex situation simply as incompatibility of geopolitical approaches would be a serious understatement – to be more accurate, it is the area of influence/control that Moscow claims against the progressive European integration that is driving the EU’s foreign policy. Moreover, Moscow wants to position itself as a political alternative model for the EU’s xenophobic right wing and populist left. All of this shows that the paradigm of Russian modernization and its progressive integration into a shared European space, which has shaped the EU-Russia relations for the past twenty-five years, is no longer appropriate. Another one must replace it and be based on new foundations.
‘No Reset in Sight: The EU-Russia Conflict in the Trump Era’ – Study by Nicolás de Pedro – Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB).
(The Study can be downloaded here)