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The diplomatic embarrassment suffered by Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, in Moscow earlier this month unleashed passions on both sides of the EU-Russia relationship that had been building for a long time and were bound to spill over eventually.
Behind this skirmish, which was precipitated by the poisoning and subsequent jailing of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny, lies a fundamental question: is the EU really the only option for organizing Europe’s political-economic space and for acting as a moral and political benchmark for its external partners?
The foundations of Russia’s relations with the EU were laid in the first half of the 1990s with the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which was signed in 1994 and ratified in 1997. Conceptually, it was based on a postulate then taken for granted. The end of the Cold War had created opportunities to consolidate the Old World—liberally understood to stretch as far east and south as possible—on the basis of the norms and rules developed and refined in Western Europe during the region’s integration from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Many newly independent states were admitted to the EU, which grew from twelve member states in 1992 to twenty-eight in 2015. The rest were invited to be part of a “wider Europe,” with no third option on offer.
The prospect of Russia joining was never in the cards. However, it was believed that its post-communist transformation would follow the European model and make the country more or less compatible with the EU, with which Russia would form an ill-defined community.
Moscow shared that perspective as late as the late 2000s. Even afterward, it attempted to reconcile that expectation with its increasingly apparent divergence with the EU, hence the intense high-level political dialogue in which the two sides engaged until 2014: a privilege the EU extended to Russia alone. Moscow used to insist on holding two summits a year, even as Brussels held just one a year with its most important partners.
The premise of all this was that European integration had no competition as a means of organizing Europe’s political space. Its successful application in Western Europe aside, it dovetailed ideally with the notion, so triumphant after the Cold War, of the liberal world order. Indeed, Europe’s lack of traditional hard power and reliance on other instruments, chief among them normative expansion and conditionality—i.e., requiring partners to change their practices in exchange for access to privilege—was nothing if not consistent with liberal principles.
The evolution of EU-Russia relations from the hopeful dawn of the early 1990s to the despairing sunset of the 2010s is one of the most revealing episodes in the history of the post-Cold War global transformation. Ever since the idea of a formalized community consisting of Europe and Russia lost its relevance (no practical steps have been taken to that end since the late 2000s), the relationship’s original principles have been meaningless.
The attempt at institutional partnership represented the culmination of about 200 years of efforts by a school of thought in Russia to Westernize the country. For the first time, the Westernizers saw an opportunity to qualitatively change the nature of Russia’s relations with the West.
That opportunity turned out to be a treacherous one. Russia’s Westernizers never intended for their country to formally submit to Europe’s rules and regulations, even as they pushed for modernization, active cooperation with Europe, and emulation of its ways. Yet that was precisely what Europe asked of Russia after 1992.
Europe’s experiment with its transformation into a politically consolidated subject, one projecting its normative framework outward, presupposed hierarchical relations between the EU and its direct neighbors. From the start, Russia was expected to not only cooperate with the EU, but also develop joint institutions. In its relations with Russia, Europe countenanced no retreat from its insistence on rule transfer.
Had Moscow resolved to become part of this “wider Europe,” the concessions it was expected to make would have been justified. But Russia’s Westernizers failed to persuade the country of the merits of qualitatively limiting its own sovereignty for the sake of following the European model.
Today, the two sides find themselves deeply irritated with each other, and their political relations effectively nonexistent. Indeed, the furor that followed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s threat to sever Russia’s ties with the EU wasn’t really justified, given that there have been none to speak of since 2014. There remain only Russia’s relations with individual EU member states.
Arguably, the Navalny affair has laid bare the central contradiction of Russia’s conflict with the EU: the cause of all the sanctions and political tensions is Russia’s domestic politics. Were Europe’s institutions and their representatives to emphasize in their criticism of Navalny’s treatment Russia’s alleged use of chemical warfare agents to poison him, underlining the dangers posed by their circulation by unknown persons, the issue could be treated as an international matter of concern. As things stand, Europe’s objections primarily relate to the violation of democratic norms, rights, and freedoms inside Russia, which the EU maintains it cannot tolerate.
Brussels’s stance is easy to understand in terms of the logic of a “wider Europe.” But that logic has long had no place in Russia’s relations with the EU. The reality is that their political dialogue is a relic of a bygone era. Everything has changed, from Russia and Europe to the West and the wider world. The liberal world order is no more.
Moscow’s decisiveness in how it has responded to EU attempts to pressure Russia directly over Navalny speaks to its confidence that it has little to lose in its relations with Europe. It increasingly believes that the EU is undergoing irreversible changes as a result of which it will never again have the clout it had fifteen to twenty years ago.
Back then, it seemed that the EU would become a global player on par with the United States and China and come to unilaterally shape not only Europe but also much of Eurasia. It is now clear that such a goal is unfeasible: not just in Eurasia but in Europe too, where it has become possible to envision alternative means of organizing the continent’s political-economic space.
When it comes to EU-Russia relations, then, the old framework is not just obsolete, it may even prove harmful, as it risks provoking new clashes. Once the EU and Russia are ready, as they eventually will be, a new framework awaits: one promising a new boost to EU-Russia cooperation on the understanding that a formal community consisting of the two is not an outcome worth pursuing.
This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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