In a statement, on April 20 of this year, the Russian government declared that it had sanctioned David Sassoli , president of the EU, and 7 more EU senior officials and banned them from entering Russia. This measure was in response to the sanctions against 4 Russian officials by the EU in March. Also, on April 17, a new wave of diplomatic tensions swept through Russia and the EU ties, after the Czech government expelled 18 Russian diplomats, due to the alleged role of the Russian security agents in the explosion of the Vrbice ammunitions warehouses in 2014. Subsequently, the Baltic countries, Slovakia and Poland declared their solidarity with the Czech government by expelling some Russian diplomats. Also, the Russian government retaliated and reciprocally expelled these countries’ diplomats and set stricter regulations for some unfriendly embassies. Although the reciprocal sanctions and expulsion of the Russian diplomats by the US end EU was not a new matter and has become a common practice between the two sides, the main question is intensification of the crisis of relations of Russia and Europe has been the result of what processes and what is the horizon for the future of relations between the two sides?
Russia/ EU Ties over the Course of Time
Since 1991, the Russian relations with the EU states have been shaped based on different goals and wishes. The Russians talked about the Great Europe, from Lisbon to Vladivostok and in Europe there was talk of a European Russia. But what was behind these words was to a great extent different in the minds of the two sides. While Russia’s priority for cooperation with Europe was reconstruction, economic development, keeping military and security power and enjoying the status of a global power, the European Union’s aim was to integrate Russia in the form of the European values and eliminate the Cold War Era concerns. Based on this, the two sides have embarked on shaping their relations and signed the Partnership and cooperation Agreement (PCA). This agreement was binding from 1997 for ten years and has been extended each year since 2007. This agreement provides the required legal framework for cooperation in the various political, economic, scientific, cultural and energy sectors, which was complemented by ratification of another document. The result of this trend was broad mutual cooperation in the economic and security areas which took shape after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Broad intelligence and support cooperation between Russia and Nato in the Afghanistan invasion was the main indicator of both sides security cooperation after 2001. In the economic sector, the sides ratified main economic contracts, the most important of which being exports of oil and gas to Europe and investment in Russia. Russia‘s strategy, this time, was reaching the status of the biggest exporter of oil and gas in the world and the biggest European gas supplier.
The occurrence of the color revolution in Georgia in 2003 and occurrence of subsequent similar events in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, which were supported by the west, as well as the Nato expansion to the East, gradually eroded the optimism governing the Russia/EU ties and turned them to doubts and suspicions. Russia’s military operations in Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula to Russia in 2014 led the two sides’ ties to becoming extremely cold. This trend continued and intensified in the following years by the allegations made against Russia about its interference in the 2016 US presidential elections, poisoning of Skripal, former Russian spy, Navalny, a Putin opponent, and Russia’s operations in Europe and America, so that it led to stalling many of the agreements of cooperation, and diplomatic tensions between the two sides , and as a result wider divergence between them.
Factors of Disintegration between Russia and the EU
After the 1990s honeymoon, the Russian/European ties gradually pivoted towards “cooperation and Competition”, and since 2014 moved towards “cooperation and unfriendly atmosphere”. In other words, the EU and Russia ties are in a way that bit by bit mutual trust has been replaced with mutual suspicions. With a cursory look at the Russia and EU relations over the last 30 years, some EU behaviors that have been criticized by Moscow and have been factors for disintegration from the Russian point of view are as follows:
- Supporting particularly Russia’s domestic western-oriented spectrum;
- Demeaning behavior towards Russia and not accepting it as a global power
- Nato’s expansion towards east;
- Support for color revolutions in the former soviet republics , including Ukraine , Georgia and Belarus;
- Implementing the eastern neighborliness plan with the three South Caucasus countries , in addition to Ukraine, Moldavia and Belarus with the aim of integrating them with the European Union;
- Supporting Russia’s opponents by bringing up human rights matters and imposing related sanctions;
- Imposing heavy sanctions after the Ukraine crisis and annexation of Crimea to Russia; and
- Creating diplomatic tensions and expulsion of Russian diplomats.
