How should Europe manage friction with Russia?
This comes as no surprise. Disputes between the European Union and Russia have once again reached the headlines, following the revelation of friction between Brussels and Moscow.
The illegal annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine have severely affected bilateral political dialogue. As a result, some of the cooperation mechanisms between the EU and Russia have been temporarily frozen and sanctions have been adopted aimed at promoting a change in Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Since then, the landscape has become increasingly uncertain.
This time, the trigger is the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalni, who has been given a two-and-a-half-year sentence following a court proceeding initiated in 2014. In addition to the difficult picture is the repressive stance of the Russian police and the detention of more than 4,000 people (on 31 January alone), who demanded the release of Navalni.
From these events, international reactions began to emerge. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the ruling against the opposition leader as “perverse” and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was deeply concerned about Navalni.
For its part, the Council of Europe threatened to put sanctions on people related to these events. February 22 was established as the day on which the nature of the sanctions would be defined.
The Russian response came quickly. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “We don’t want to isolate ourselves from the world, but we have to be prepared for it.” He added: “If you want peace, get ready for war.”
In short, Russia threatened to take action directly proportional to the nature of the sanctions applied by the European Union, which could escalate a political problem into one that affects trade in the region.
The reality is that Russia remains a natural partner for the EU and a strategic player in combating regional and global challenges.
The European Union, therefore, finds itself in a difficult position: it must manage a non-minor conflict, starting with a diplomatic relationship that has been worn down over many years that nevertheless plays a strategic role for all the countries on the continent. Moreover, the geopolitical changes currently taking place in the world, in the United States, the Middle East and Asia, are forcing the European Union to define a clear picture of how it will adjust to these changes.
The adjustment begins by recognising that Russia is the EU’s largest neighbour; cooperation and cultural and trade relations are broad and relevant to both sides. Russia is a key player on the UN Security Council and, due to its history, geographical proximity and cultural links, is one of the key players in and around Europe.
Russia is also a major supplier of energy products to the EU and a large and dynamic market for goods and services, with considerable economic growth.
Many specialists believe that recent diplomatic events have simply revealed the already known “labyrinth of Russia and the European Union”.
In this article I would like to explain some ideas that could help to reduce tensions between the two actors; in short, as Ernesto Vale Carballés explains: “In geopolitical games there are neither good nor bad, all there is are interests.”
What option does the EU have?
The European Union must promote pragmatic management. The visit to Russia by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative on Foreign Policy, became a resounding failure. This was partly due to a clear fact: Russia has no interest in aligning itself with European regulatory structures.
Another factor is added to this reality: the EU is now more dependent on Russia than Russia on the EU, and it is instinctively understood in Russia that the European Council has very little transactional power with Moscow.
For economic reasons, the EU will most likely not put tough sanctions on the Russians. At the meeting on 22 February, European foreign ministers decided to draw up a list of people to be financially punished. However, they have recognized the impossibility of “including influential millionaires,” as requested by Navalni’s followers.
Everything indicates that, within the EU’s options, one of the strongest is to sit and listen to Russia’s approaches and not the other way around. This scenario becomes much more likely with the unfortunate complications and shameful delay in the vaccination process of European countries. The continent is in dire need of a mass-produced vaccine that can arrive quickly: given the context, it seems that the best option is Sputnik (Russian-made).
In this way, the Covid-19 crisis has made the problem of diplomatic relations between Russia and the European Union more dramatic.
Russia also doesn’t want to lose its best buyer
According to BBC figures, 70% of the oil that Russia exports to the world is going to Europe. The same goes for gas: 65% of its production goes to European countries – which import half of the energy they consume.
Many experts, as well as members of the European Council, consider that Russia’s extensive exports to the EU have generated an increasingly strong relationship of dependence, especially in the eastern European and central European countries.
Such is the impact of this reality that last year, Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State, announced that the US was seeking to finance US$1 billion in energy projects in central and eastern European countries in order to reduce those states’ energy dependence on Russia.
“In support of the sovereignty, prosperity and energy independence of our European friends, the United States intends to agree up to $1 billion in funding to central and eastern European countries,” Pompeo said at the 2020 Munich Security Conference.
While there is clear dependence on Russia, by the same token Moscow does not at all want to lose what amounts to 54% of its export revenue and have to work out a rather complicated problem: how to finance the 47% of the Russian federal budget represented by these exports.
For this reason, Russia also does not want to strain relations with the European Union. The political, social and economic cost could be very uncomfortable for Putin. In this context, it is thought that Moscow will stand firm in its defence against criticism of human rights violations; however, care will be taken to avoid a conflict that would lead to significant losses for all.
Germany: the key player in the future of Moscow-Brussels relations
In the path through this diplomatic labyrinth, Germany’s future will be a decisive element. Angela Merkel has been a key strategist of Europe’s relations with Russia; however, she has already announced that this year she will withdraw from politics. Everything seems to indicate her successor will be Armin Laschet, the new leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (UDC) party.
Laschet has an intricate grasp of the EU’s international relations, especially ties with Russia. The UDC leader has shown himself to be a pragmatic politician and is expected to take relations with Russia in a more conciliatory direction.
Due to Germany’s power and influence in the EU, Merkel’s potential replacement in the German government will play a key role in restoring deteriorating EU-Russia relations.
In order not to be blown off course by the winds of circumstance, the key to the future of these relationships lies in the search for understanding and conciliation; only then will the relations of two neighbours, destined by their proximity to share interests, move forward.