Ever since the start of the U.S.-Russian confrontation in 2014, Moscow’s relations with the European Union, though damaged, had been palpably friendlier than with Washington. Despite the Ukraine crisis, top-level dialogue was never really ruptured. The Kremlin fumed over the Europeans’ “deceit and abandonment” of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel complained about Russian President Vladimir Putin “living in a different world.” Yet the two continued to have frequent phone calls and, alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, engaged in a diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict in Donbas. All this contrasted sharply with U.S. President Barack Obama’s calls for Russia’s political isolation. To be sure, Europe imposed its own sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, but there was always a strong lobby within the EU, led by France and supported by business circles in Germany and elsewhere, in favor of an improvement of relations with Russia. That is now changing.   

From Estrangement to Adversity

The change means that the distinction is becoming blurred between the U.S.-Russian confrontation on the one hand, and the mutual estrangement between Russia and the European Union on the other. 2020 was a year that saw two important developments. One was the final crumbling of the main pillar of EU-Russian interaction: the special relationship between Berlin and Moscow. The poisoning of Alexei Navalny, details of which remain murky, completed the decade-long progressive erosion of that relationship. 2020 also saw Donald Trump’s four-year presidency approach its end in the United States, with the newly elected Joe Biden vowing to repair relations with the European Union and create a common Western front to pressure Russia far more effectively than before.  

These were momentous developments. The Russo-German relationship grew out of Moscow’s pivotal role in German reunification in 1989–1990. Following that, Moscow and Berlin finalized their post-World War II reconciliation. Their relationship aspired to become a true partnership, but never really got there. Relations began to fray on the German side around 2011, when Vladimir Putin revealed his decision to return to the Kremlin, thereby dashing German expectations of comprehensive modernization that would eventually turn Russia into a liberal and democratic polity. As for Russia, the heyday of its German connection was under the chancellorship of Gerhard Schroeder (1998–2005), when ideas of Russia’s European choice and of an economic marriage between Russia and Germany and the resultant emergence of a Greater Europe from the Atlantic to the Pacific were at their height. The Ukraine crisis of 2014—in which the Germans saw Russia as aggressive and the Russians saw Germany as perfidious—undermined what had remained of the relationship.   

The Navalny poisoning in August 2020, his dispatch to Germany for treatment, Germany’s public accusation that Russia had used a nerve agent to try to kill the opposition activist, Navalny’s return to Moscow from Berlin in January 2021, and his immediate jailing in Russia set the stage for a new, much colder period: not only in German-Russian relations, but also in those between the EU and Russia. Russia’s reaction to the palpably more negative German attitude, echoed by France and other EU countries, dispelled any remaining hopes in the Kremlin of Europe taking a more pragmatic, business-oriented line toward Moscow. Of course, the events of 2020, including the Biden victory, were not the prime cause of the breakdown of what looked like, at the dawn of the 1990s, an almost perfect match between Russia and Europe. The main reasons for the failure were the unrealistic expectations that the Russians and Europeans had of each other, and the experience that each party has gained in the last three decades.

Conflicting Visions

For the Europeans, since the end of the Cold War, the goal of their Russia policy was something like a “European Russia”—i.e., a Russia that would progressively accept EU-devised norms and principles, including in its domestic politics, economics, and social affairs, and cooperate closely with the EU on foreign policy. In other words, they imagined Russia not as a member of the EU—not even a candidate, like Turkey—but more of a permanent associate, a partner in name, but essentially a follower. In the former European Commission president Romano Prodi’s memorable phrase, the European Union and Russia would have everything in common except for their institutions. From the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement of 1994 to the four common spaces of 2003 to the modernization partnerships of 2009–2011, this was the main thrust of Europe’s approach. 

In contrast, once the Russian leaders got over their initial yearning to join the Western community and began to rediscover their country’s national interest, their preference became a “Greater Europe.” By that they meant a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, built on an arrangement between the EU and its post-Soviet counterpart, the Eurasian Economic Union, with cross-ownership of some of the main assets on both sides; a security architecture centered on the OSCE, with NATO and the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization partnering to jointly uphold stability across the continent; and a visa-free regime between Russia and the European Union. By strongly favoring Europe’s strategic autonomy, and ultimately full independence from the United States, Moscow was looking ahead to the day when the EU and post-Soviet Eurasia would form a strong association and Europe would finally become whole (in its “greater” format), free, and independent. Within that association, Russia—as the biggest country, the most populous nation, a nuclear power and UNSC permanent member, and a repository of immense natural resources—would play a major role.  