As a result, Russia, which after the collapse of the Soviet union had particularly counted on the western , and especially Europe investment, was faced with the reality that west was implementing a policy that did not comply with its own policies. Based on this, Moscow countered American- European policies by the following actions, eventually leading to further disintegration between them:
- Addressing the opponents of the government , especially the oligarch supporters of the west who had dominated Russia’s main centers of production and wealth and infiltrated main centers of power including the Kremlin for controlling the highest political institutions;
- Planning to change the status quo in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan which had undergone political developments with the color revolutions;
- Military operation in Georgia in support of the Abkhazi and South Ossetian separatists, considering Georgia’s candidacy for membership in the Nato in the 2008 Lisbon meeting;
- Annexation of the Crimean peninsula to Russia in 2014 and support for east Ukraine separatists in Donbas;
- Cyberattacks inside Europe and America, especially during election times ( alleged by the western side);
- Creating and strengthening regional Russia-centered organizations like the Collective Security Organization, the Eurasian economic Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia and the Caucasus and coordination of positions with China;
- Entrance to the Middle East through political and military support for the legal Syrian government ;
- Using the tool of energy, especially gas in ties with the EU…
But alongside the above behaviors which have generally been adopted by both sides and caused further mutual mistrust, we cannot ignore the two intra and extra Union factors in intensification of tensions and the divergence emerged between Moscow and Brussels. There are different approaches towards Russia among the EU members. For example, the Baltic States, Poland and Romania have tougher stances on cooperation with Russia, and the Republic of Czech was named an unfriendly country by Moscow, due to it expelling the Russian diplomats. As a result, the negative impacts of this group of countries on the decisions made by the EU for non-cooperation with Russia cannot be ignored, despite different approaches taken by countries like Germany, France, Italy and Hungary that are in favor of further interactions with Russia.
Another influential factor in the EU-Russian ties is the role of the US and to some extent the UK. This country’s relations with Moscow have bitterly cooled down and the case with the UK, as quoted by the Russian foreign minister, is almost in the freeze mode.
In an interview with the Russian Thought Magazine, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Labrov, described relations with the UK like this:” without regard to their membership in the European Union, the UK officials have constantly attacking us with unjustified anti-Russian rhetoric in the public space. As a result, the mutual interactions have to a large extent ended and trust is eroding and the ties are frozen.”
Also, the Russian and American relations have cooled down since 2014, in several stages, the last of which was April of this year, and led to mutual expulsion of the two countries’ diplomats. The Ukraine crisis in 2014 and accusing Russia of interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections and cyberattacks resulted in intensification of European and American sanctions against Russia. Sanctioning the Nord stream 2 gas pipeline by the US halted its operations and this is while completion of the said project is highly important for Germany. At present, the Russian/American atmosphere of relations is at its worst. Totally, despite all differences that during the Trump term emerged between the European Union countries and the US, both sides have common interests due to various reasons, especially their shared liberal system and power politics. Therefore, America, as an influential variable and of course a negative one, plays a role in the Europe-Russia relations, a subject that during Sergey labrov meeting with Josep Borrel, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, in this February, was noetd by the Russian part, and he expressed that the EU was an untrustworthy partner and stated that:” the European Union’s behavior gets more similar to that of the US, day after day.”
Future of Relations Between Russia and the European Union
Despite all differences and problems between Russia and the EU, economic dependence, security concerns and political capacities of the two sides are intermingled, leading both sides to continuing their cooperation in various areas. Both sides, over years, have cooperated on the main international issues like climate change, migration, drugs smuggling, human trafficking, organized crime, countering terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, the Middle East peace process and support for human rights. In bilateral cooperation, the European Union is at present Russia’s biggest trade partner. In 2020, the volume of the two countries ‘trade was 170 billion euros, comprising about 40% of Russia’s foreign trade. Also, the EU is the biggest investor in Russia. The share of EU investments in Russia up to 2018 was 277 billion euros and Russia’s share in the EU was 89 billion euros. In the energy sector, also, Russia is the biggest exporter of oil, gas, uranium and coal to the European Union.
The above indexes are indicative of the reality that Russia-EU interdependence is so much that it does not allow the chain of cooperation between the two sides to break easily. However, the US element is key in setting Russia-EU ties, and this country’s type of behavior can be influential in changing the status quo. Prioritizing rivalry with China in the new US administration’s strategy, has made Russia hopeful, that while strengthening cooperation with the Chinese side, to increase its weight in the relations with the west. On the other side, Russia tries, alongside intensification of differences with the west that generally relate to the domestic and surrounding issues of this country, to have dialogue with the western part about the international and regional issues.
Also, the European Union, due to energy is strongly dependent on Russia, and for military and security reasons vulnerable against Russia, hopes to continue its cooperation and advance its interests by utilizing Russia’s weak points in the economic sector as well as by using its soft power. The European Union‘s priority in this regard is strengthening its institutional role against Russia. In general, though there can be seen no perspective of normalizing ties with Russia and there is a likelihood that the unfriendly atmosphere which has recently deteriorated will continue, the two sides’ cooperation is going to continue, too.
Aliakbar Jokar, Senior Expert of Central Asia and the Caucasus Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)