Russia: strategic partner, competitor or enemy of the EU? A debate among academics, experts and EU officials

On the 1st July 2015, a roundtable on the future of EU-Russia strategic partnership in the light of the Ukrainian crisis was held at the Institute for European Studies of Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), in the context of the Bernheim Joint Summer School on the challenges and complexities of the Post-Soviet Area, organized by ULB, Université Catholique de Louvain, University of Kent, REPI, GRIP, and Université de Genève. The roundtable was moderated by Neil Melvin (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – SIPRI) and the distinguished participants were Nina Bachkatov (Université de Liège), Soren Halskov (European External Action Service), Federico Santopinto (Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security – GRIP), Natalia Stukalo (Dnepropetrovsk National University), and Richard Whitman (University of Kent).

In his intervention, Federico Santopinto addressed some of the key questions of the debate: is Russia still a strategic partner for the EU or do we rather have to consider Russia as a competitor? Should Russia be considered an enemy?
To begin with, Santopinto noted that the concept of strategic partnership, created by the European Union precisely for defining its relations with Russia in the late 1990s, was not well defined from the very beginning, which lately led the EU to use the label of “strategic partner” for every country with which it holds frequent high-level meetings. As he reminded, after the Ukrainian crisis erupted, the High Representative stated that Russia was not anymore a strategic partner for the European Union. Nevertheless, according to Santopinto, Russia is not an enemy for the EU: the concept of “enemy” has in fact a military understanding, whereas despite the mutual sanctions the EU and Russia still enjoy diplomatic relations and cooperation on some issues. Hence, Russia could be rather seen as a competitor for the EU. However, in his view, this is not a new condition for EU-Russia relations, which have been characterized by this competition at least as from 2008, when the EU launched its Eastern Partnership shortly after the war in Georgia.
According to Federico Santopinto, the crisis in Ukraine was badly managed by the EU because it was considered until 2013 mainly as an economic issue. Indeed, in 2012-13, it was the European Commission that was leading the negotiations on the Association Agreement with Ukraine. As he underlined, the Commission is mostly an economic body dealing with technical issues and lacking a strategic vision of political issues. Finally, when Russia became involved in the issue, the High Representative was involved too, but, in his view, it was too late. Some important Member States such as France and Germany, continued Santopinto, did not show any interest in these negotiations and “did not control what the EU was doing” in what seemed to be mainly an economic issue (whilst it was an issue of high political salience). To external observers, it seemed that no one was aware of how Russia would react.
Secondly, another problem which contributed, according to Santopinto, to the bad management of the crisis, was the “institutional confusion” typical of the EU despite the modifications made by the Lisbon Treaty. Indeed, the negotiations with Ukraine saw the involvement of the Commission, of its President José Manuel Barroso, of the High Representative Catherine Ashton, and of the Member States (when they understood Russia’s reaction).
As for the way forward in EU-Russia relations, Federico Santopinto argued that, in the long term, the solution lies in the trilateral negotiations between Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. To conclude, he added that, in his view, Ukraine should “say no to both EU and Russia”.

