Russia and Europe are not in confrontation—unlike Russia and the United States. They are, however, experiencing estrangement and, in some cases, alienation. There are several reasons for this.
The erstwhile platform for Russia-EU relations—the 1990s assumption that as Russia “modernizes” and becomes a “normal country,” it will be “more like the rest of Europe”—is gone. A companion assumption that Russia would become permanently associated with the EU without sharing institutions with it is also history.
The Ukraine crisis has divided Europe and Russia, but it has also pushed Russia to pivot toward itself. This means seeing itself not as Europe’s easternmost march, but as a large and independent geopolitical and strategic unit on a global level. Today’s Russia, while culturally still European, is politically neither Asian nor Eurasian; it is simply Russian.
Europe, which was previously seen by generations of Russians as a mentor and model, is now seen essentially as a neighbor. It is respected as the principal trading partner, and a prime source of technology and investment. Yet despite being an economic powerhouse, the European Union is dismissed by Russians as a geopolitical and strategic player. When it comes to world politics or geostrategy, Russians see Europe as a follower—mostly willing, though sometimes reluctant—of the United States. The Europeans’ recent automatic support for the Trump administration’s official reason for withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which Moscow describes as spurious, has only reinforced that view.
As for Europe, it is divided not so much over what Russia is, as over how to deal with it. While a few countries in the east of the EU—mainly Poland and the Baltic states—view Russia as an existential threat, a number of others across the EU, even if they are concerned about Moscow’s recent moves in Ukraine and suspicious of its “machinations” closer to home, are more focused on business opportunities in Russia. Finally, some Europeans try to discern logic—whether historical, geopolitical, or psychological—in Russia’s behavior.
It is not surprising that, today, confusion reigns on both sides over the immediate future of Europe-Russia relations.
Several conclusions can be drawn from this state of affairs.
There is no going back to the 1990s. Russia’s leaders no longer want their country to “belong to the civilized world,” as the phrase once went, but instead want Russia to be a great power with global reach. Nor is there any going back to 2013, just before the Ukraine crisis. In any case, that was hardly a happy time in Russia-EU relations, with intense feelings of malaise on both sides.
Despite the ongoing U.S.-Russia confrontation, the NATO-Russia military standoff in Europe is still relatively low-level. While preparing for various contingencies, neither side seriously believes that initiating a military conflict with the other in that part of the world would give it any advantages. Moreover, both have good reason to believe that a major conflict there would soon almost certainly escalate to a nuclear level, after which it would be impossible to limit or contain it.
That said, the recent political changes in Ukraine have given reason to hope that the 2015 Minsk agreement on ending the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region might actually be implemented. If successful, this would greatly reduce or even eliminate the risks of military escalation to a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine. The going will hardly be smooth, given the rejection of the Minsk accords by Ukrainian radicals as “surrender to Russia,” and the zero likelihood of Moscow agreeing to hand Crimea back to Kiev. Europe’s active support for implementing the deal, which France and Germany helped negotiate, would be immensely important, and it could pave the way for improved EU-Russia relations.
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