Russian attitudes toward the European Union have always been characterized by a sense of melodrama: we moved from hope for better relations to disillusion, and then to almost open disdain. The EU was and still is seen as a political dwarf not to be taken seriously in the international arena.

It has become practically a universal position that a more cohesive EU is impossible and disadvantageous to Russia, so rather than building a well-thought-out approach to the EU as a whole, Russia is better off developing relations separately with its largest members, especially with those that, for various reasons, are inclined to be more understanding of Russia.

These calculations were wrong. Right now the EU is intensively integrating, even in the areas that were previously considered beyond the scope of integration: common defense and security policy.

Still, the EU is not yet lost to Russia. If Russia’s withered credibility has made a fundamental improvement in relations impossible for now, there is at least hope that relations will not worsen. One way to achieve this is a fundamental change in Russia’s approach to small EU nations.

In Russia, almost any European process is interpreted as a sign of the impossibility of further European integration. The migration crisis was seen as the inability of the EU’s supranational institutions to develop and implement regulatory mechanisms and achieve solidarity among union states. Brexit was seen as the start of the inevitable collapse of the EU. And the rise of populism in Europe has been interpreted as the advent of nationalism and a manifestation of frustration among Europeans with the shared values of the union. In Russia, discourse surrounding the EU is increasingly being shaped by expressions such as “powerless, outdated Europe.”

This betting on the weakening and/or disintegration of the European Union is extremely harmful for Russia. For one thing, it leads to flawed political calculations and incorrect predictions of EU reactions to Russian actions.

Take sanctions, for example. In 2014, Russia’s calculation was based on the expectation that, despite the United States imposing sanctions against Russia, the EU would not come to agreement on the issue, as it requires the approval of all 28 members of the European Council. Taking into account the differing strengths of economic ties between Russia and the member states, consensus seemed practically impossible. Yet sanctions were not only approved but have repeatedly been extended, and we should not expect them to be lifted in the beginning of 2018.

This betting on the decay of the EU also clearly ignores what is happening. While we collect evidence of a coming collapse and the general chaos engulfing the EU, the union is coming together as never before. More to the point, EU cooperation is developing in precisely those areas that are most difficult to integrate: defense and security policy. More progress has been made in these areas in the past year than in the previous decade.

In addition, counting on the further weakening of the EU leads to the idea that developing relations only makes sense with the major EU powers. It is clear that a vision of international relations as a zero-sum game of dominance and control between a few powerful countries defines the Russian approach. This is an irrational approach to the EU, where the smaller countries greatly outnumber the large ones. And the norms of representation in EU institutions—at least in the European Council, where foreign policy is formulated—are arranged in such a way that large countries are not able to dominate.

One of the main drivers of the foreign policies of small countries is a sense of political and economic vulnerability. Control over relatively small resources results in economic vulnerability to external challenges, increasing the likelihood and magnitude of losses for small states compared to larger ones. Small states are therefore more prone to forming coalitions or joining existing ones, where they have greater chances of executing successful policies that they could not conduct independently.

Unlike major EU states—which form their own priorities across the entire EU agenda—the small states tend to focus their EU efforts on a limited range of issues. Their small size allows them to clearly formulate their own priorities and defend them, while conducting a more flexible policy on other issues. Small countries serve as an important pillar of the European Commission, the motor of European integration.

The scenario that assumes that, after the collapse of the EU, small countries will form their own unions does not seem realistic. The scenario in which some of the eastern countries join a coalition around Russia is simply absurd. Therefore, it is logical to assume that small countries will actively support further integration within the EU, particularly in the high-priority policy areas of security and defense, having far bigger institutional resources than economic potential.

As Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, writes: “We shouldn’t entertain the illusion that tensions with the West will somehow be resolved as a result of radical changes there, and that Moscow’s biggest task is to “wait out” a temporary period of unfavorable world order.”

The idea that institutes will weaken themselves and collapse is not only incorrect in principle, it is dangerous in practical terms, as it pushes the Russian leadership toward the wrong foreign policy approaches and solutions. It would be much wiser to use the present moment to break the negative dynamics in relations with the EU while the opportunity exists and while the idea that a way out of the impasse in relations with Russia is still present in the minds of European elites.

To prevent the further deterioration of Russia’s bargaining position, it is necessary to fundamentally change our approach to small EU countries—and not only when relations develop with national elites who are pro-Russian—because they will strive for greater unity in the spheres of defense and security.

Russia could send a signal to the EU that it is open to dialogue by proposing a restoration of Russia-EU summits, which stopped in 2014. It could start the conversation about that with the small state of Estonia, which currently presides over the EU Council.

A turn toward small states is difficult for Russia for many reasons, but it does not have to mean a fundamental change in the overall Russian approach to the structure of international relations. Russia simply needs to recognize that the EU is organized differently, and that small states play a very important role. Even this recognition will require effort, but it is necessary. Otherwise, there will be more losses—including strategic ones.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Irina Busygina