The upcoming elections for the European Parliament have, for once, attracted Russia’s attention, despite Moscow's traditional annoyance — to put it mildly — with the EU's cumbersome institutions, mechanisms and attitudes.
The likely strong showing of national populists, with their transactional approach to foreign policy, resonates well with Moscow, which is cautiously hopeful that the makeup of the new parliament will result in an EU that is less strict about European rules and values, and more amenable to Russian interests in the energy sector and in neighboring states such as Ukraine and the Western Balkans.
Russia’s dislike of the institutions of the European Union is no secret. The Kremlin sees the EU as a convenient U.S. scheme for dominating Europe, and prefers to deal with European states on a bilateral basis, when it has a stronger negotiating position and can make better use of its penchant for great power politics.
This applies first and foremost to the European Parliament, which combines all the traits the Kremlin finds most irritating about European politics: multilateralism, strong emphasis on values, and protracted procedures with uncertain results.
Sergei Naryshkin, former speaker of the State Duma — the lower chamber of the Russian parliament — and a member of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, once condescendingly noted that the European Parliament “can hardly be considered a real parliament”, referring to its limited powers within the EU bureaucracy.
Still, the upcoming EP elections and the potential strong showing of EU’s populist parties attract Russia’s attention much more than in previous years as it will very much affect EU’s position on the global scene, as well as in Ukraine, the Middle East and the Balkans.
Ukraine still No. 1 issue
The crisis in Ukraine remains the most salient issue in Russia’s relations with the European Parliament.
It was Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 that led to the European Parliament suspending all formal ties with Moscow, and the work of the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee has not resumed to this day.
The European Parliament continues to draw public attention to the Kremlin’s malign role in the Ukraine conflict, even if its parliamentary declarations and resolutions rarely result in practical steps being taken by the EU.
The new European Parliament, with its inevitably stronger populist representation, is likely to tone down its support for Kiev: both right- and left-wing populists have repeatedly expressed misgivings about Ukraine.
The former are hostile to the idea of the EU making any new financial commitments in Eastern Europe, while the latter tend to see Ukraine’s post-Maidan revolution leaders as radical nationalists and quasi-fascist. Combined with growing Ukraine fatigue in the West, this may create an opening for Russia to try to restore some form of dialogue with the European Parliament.
It’s also an opportune moment on the Russian side.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the ambitious speaker of the State Duma, is doggedly trying to carve out a role for himself in formulating Russian foreign policy. In 2012, as first deputy chief of staff, Volodin oversaw Putin’s return to the presidency amid mass protests, and for the next few years was in charge of domestic policy.
Since moving to the post of Duma speaker in 2016, Volodin has continued to expand his influence, venturing into the realm of foreign policy.
With the decision-making process in Russia increasingly disjointed, Volodin is building up his own network of international contacts through inter-parliamentary diplomacy. He has already called for a new start in cooperation with the European Parliament, and proposed establishing an informal working group of members of the Russian and European parliaments.
The new composition of the European Parliament may also benefit Russia’s interest in another EU neighborhood: the Western Balkans.
Balkan enlargement on hold?
Populist parties hold diverging views on EU expansion in that region, varying from strong support in Hungary to fierce opposition in France, but the mere augmentation of the populists’ role in European institutions guarantees that the EU will become mired in internal disputes, putting further expansion on hold.
That is good news for the Kremlin, which fears that joining the EU will make the Balkan states downgrade their cooperation with Russia, introduce anti-Russian sanctions and bolster their ties with NATO.
In addition, for as long as the process of EU expansion remains stuck on the issue of the Western Balkans, the EU will not have many resources or much appetite for deepening its integration with the Eastern Partnership countries (the six former Soviet states of Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova): an area Russia deems vital to its security.
The outgoing European Parliament was a staunch opponent of major Russian energy projects in Europe: the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline via the Baltic Sea and the Turkish Stream pipeline in the Balkans.
Russia does not necessarily expect new MEPs to rally in support of these new gas transit routes bypassing Ukraine, but it would certainly welcome the European Parliament turning its attention to other burning issues, allowing the Kremlin to agree pipeline projects on a bilateral basis.
This is especially true of Turkish Stream, a section of which would pass through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary. Russia is concerned that these countries lack the lobbying capacity of Germany, which supports Nord Stream 2, and may capitulate quickly if pressed by the EU.
Russia is very cautious, however, in terms of its hopes for European populists and their expected strong showing in the European elections. The Kremlin has already seen ostensibly pro-Russian populists come to power in Greece, Hungary, and Italy, but none of them valued ties with Russia enough to veto anti-Russian sanctions.
Nationalist politicians all over the EU may indulge in pro-Russian and pro-Putin rhetoric, but so far none of them has been ready to put their money where their mouths are and actually breach European solidarity. Elections to the relatively ceremonial European Parliament are unlikely to change this situation.
In any case, a successful result for populists in the European elections could backfire on Russia, just as it did in the U.S. after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.
If support for populists turns out to be dangerously high, the European elite may mobilize against them, lumping populist successes together with the Russian threat.
This will inflame fears of Russian meddling, drag Russia into European domestic politics and make any contact with it toxic. In the last two years, the Kremlin has experienced enough travails in dealing with the supposedly pro-Russian Trump to know that it should be very careful what it wishes for.