The EU and Russia: Unpacking the Stalemate

On 26 June 2015, the Working Group on Europe, Ukraine, and Russia held their first workshop, titled ‘The EU and Russia: Unpacking the Stalemate’. The workshop consisted of four panels, each looking at different aspects of Russia’s relationship with the European Union in the context of the crisis over Ukraine (see the list of speakers for each panel).

Vladislav Zubok, the chair of the working group and Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), launched the discussion with an overview of the stalemate between Russia and the European Union. Russia’s relations with the European Union have deteriorated dramatically since March 2014: Russia now faces the revision of NATO’s doctrine in Europe, the introduction of Western sanctions, and expulsion from several European and international institutions and diplomatic dialogues. Zubok argued in his introduction that the crisis over Ukraine should not preclude a ‘constructive discussion’ over how the stalemate could be overcome and urged the participants of the workshop to reflect on the following questions:

  • What does the current situation mean for the boundaries of the European liberal experiment?
  • Is further enlargement possible, or are we witnessing the maximum extent of the European project in geographical terms?
  • How does the EU construct (or not) its policy towards Russia?
  • Can peace and stability in Ukraine be achieved through European liberal values or through power politics and compromises?
  • How can one find a way to discuss the issue that looks forward rather than backward?

The discussion in Panel One focused on the role of history, memory, and language in the current conflict between the European Union and Russia.

One speaker identified four key myths that Putin’s government has exploited for political reasons; that the West wants to destroy Russia, that the West is hypocritical – especially since the West broke its promise of the 1990s not to enlarge NATO, that the EU is a ‘cat’s paw’ for NATO, and finally that there is a Western plot to tear Ukraine away from the Russian Federation which violates vital Russian interests and must be opposed. Although Putin has exploited some of these beliefs for political purposes some of them, especially those regarding Ukraine, are not merely inventions but relate to cultural and historical experiences and remain deeply entrenched in Russian society.

The next speaker argued that, in Russia, elite discussion about Russia’s place in Europe has shifted.

At first Russia was considered part of Europe, on the way to liberal democracy. Then a geopolitical vision prevailed in which Russia was part of Greater Europe, in partnership with the EU. Now the dominant view is of Russia as an alternative Europe, based on traditional values and in solidarity with right-wing nationalist parties within Europe. Even the Cold War has been re-interpreted in geopolitical terms as a continuation of Russia’s battle for state existence against external and internal security challenges.

The next topic discussed was Ukraine. One speaker acknowledged that the concept of Ukrainian identity had always been contested, but argued that Putin’s recent actions in Ukraine had helped to overcome Ukraine’s sectional divisions and forge a new ‘national identity’. It is not clear, however, what this means for resolution of the conflict: should the EU back Ukraine by all means or, as one speaker suggested, should it negotiate with the Russians in terms of ‘spheres of influence’?

During the discussion, other participants acknowledged that gaps in language, formulated interests, and media-driven perceptions between Europe and Russia are enormous. It is not clear if these can be bridged. A few experts argued that the West could begin a dialogue with Russia regarding the recent historical record, including the expansion of NATO. Other speakers believed that to do so would be pointless and focused on the need for the West to counter Russian propaganda and myths.

The discussion in Panel Two moved on to the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The key argument presented during Panel Two concerned the nature of the EU’s motives towards its Eastern neighbours. One speaker mentioned the “general myopia” of the EU towards Russia and Ukraine and called the ENP a “suboptimal policy”: a product of the EU’s highly bureaucratic dynamics. The EU has failed to engage in any kind of “strategic reflection” over the ENP and thus the policy was never designed for expansion in the East, contrary to some claims made by Russian officials. Another speaker challenged this view, arguing that the EU’s regional project centered on building economic inter-regional cooperation.

Meanwhile, Russia was engaged in establishing a parallel region-building project, which consisted of developing the Eurasian Union and the harmonisation of rules between its members. The EU approached the subject in terms of a ‘shared neighbourhood’, implying ownership, while Russia spoke of a ‘common neighbourhood’, emphasising a ‘no-man’s land’. There was however, never much engagement between the EU and Russia vis-a-vis the Eastern neighbourhood and the crisis over Ukraine in 2013 was when the two projects clashed.

Panel Three focused on Russia’s, and specifically Vladimir Putin’s, goals in Ukraine.

One of the presenters underlined that Russia was not a revisionist power and that the Eurasian Union was designed to engage with the EU as a response to the breakdown of a European security order, as the EU was being absorbed within a new Atlantic Alliance. Other speakers focused on Russia’s military capabilities, arguing that Moscow had tactically significant offensive power which could be potentially used in Ukraine.

Another speaker expressed a view that for two decades, Russia failed to offer any positive common project for neighbouring countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan. Several participants agreed that Vladimir Putin may be trying to deny Ukraine to the West and for that reason he wants to keep the country in a perpetually weak state, with an ‘in-built disabling device’. The discussion touched on an array of possible Western policies, from supplying modern military hardware to Kiev to negotiating a ‘grand bargain’ between the EU and Russia, with the participation of Ukraine, to solve the crisis.

Panel Four proceeded as a general discussion, focusing on the sharply alternative explanations of the crisis.

One presenter described the situation in Ukraine as a “civil war” and urged the participants to look at the root causes of the current conflict which had led to the erosion of trust between Russia and the EU including the mistreatment of Russian minorities in the Baltic States, the perception of Western double-standards over Kosovo’s recognition as an independent state, and a deep Russophobia. If this interpretation is embraced then the Western community should end sanctions, accept the secession of Crimea, consider a viable arrangement for the Russophones in Ukraine, and ensure the protection of Russian minorities in the EU.

A contrasting and more conventional approach described the conflict in Ukraine as a civil war, excluded a ‘done deal’ resolution to Crimea, and questioned the possibility of negotiating with Vladimir Putin’s government which had disrespected international agreements and had shown little interest in resolving the so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ in Europe.

The final debate revolved around these presentations. Some speakers attempted to find historical precedents that would allow us to look at the crisis from ‘outside the box’. Some compared the situation in Ukraine with the Balkan wars in the 1990s and mentioned the ‘Kosovo precedent’, but others argued these comparisons were not helpful.

Overall, the participants generally agreed there should be a ‘bigger vision’ to resolve the stalemate between Russia and the EU, yet admitted that there are no conditions for such a vision in eithier the language or structure of EU activities.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or any of its hosts Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.

Watch in-depth interviews with our experts: Vladislav Zubok, Alexei Miller, Georgiy Kasianov, and Sir Robert Cooper

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.