Relations between the EU and Russia: More Questions than Answers

At a lively conference on relations between the EU and Russia in London on 17th September a number of speakers took as their starting-point the fact that the new Commission was reviewing the state of these relations. It was uncertain what the outcome of this review would be. Two contrasting analyses were offered by the panel.

One analysis stressed the need to understand the reasoning and experiences that led Russia to adopt the policies it does. These experiences were not located in the distant past but in recent history. Most Russians believed that their country had been deceived and humiliated by “the West” on such contemporary issues as the extension of NATO to the borders of Russia and Europe and America’s role in the Ukraine. Effective diplomacy towards Russia must take account of these beliefs rather than simply reject them as morally invalid. It was factually inaccurate and diplomatically counter-productive to insist that all the provocations and errors of the past twenty years came from the Russian side and none from the European or American side.

The alternative analysis warned against allowing “understanding” of Russia’s concerns to become, or be seen to become acquiescence in unacceptable behaviour by Russia. Russia was always looking out for signs that Europe and America were weakening in their opposition to the annexation of Crimea, to Russian aggression in Ukraine and to Russia’s violent clandestine activities outside its borders. Russia was moreover showing itself a powerful and effective ally of destabilising and extremist forces in Europe and the United States. There was good reason to believe that Russia had illegally interfered in a number of recent democratic elections in a way that posed a serious threat the very stability of liberal democracy. In their own interest liberal democracies could not allow this interference to continue unchecked.

A particularly interesting exchange took place on this last point. Those wishing to “understand” Russia suggested that sometimes it was blamed unfairly for the internal difficulties of Western democracies. The extent and effectiveness of Russia’s disruptive activities were often overstated. The rise of populism and the fragmentation of traditional parties were phenomena largely generated by internal tensions and conflict, not by external manipulation.  Those more sceptical of Russian intentions and activities on the other hand warned against underestimating what they saw as a sustained attack encouraged by the Russian state and more particularly by Putin personally on liberal values and institutions. All speakers referred in this context to a recent Financial Times interview in which Putin had described “liberalism” as having “outlived its purpose.” Unsurprisingly, the speakers had differing views about the true meaning of this latter remark. Some saw it simply as a conventional assertion of social conservatism. Others saw it as a broader contempt for the overall sustainability of liberal democracy in face of such resurgent powers as the Russian Federation.

Everyone who participated in the conference will have left it better informed but probably no more certain about the best course for relations between the EU and Russia. One speaker recommended a twin track strategy of “limitation and co-operation,” whereby the EU and its member states should limit unacceptable Russian behaviour (for instance through sanctions) but co-operate with Russia when and where possible. It will be the unenviable task of the new Commission to balance the pursuit of these two goals, and it may well end up satisfying none of the Trust’s speakers. Such an amorphous outcome would not necessarily be the wrong conclusion to emerge from the present review. It would be a bold political analyst who would claim that any simple formula would do justice to the difficult, but important relationship between Russia and the European Union.

This comment was originally published by the Federal Trust.

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