In the three decades that have elapsed since the end of the Cold War, neither of those visions has become a reality. Russia refused to be the EU’s follower and a recipient of its guidance. The EU never even considered weakening the transatlantic connection—symbolized and supported by an expanding NATO—in order to strengthen the Eurasian one. The Russo-Georgian five-day war in 2008 over South Ossetia awoke historical fears of Russia, never too deep beneath the surface in the new member states in Central and Eastern Europe. The EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, put forward by Poland and Sweden in 2009, put into starker relief the competition between Russia and the EU for the economic and political orientation of the former Soviet republics Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. This competition was most intense in and over Ukraine, and within five years it helped lead to the crisis in Ukraine. That crisis, in turn, terminated any pretense to an EU-Russia partnership.  

Negative Dynamics

At the outset of the 2020s, the security situation in Europe is more reminiscent of the period between the 1940s and the 1980s in the sense of pervasive mistrust of and even contempt for each other. The military standoff is back, albeit in a lighter form, from the Barents Sea to the Baltic to the Black Sea. Russia-EU economic exchanges have halved since 2013. Yet despite the rhetoric, this is not a second iteration of the Cold War. There are no iron curtains or Berlin walls. Despite the sanctions and import substitution, Russia’s economy is anything but autarkic. The information space remains essentially global, which is why it has become such a crowded battlefield. The military is a significant player again, but hostile actions are mainly the work of intelligence services. The pandemic notwithstanding, ordinary people can still travel relatively freely, provided they get visas.   

Moreover, the situation is not static, as it largely was in Europe during the Cold War; it is highly dynamic and worsening. It is not hard to imagine new crises, even renewed military conflicts, in places like Donbas, Transnistria, and the South Caucasus. The obvious failure of the Normandy process aimed at resolving the Ukraine conflict and the impasse within the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk may lead to Kyiv’s final abandonment of the 2015 Minsk II agreement, which it has always resented. Moscow, in turn, may recognize the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in any event proceed to integrate them even more closely with Russia. So far, 400,000 of the region’s 3.7 million residents have been granted Russian citizenship. To prevent conflict, Germany and France have little weight in Kyiv and none in Moscow, which sees them as accessories and accomplices of the Ukrainian regime. Should things come to a head, they would pit Russia against the United States, with the Europeans in a supporting role via NATO. 

Transnistria, a long and narrow sliver of land completely surrounded by the territories of Ukraine and Moldova, broke away from Chisinau in 1990, went through a bloody conflict with it in 1992, and has since lived under the protection of a small Russian peacekeeping force and a military contingent which guards vast Soviet-era arms depots. Moldova’s newly elected president, a Romanian citizen, demands Russia’s withdrawal from the region; Moscow rejects that demand, with reference to the 1992 ceasefire agreement that set up the peacekeeping mechanism. To put pressure on Moscow, Chisinau and Kyiv are fully capable of blockading Russian military transit to and from Transnistria, presenting Russia with the dilemma of conflict or humiliation. The frozen conflict on the Dniester is getting ready for a meltdown. 

In the South Caucasus, the strategic landscape was changed in 2020 by Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the second war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia failed to prevent the war, and stayed away from the fighting, but managed to stop it once the Azerbaijani victory was evident. Russia engaged in peacekeeping, dealing with both sides and bringing them together, and putting its own troops on the ground in Karabakh. However, Moscow has had to accept Turkey’s role in the South Caucasus and its physical military presence in Azerbaijan. By contrast, Russia’s own position in Armenia has suffered, due both to the prevalence of Western-leaning individuals in the current government, and Yerevan’s defeat in the war, despite being Moscow’s military ally. Russia’s dominant role in Karabakh and its influence in Armenia are hardly welcome in Europe, and are likely to be challenged by the United States. Domestic politics in Armenia will play into the Russian-Western rivalry. 

Azerbaijan’s success has inspired other countries seeking to bring their breakaway territories back into the fold. Georgia regards both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as areas occupied by Russia. Tbilisi is a candidate for NATO membership, and a de facto U.S. ally. Moves to integrate Georgia with NATO militarily will lead to Moscow building up its forward positions in the two statelets. The lines of separation that have been largely quiet since the 2008 war may see more tension as a result.   

Apart from frozen conflicts in the former Soviet space that can suddenly thaw, another source of danger is incidents between Russian and NATO aircraft and naval ships. With Russian planes flying closer to NATO’s as they in turn come closer to Russia’s borders, these incidents could happen, with grave consequences, in and over the Black Sea and the Baltic. Particularly dangerous will be NATO flights or naval activity near Crimea, as well as near Kaliningrad, a latter-day version of West Berlin in reverse. The cancellation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the potential deployment in Europe of new U.S. intermediate-range missile systems, regardless of whether they are nuclear-armed or not, could lead to a new Euromissile crisis. The demise of the Open Skies Treaty is already dealing a blow to both parties’ confidence in military stability in Europe. Essentially, the post-Cold War European arms control system, built on the Conventional Forces Treaty, the INF, and the Outer Space Treaty, is no more. 

