European Union (EU) foreign ministers agreed on Monday to impose human rights sanctions on Russia over the Alexey Navalny case. In response, Leonid Slutsky, head of the Russian State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs, believed that the next round of EU sanctions “won’t be left without response of the Russian side.” Russia-Europe relations have taken a sharp turn for the worse after Josep Borrell, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, made a trip to Moscow earlier this month. Jade McGlynn, a researcher at the London-based Henry Jackson Society think tank, even described the relations between Moscow and Brussels as “coldly combustible.”
Russia-Europe relations are rather complex. For example, EU members are showing different attitudes toward Russia. Some countries, including some Eastern European countries in the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, have long been hostile toward Russia due to historical reasons. On the other hand, countries like Germany and Russia have both conflicts and yet still manage a considerable degree of cooperation in energy and security sectors.
Nowadays, the complexity of Russia-Europe relations is more pronounced than in the past. This may be related to changes in international politics. Among these changes, the US is an important factor in the development of the ties between Russia and Europe.
The EU is the oldest and strongest ally of the US. Since taking office, President Joe Biden has stressed the importance of US-EU alliances several times, continuing to treat Russia as a security threat. Biden’s attitude toward Russia seems to be even more assertive than that of his predecessor Donald Trump. The US would like to see its allies align with it on policy toward Russia and therefore may exert more influence over them. In this case, Europe has to adjust its attitude toward Russia based on US-Russia relations. In the coming period, as the confrontation between Russia and the US increases, it can be anticipated that the conflict between Europe and Russia will deepen.
Europe’s security concerns about Russia haven’t been eased. In such a context, new contradictions between the two are gradually increasing and being formulated. In the future, the importance of economic factors will wane in Russia-Europe relations while geopolitical and ideological conflicts will increase.
Although confrontational elements have frequently appeared in Russia-EU relations in recent years, the two sides are unlikely to completely cut off cooperation and slip into an all-out confrontation.
Russia-EU relations are in a state of structural contradictions. Conflicts and cooperation coexist in bilateral relations, which cannot be easily changed. Russia and the EU have traditionally had cooperation in areas such as energy and space exploration. In terms of security issues such as combating terrorism, organized cross-border crimes and drug trafficking, the two sides are interdependent and cannot be separated from each other. Europe cannot ensure its security without the cooperation of Russia. Therefore, Brussels must maintain certain security cooperation with Moscow. Similarly, Europe is also important to Russia, which cannot afford to screw up relations with Europe in its global competition with the US.
Russia will be ready to revive the ties if the EU decides to take this step, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier in February, following talks with his Finnish counterpart Pekka Haavisto, reported TASS news agency.
“It is up to the European Union to make a choice. If it decided that relations are to be resumed after all and steps towards their severing are to be reversed, we will be ready to that too,” Lavrov said. Russia’s such response is appropriate. Moscow has made quite a tough response out of the need to safeguard national dignity and national interests after Brussels made a tough stance on it.
Given the various accusations and sanctions that the EU has imposed on Russia, the EU in fact is in the proactive position in the bilateral relationship, while Russia is in the passive one. At least till now, the initiative is on EU’s side.
The author is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.