The confrontation between the European Union and Russia plays out at three distinct levels: the domestic, the regional, and the global. Whereas all three circles are underpinned by fundamentally different worldviews, cooperation is possible globally, unlikely in the shared neighborhood, and next to impossible when confrontation hits home. 

Divergent norms between the EU and Russia are well delineated. The union and (most of) its member states fundamentally believe that a political system is sustainable to the extent that it provides rule of law, freedom, participation, prosperity, and security to its citizens. Putin’s Russia fundamentally believes the postmodern age of supranational governance was a chimera, and the world has finally reawakened to the reality of nationalistic nation-states attached to conservative social and political values. 

The EU and Russia represent each other’s “other,” whose failure would demonstrate the veracity of their respective claims. Hence, the eurozone crisis, the so-called migration crisis, the Brexit referendum, and Catalan secessionism are all depicted in Russia as the ultimate proof that the EU, a hybrid supranational construct embedded in liberal values, is irreversibly descending into total disintegration. Likewise, Western media are far too eager to jump on the slightest signal of political discontent in Russia, depicting this as the possible harbinger of the downfall of a regime viewed as economically and politically stretched if not bankrupt.

Most Russians go out of their way to claim they would not like to see the union’s collapse, as most EU citizens adamantly deny they would like to see regime change in Russia. But often, far too often in political science, prediction is strongly tainted by desire. Both sides are wrong: much like we have not reached a Kantian end of history, the future will not witness a Hobbesian world of rival nation-states. Hybridity—dare I say—is what the future holds in store.

If divergent models and worldviews are likely to persist, does this entail long-term confrontation?

Yes…and no.

No, because international politics is rife with challenges that are only marginally affected by this normative clash. The global scene offers plenty of examples in which the EU and Russia can and do work together. One only needs to think about the joint work to save the Iranian nuclear deal from Trump’s frontal attack, the shared interest in containing the North Korean crisis, the common commitment to the Paris climate agreement, but also the interest in seeing an end to the Syrian war, in fighting terrorism, or in relaunching a genuine Middle East peace process. Selective engagement and cooperation on such global issues is possible and probable. 

The going gets rougher in the shared neighborhood between the EU and Russia. In the shared neighborhood, notably Ukraine and the other Eastern Partnership countries, divergent norms are put to the test. Putin sees this region as an extension of Russia’s world and the last line of defense to prevent the spreading of heretic Western ideas in Russia itself. The color revolutions, the EU’s neighborhood policies, and the prospect of NATO’s expansion deeply scarred the Kremlin, persuading Putin that lest these Western advances were immediately stopped they would culminate in regime change in Moscow itself, triggering unspeakable violence, chaos, and misery.

For its part, notwithstanding the flimsy commitment to the Eastern Partnership countries in several member states, the EU cannot just ignore Eastern Europe’s desire for Europeanization, democratization, and modernization. Simply turning its back on such demands would mean abandoning the commitment to the EU’s founding norms and values. Hence, in the shared neighborhood, Russia’s obsession but insufficient political appeal and the EU’s whimsical commitment but unsolicited political appeal suggest a stalemate for years to come. Neither the EU nor Russia will prevail over the other, with stalemate rather than outright conflict likely in the period ahead.  

The third level is domestic, both in Russia and in EU member states. Russia’s long-standing conviction that Europeans (and Americans) are intent on triggering a color revolution in Russia, and the growing European (and American) realization that Moscow is intent on fomenting anti-systemic, nationalistic, and illiberal forces with all means available has generated the deepest and most irreconcilable rift between the two sides. Much like Europeans do not fully grasp the angst generated by prospects of Western-incited regime change in Russia, Russians dismiss far too easily how toxic in the EU is Moscow’s political and financial backing of European extreme right-wing movements. Both are viewed as direct threats to existential interests. 

So long as that deep-seated mistrust regarding each other’s destructive intent toward one another prevails, channels for cooperation will remain limited, and cooperation at the global level will be ad hoc and transactional. The more respective fears and anxieties are acknowledged and addressed, the more likely the management—alas not resolution—of the West-Russia confrontation will become.  

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.

  • Nathalie Tocci