A third group of dangers is inherent in the political developments within certain countries. The latent political instability in Belarus is giving rise to hopes in Europe of a democratic and pro-European evolution of this new nation, positioned between Russia and the EU/NATO territory. At the same time, it evokes fears in the West of a Russian-led or -supported crackdown on protesters. Seen from Russia, the political turbulence in Belarus, while rooted in domestic tensions, is being fanned by the West, primarily by the neighboring EU member states Poland and Lithuania, with the idea of turning the strategically crucial Belarus into another anti-Russian platform alongside Ukraine. In Ukraine itself, the situation remains fluid: low-level political instability persists, with Russia and Europe taking very different, even opposing positions on what is happening there.  

Most important, of course, is the leadership transition in Russia itself. The process was subtly launched by Vladimir Putin in 2020, with the constitutional changes and government reshuffle. As the State Duma elections in September 2021 and presidential vote due in 2024 come closer, political tensions will inevitably grow. The Kremlin believes that the West, more united after Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, will put maximum pressure on Russia, its ruling elite, and President Putin personally. There is no panic: despite the many domestic problems, the Kremlin remains in control of the Russian elite, the law-enforcement apparatus is loyal, regional separatism is suppressed or non-existent, and Putin’s own standing with the bulk of the Russian people remains strong. Still, the Kremlin is seeking to bar any foreign interference in Russia’s domestic affairs.

Russian officials and Putin supporters portray Navalny and his associates as agents of the West—they single out the U.S., British, and German intelligence agencies as Russia’s foremost adversaries—whose mission is to destabilize Russia in the midst of the delicate process of transferring and reconfiguring power. As of 2021, Western support for the Russian anti-systemic opposition is no longer tolerated, as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy learned the hard way during his February 2021 visit to Moscow. Strong words from Russian officials about Moscow’s readiness to sever relations with the European Union and the expulsion of three European diplomats from Russia during that visit were aimed at intimidating the EU from using human rights as a tool in their Russia policy.

The Lessons of Borrell’s Visit

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell undertook his trip with the specific purpose of gaining first-hand experience with Moscow diplomacy ahead of the EU’s Russia policy review set for March 2021. The current policy, which is based on the five principles formulated by Borrell’s predecessor Federica Mogherini and seeks to combine tough criticism and sanctions with selective engagement, has not been particularly successful. Borrell visited at the peak of the protest activity provoked by Navalny’s return, trial, and jailing. The public focus of the visit was on Russian domestic developments, but the Russian side refused point-blank to yield on those issues, and instead pushed back hard.

Borrell’s trip was seen in Europe as a diplomatic disaster, but it also provided clarity, unpalatable though it may be. Its takeaways can be summarized as follows. 

— Russia and Europe are as far apart as they have been since the end of the Cold War, and continue to drift away from each other politically, ideologically, and economically, even as frictions intensify and collisions become more likely. Yet relations are much richer and far less antagonistic than they were during the Cold War. Important interests continue to link Russia and the EU.  

— EU sanctions against Russia in place since 2014 have not been able to change the Kremlin’s foreign or domestic policies. The failure of sanctions to have the desired effect was based on a false underlying premise: namely, that Russia would be interested in the easing and lifting of sanctions and its eventual return to the pre-2014 status quo (e.g., restored membership in the G8), and that individual Russians affected by personal sanctions would be able to influence Moscow’s foreign policy. 

— European criticisms are now meeting an in-your-face response from Russia. The Kremlin can take more blows from sanctions, but will tolerate no interference in Russian internal affairs from anyone. The values gap between the EU and Russia is widening fast. Moscow’s willingness to accept the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, and its continued membership in the Council of Europe and its parliamentary assembly are no longer to be taken for granted.

— For the foreseeable future, there will only be space in EU-Russian relations for transactional relations: economic ties where not restricted by sanctions, scientific and cultural collaboration, nonpolitical humanitarian contacts, and so on. There is even a possibility of cooperating more on issues such as public healthcare and climate change.  

— Russia’s interactions with the EU institutions—the Council, Presidency, and Commission—will be defined very narrowly, within the specific purview and power of those bodies. Russia will continue to prioritize its historical relations with key European countries, starting with Germany, France, and Italy. The problem for Moscow is that bilateral ties—even with the bigger member countries—cannot be fully separated from Russia’s relations with the EU as a whole.

