The EU-Russia Relationship: Understanding the Russian perspective
15 Apr 2021 – Written by Lena Raballand
In Putin’s words in what marked his first appearance at the World Economic Forum since 2009 this past January, the current international stage can be compared by “some experts … to the 1930s.” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s (EU) Minister of Foreign Affairs on a visit to Moscow this February laid out that “the relations between Russia and the European Union had reached a low” following the poisoning of Russian opponent Alexei Navalny in August 2020. Evidently, these very recent statements from Moscow and Brussels show the EU and Russia’s relationship is tense and has not improved since the deep relational breakdown in 2014.
Whether the European Union is to move forward with a cooperative or confrontational relationship with Russia in the coming years, it will not be successfully prepared unless the Russian perspective on Europe and the EU is understood. While the EU’s own position and opinion of Russia is well documented in the western media and by academic scholars such as Bret Cyrille and Thomas Gomart, accounts offering the Russian perspective are much less available. Consequently, this piece is to serve as a brief insight and introduction into the Russian perspective with the larger aim of inciting others to deepen and further research on this underrepresented point of view.
I. Russia’s current stance on the European Union
From 2014, the EU has adopted a general policy to impose sanctions towards Russia when it disagrees with the country’s actions and to try to stop Russia’s progression against European values (Bret, 2021, pp. 17-18). Consequently, due to the imprisonment of Navalny new sanctions have been imposed. As anticipated, these were met with very strong words from Moscow. In a December 2020 press release, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs firstly defended it “considers the adoption … of illegitimate restrictive measures … under the pretext of … alleged involvement in the incident with Russian citizen Alexei Navalny to be absolutely unacceptable.” Secondly, Russia maintained the EU has failed to provide Russian authorities and other EU partners with the evidence of these involvements. Finally, Russia retaliated by imposing its own sanctions on the EU.
Overall, the current tone of recent press releases from Russia’s Foreign Ministry is one of disappointment. Even in the latest statement from last month, it is clear Russia was hoping the European Union would rethink its policy of sanctions.
II. Before sanctions, a frosty terrain since 2008
Previously, the Russian and EU relationship rested on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) of 1994, the successor to agreements between the EEC and USSR. In a post-soviet world, Russia and the EU continued to build their relationship by supplementing the PCA in 2005 with roadmaps for the four common spaces: economics; freedom, security and justice; external security; and research and education, including cultural aspects.
However, the relationship started degrading even before 2014. With the PCA’s applicability of 10 years, in 2005 the EU-Russia negotiations had started to conclude a “New Basic Agreement” to replace the PCA upon expiration. However, after “12 rounds of negotiations” by 2008, the negotiations were suspended as part of the EU’s “first sanctions package” (Suslov, 2018b) in protest of the Russo-Georgian war. Deplorably, negotiations have still not resumed, and there has been no general agreement between the EU and Russia since 2004.
Down the line, the dialogue between Moscow and Brussels broke down further following the conflict in Ukraine and Crimea. In 2014, the European Union denounced “the illegal annexation of Crimea” and deployed various sanctions. Evidently, the relationship has deteriorated still with events such as the Boeing 777 from Malaysian Airlines brought down by Russia over Ukraine in 2015, the Salisbury attack in 2018 and the poisoning and imprisoning of Alexei Navalny.
However, the relationship cannot be written off as Russia has a strong belief in its ties with Europe. This attachment needs to be understood and recognised by the European Union in order to rekindle the Moscow – Brussels’ relationship.
III. Russia’s attachment to Europe
The attachment is firstly mutually economic. Russia’s dependency on the EU is evident as not only is the EU Russia’s largest trading partner but, as the numbers from the European Commission show, “for export goods from Russia, in 2019 the EU was the destination of 42% of them down from 50% in 2012.” In addition, “for Gazprom, the EU constitutes 70% of its markets” (Bret, 2021, p. 10). On the flip side, Russia is the EU’s fifth largest trading partner with the Union very dependent on Russian imports for raw materials. To give an example in 2019, ca. 40% of gas imports and 27% of oil imports to the EU came from Russia.
Other than the strong economic ties on both sides, there is an undeniable real historical and cultural attachment between Russia and Europe. From Peter the Great’s deep love for Europe and continuous efforts “to move his country closer to the European system by strengthening contacts” (Tsygankov, 2012, 42), and Catherine the Great’s exclamation that “Russia is a European power” (Tsygankov, 2012, 42) to Putin’s perspective, there is a persistent core European identity in Russia. In Putin’s words in January, “geographically and, most importantly, culturally, we are one civilisation.”
IV. Understanding Russia’s aspirations going forward
In sum, being inevitably intertwined, the foundation and determination for a strong EU-Russia relationship are there. Yet this is not to say rebuilding this dialogue and trust in the coming years will be easy.
Firstly, Russia will not give up its strive to define the relationship on its own terms. The country wants a “strategic partnership of equals” (Suslov, 2018a) with the EU. It does not want to integrate into the European space on the EU’s terms but wants “a bipolar Europe with the EU and Russia as its poles.” (Suslov, 2018a).
This aim for bipolarity stems from Russia’s perception of itself in the international order. Russia has never recognised itself as a defeated country in the Cold War. Instead it maintains it allowed the Cold War to end (Suslov, 2018a). From the definition of the Cold War as “confrontational relations”, Russia believes it allowed the events of 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet revolution in Poland, and the reunification of Germany, to unfold and these would not have been possible if the USSR had not allowed it to happen. As such, as a country which allowed or co-managed the end of the Cold War, Russia believes it has a co-equal role with the EU in designing the present post-Cold War European space (Suslov, 2018a).
Secondly, it is unlikely Russia will disregard its core values and Orthodox identity to tie closer bonds to Europe. While at times these bring Russia and Europe closer, it is also evident Russia under Putin does not share certain EU ideals such as freedom and protection of sexual orientation or effective presidential term limits.
Finally, Russia has shown its capability in attempting to shape Europe in the way it sees fit by going so far as to disrupting the EU from the inside. Such interferences have been seen in Member States’ political lives such as in Germany or France.
In sum, it is clear that Europe, the EU’s and Russia’s relationship has and continues to be culturally and economically close but tumultuous. However, it is also clear from Putin’s January 2021 speech that Russia does want to have a good relationship with Europe, as he explained: “we are ready for this, we want this, and we will strive to make this happen. But love is impossible if it is declared only by one side. It must be mutual.” If the European Union and Russia’s relationship past and present is to be described, it is one of siblings; at times loving or dysfunctional but yet forever tied.
Bret, C. (2021) European Union / Russia sanctions, what next? Institut Jacques Delors. Available at: https://institutdelors.eu/en/publications/european-union-russia-sanctions-and-what/ [Accessed 07/04/2021].
Suslov, D. (2018a) The place of Europe and the EU in Russian development and Russian foreign policy.
Suslov, D., (2018b). Value or interests – The key dilemma in Russia-EU relations.
Tsygankov, A. (2012) Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Raballand, L. (2021) The EU-Russia Relationship: Understanding the Russian perspective, IDRN, 15 April. Available at: https://idrn.eu/economic-development/the-eu-russia-relationship-understanding-the-russian-perspective [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].