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EU-Russia Forum

Digital format, 13/07/2021, International Conference

Relations between the European Union and Russia have been turbulent lately, and there are currently no signs of that letting up, if not in terms of specific and limited pragmatic expectations. The two parties agree substantially on the assumption that dialogue is the preferable tack in diplomatic relations, even in the presence of deep differences of opinion and interests. Not even a summit is to be viewed as a reward or concession, yet can be useful as an occasion for frank discussion of the thornier issues. In any case, shared concerns do exist, such as the obvious ones concerning climate change and health measures, or forms of technical and cultural collaboration, and could gradually facilitate greater mutual trust concerning controversial questions. 

The short term obstacles to more productive bilateral relations are considerable – starting with respective views on the European framework and the European neighborhood – but there are medium to long term opportunities that could be seized providing a certain creativity is used. Realistically, the immediate goal should be to create the basic conditions for cultivating pragmatic dialogue, leaving the less negotiable aspects to one side.

There are major contradictions in Russia’s presence in various regions that have considerable significance for Europe. In Syria, Russia is using a “legalistic” approach in its support for the Assad regime; in Libya, on the contrary, it has adopted a pragmatic and opportunistic attitude, ignoring the position of the international community. Europe’s lack of cohesion, however, makes it impossible to address such conceptual tension and actively engage Moscow is seeking possible forms of mediation and conflict resolution.

According to some observers, bilateral relations with Russian are complicated by the fact that its economy is under pressure, particularly with the significant decline in the role of fossil energy sources and the inevitable associated problems. According to this interpretation, Russia does not seem willing to pay the price that rapprochement with Europe would call for, rather being drawn more to the “Sino-sphere” in search of economic opportunity. In more general terms, Europe’s overall positions on issues of direct interest to Moscow – from Ukraine to Belarus and from human rights to cybersecurity – are not compatible with Russia’s, at least in the manner in which they are currently expressed. The ongoing sanctions are the clearest manifestation of these sharp contrasts, and renewed transatlantic cooperation is pushing the EU in the same direction.

Other experts consider Russia’s economic inclusion within the Sino-sphere less than probable, even in the future, not least due to the massive ongoing global economic transformation (not only the energy and green transitions) and profound value chain shifts. Nevertheless, there are some opportunities for Euro-Russian relations in the context of the energy transition, specifically in the hydrogen sector. Meanwhile, Russia’s relative unreceptiveness to Western investments and technologies of recent years has been compensated by a diversification with regard to China and other actors and, overall, the economy has stabilized from the fiscal and monetary point of view as well.

Moscow is attempting to avoid the subordinate “junior partner” position that seems implied in the political proposals of its two natural partners, the EU and China; indeed, Russia’s perception of itself is as a strategically autonomous global power. That stance is sustainable as long as the international system remains multipolar, and would probably not be if it turned more to a bipolar system strongly dominated by the US and China. In any case, Russia’s only acceptable option in relations with Europeans would seem to require an EU fully independent of Washington – a view that does not facilitate a positive evolution in Euro-Russian relations.

A recurrent question concerns the EU’s internal divisions, with Moscow’s deliberate attempt to take advantage of the differing stances of individual EU members. Many signs, however, indicate that Germany’s attitude – often a point of reference for those more receptive to Russia – has hardened, moving Europe’s center of gravity in a less favorable direction that facilitates Brussels’ position as mediator. The current phase is also marked by uncertainty owing to the imminent post-Merkel leadership of Germany and France’s 2022 presidential elections.

China is unanimously considered a systemic problem, both in strategic as well as more strictly economic terms. According to some, China’s ascent has made full transatlantic cohesion difficult, thus creating some possible opportunities for Moscow. Others predict a strengthening of Western alliances in various formats, leaving the consequent dilemma of Russia’s place in the global order.

Looking specifically at the Greater Mediterranean as an area where European interests converge, the Russian presence in various situations of crisis or relative instability is by now a foregone geopolitical conclusion. Moscow has developed the ability to exert local influence, initially by military means (direct or more often indirect), but also has a certain amount of diplomatic leverage that can no longer be overlooked. One reason for concern in the Mediterranean basin is a deployment of naval forces that runs the risk of incidents along the main shipping lanes. In this regard, it would be useful to activate channels of strategic and operational dialogue aimed at clarifying respective interests and avoiding misunderstandings, ideally with the involvement of the United States.  

Recent developments in the Mediterranean – in particular, the EastMed Forum on the offshore drilling of new fossil deposits – present both risks and opportunities, including a persistent American interest that belies the notion of Washington’s permanent disengagement from the region. The very fact that the project involves Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus signals a possible change, not only economic in nature but also in terms of strategic cooperation.  Regarding risks, there are Turkey’s well-known concerns and potential negative effects on the difficult Libyan dilemma.

Yet, precisely the Libyan situation offers some glimmer of hope, confirming that only through stabilization is it possible to gain direct influence on the ground – a weak point in Europe’s approach at the end of the Gaddafi regime. Nevertheless, it is clear that prospective policies on Libya call for a blend of military and economic factors, even international, in addition to internal political and social equilibria.

As witnessed in relations with Turkey in particular, Russia is capable of collaborating selectively with regional powers on major issues, but does not necessarily aim to form stable coalitions, preferring instead to maintain its freedom of action and a certain diplomatic flexibility. Moreover, the Moscow/Ankara axis is complicated by interests not always aligned with the much broader Euro-Asian area.

The evolution of Iranian foreign policy following the recent presidential elections is another regional factor of major interest as much for Europe as for Russia. This in terms of both the revival of some form of the nuclear accord and in the wider sense of overall Gulf state balances. As in other cases, there are obvious common interests – especially with regard to nuclear non-proliferation – and economic and strategic opportunities for the development and stabilization of the surrounding region. In reality, the existing multipolar context could turn out to be conducive to Iran’s gradual return to the international diplomatic fold.