It is now likely that even before the unveiling of the new policy, the EU will come up with a fresh sanctions package, which will add to the pile collected by Russia since 2014 but, unless it proposes harsh measures such as barring Russia from the SWIFT banking system, will probably remain as ineffective as its predecessors. (Should there be such a drastic ratcheting up of tensions, that would cause enormous damage to economic relations and major foreign policy consequences.) It is also likely that the forthcoming EU policy review on Russia will result in a significantly tougher-worded statement. One can well imagine that the new approach will also be more closely integrated with the Russia policy of the Biden administration. 

Whether the new approach will be more successful than the Mogherini doctrine, only time will tell, but it is probably not worth holding one’s breath. Relations between Brussels and Moscow will almost inevitably grow even more distant, with high-level contacts probably put on hold for the foreseeable future. Ironically, this situation will inevitably increase the value of bilateral links between Russia and individual EU member states, which was precisely the reason for the EU’s constant complaints. From Moscow’s perspective, of course, it is the bilateral ties with countries that continue to do business with Russia that are the backbone of what remains of Russo-European relations.  

Is There a Way Out?

EU-Russia relations have reached an impasse, while the regional environment in Europe will continue to worsen in the foreseeable future. A few potential crisis spots have already been mentioned. With the link between Moscow and Brussels virtually inactive for the time being, and relations between the key EU capitals and Russia constrained, these will probably have to be dealt with by Russia and the United States, with Europe backing Washington. For many in the United States and some in Europe, this is not a bad configuration at all. It means, however, that Russian-European relations will revert to being a function of U.S.-Russian relations, reminiscent of the Cold War model.  

On the military security side, this has long been a reality. With the principal danger now rooted in misperception, miscalculation, and escalation, the proper guardrails in the U.S.-Russian confrontation are not weapons limits established under arms control documents, now almost all (except for New START) defunct; they are reliable communications channels, personal contact between top military and security officials, and various confidence-building measures. These channels, contacts, and measures are essentially the business of Russia and the United States: either directly or through NATO. 

In the meantime, the European Union and Russia can still do something useful together. Areas for EU-Russia collaboration may be few and far between, but they do exist. One is public health, the other is climate. Russia has surprised many in Europe and across the world with its effective Sputnik V vaccine. The COVID-19 pandemic is the first truly global pandemic of recent times, not the last. Given their geographical proximity and the level of transborder contacts, EU-Russia cooperation in this field certainly makes sense. As for climate change, this is an issue of genuine interest to Russia, given that global warming is not only making much of the Arctic ice-free, but also disrupting infrastructure in Siberia as a result of melting permafrost. Neither of these tracks will have much impact on the overall relationship, but each could bring real benefits to both parties.

Reframing the Relationship 

Looking further ahead, Russia and the European Union need to imagine a more realistic goal for their relationship. This future relationship cannot be based on a revamped dream of an EU-led comprehensive partnership supported by shared values, or some vast common economic space that Moscow now envisages under the rubric of a Greater Eurasian Partnership. What could it be instead? Cohabitation may spring to mind, but that requires a common roof, which does not and will not accommodate both the EU and Russia; coexistence is correct in substance, but it is too laden with the legacy of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union advanced the concept of “peaceful coexistence.” What comes closest to the idea and is also free from historical baggage would be neighborliness

The neighborliness model would need to rest on several pillars. One is a degree of reciprocal respect for diversity, even as low as simple acknowledgement of the neighbor as a different quality. Two is decent fences: clarity with respect to the lines—including in cyberspace—between what is acceptable and what is not, and sufficient security to provide self-confidence. Three is building and managing relations essentially on the basis of reciprocal interests: values diverge rather than converge. Four is cooperation on transborder issues, such as infrastructure, public health, and climate. Five is economic interdependence. Even though the European energy balance is changing, as is the structure of the Russian economy, in the foreseeable future Europe will be dependent on Russian energy supplies, and the Russian federal budget will rely to a significant extent on the proceeds from those sales.

What this entails is as follows. Europe and Russia will continue to live in a common information space, so reciprocal criticisms will be freely shared. However, influencing each other across borders, whether with a view to converting the target public to one’s worldview or subverting a regime or government or a person that one doesn’t like, will not be permitted. Ideological and values differences will remain, of course, but they will not be hyped by those in charge of foreign policy and thus will not lead to mutual hostility and abandonment of dialogue. Inevitable disagreements will be managed, so that disruptive conflicts and damaging collisions can be prevented. Beyond the inherently contentious political domain, the EU and Russia should be free to engage with each other as much as their people want to. Whatever happens in the future and whatever they can do elsewhere, Europe and Russia cannot change their geography. 

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

  • Dmitri Trenin