Nina Bachkatov started her intervention by questioning the point often made that Russia strategically seeks to divide the European Union. Indeed, she argued, the divisions are internal to the EU and “it is normal that Russia plays on it, like the United States do”: in this respect, it must not be forgotten that the notion of the drift between Old Europe and New Europe was coined precisely by the United States.
According to Bachkatov, if on the one hand the problem of tense relations between the EU and Russia is not new, it must be recalled on the other hand that there was a time in which it was rather the opposite: in fact, before the EU Eastern enlargement of 2004, a sentiment of euphoria dominated about Russia being historically a European country and about the possibility to have good relations with it). In the current situation, Bachkatov argued, the crisis has been exacerbated by the widespread opinion that Russia cannot be a world power anymore unless it is united in a regional organization with Ukraine (in this conception, Ukraine thus plays an essential role in ensuring Russia’s status of great power). However, she noted, there has been an evolution in Russia, which has resulted in a gradual shift away from this romantic vision of “Slavic brotherhood” towards the same attitude that was selected by Russia in 1995-96 – that is, that of pragmatic cooperation among CIS country only when there is an economic return. In this perspective, EU-Russia relations could be improved, according to Bachkatov, by ensuring that Russia’s commercial interests in the post-Soviet region are preserved and are not undermined by EU activism.
Moreover, she noted, the crisis in Ukraine is taking place against the background of Russia’s turn to the East. This should not be intended in an anti-western perspective, but rather as a pragmatic move indicating Russia’s need to have good relations both with the West and with the East.
According to Nina Bachkatov, the Ukrainian factor should be understood in the broader framework of EU-Russia relations, and especially in the light of the basic problem of the asymmetry between EU and Russia. Indeed, whilst the European Union is about integration, Russia is more about building a strong State, sovereignty, and defending national interest. Therefore, she argued, this asymmetry has to be acknowledged by the EU if it wants to find a dialogue with Russia.
To sum up, in Bachkatov’s opinion, that of competition is the most correct characterization for current EU-Russia relations. This competition does not mean that Russia must be seen as an enemy, and we should avoid a tendency to “dramatize” what is happening in EU-Russia relations.
Finally, Bachkatov argued, the security dimension of EU-Russia tensions must be considered. Indeed, the enlargement of the EU has been happening in parallel with the enlargement of NATO, which has created confusion and has strongly influenced Russia’s vision of it.
Speaking of a possible way forward for EU-Russia relations, Bachkatov highlighted three points. First, it may be helpful to involve in the peace process those peoples who have direct experience of it, such as for example the British and the Irish. Secondly, since the EU is not able to get a holistic agreement with Russia, it should have a more “transactional” attitude. Finally, she highlighted the urgent need to manage jointly the neighbourhood; otherwise, it will continue to be a zero-sum game.
Looking back to the 2008 war in Georgia, Bachkatov noted that the mistake there was letting Saakashvili believe that NATO or the West would help him if he were engaged in a military operation. Comparing this with the current situation, she voiced her impression that the Ukrainians today have been the victims of the illusion that the EU would be ready to confront Russia. In this respect, she argued that a key turn in exacerbating the tensions was the “foolish declaration” by Barroso that those countries had to choose between the Eurasian Union and integration with the EU, which made them face an impossible choice, since they need to have good relations both with the East and with the West. On this point, Soren Halskov replied that, if on the one hand there were some statements made in 2013 that gave the impression of a zero-sum game, it is also true that it is simply not possible to be member of two different customs union.
To conclude, Nina Bachkatov expressed her view that it is a “utopia of the West” to think that the situation will change after Putin.

Natalia Stukalo’s speech focused mainly on the economic dimension of Russia-EU relations and was organized around three central points.
First, she highlighted Europe’s energy dependence from Russia: Russia has the largest oil and gas resources in the world and uses them as political tool to make pressure on Ukraine and on the EU itself. In her opinion, the EU should reduce this dependence, since energy is “too political and too strategic to build Russia-EU relations on it”.
Secondly, she spoke about the economic consequences of sanctions, and underlined that sanctions influence the mood of political and business elites both in Russia and in the EU.
Thirdly, she mentioned the business and trade dimension of EU-Russia relations (Russia is one of the main commercial partners of the EU).
Turning to the Ukrainian crisis, Stukalo noted that Ukraine made a choice in favour of the European integration. However, she argued, it is hard for Russia to accept this choice and Russia therefore remains an unpredictable and aggressive neighbour for Ukraine. At the same time, she noted, it is impossible to ensure European security without Russia. Thus, it is important to find alternative bridges and pillars for EU-Russia-Ukraine relations. First, there should be a reduction of energy dependence of the EU and Ukraine. Secondly, the role of intellectual elite and middle class could be crucial in this situation. Thirdly, non-political tools of cooperation such as education programmes and cultural exchanges could be “small bridges” to reset the relations. Finally, small and medium enterprises could play a key role since they are not political actors like large business or oligarchs.

Soren Halskov argued that, if on the one hand events have changed the EU-Russia relations (Russia has taken steps against international law and with the annexation of Crimea did not leave any choice but to react with sanctions), the High Representative Mogherini stated that Russia at this moment is not a strategic partner, which means that this situation is not irreversible. However, he affirmed, it is highly improbable that relations improve as long as the situation on the ground does not.
Secondly, Halskov highlighted the security risk coming out of Moscow’s policy – that is, the hybrid war including also massive campaign of disinformation and cyber warfare.
Halskov underlined that it is not the EU that sees Russia as a competitor; it is rather Russia that sees itself as a competitor of the EU, because it regards the situation in the shared neighbourhood as a zero sum game. However, he argued, it is important to acknowledge that we share a continent and that we cannot live in isolation: we need Russia and Russia needs us to address many international issues (e.g. Iraq, Syria, terrorism, climate change, Iran).
According to Halskov, in order to come out of the deadlock, we need a constructive Russia’s attitude towards Ukraine. However, he affirmed, if a solution is found to the current situation, we cannot go back to business as usual, and we will have to “recalibrate the relations”.
As far as the possible way forward is concerned, Halskov stressed the need to continue the efforts to try to stabilize Ukraine. At the same time, we must simply accept that for some time we will have a combination of confrontational and cooperative relationship with Russia. However, he undelrined, even in the current situation education and people-to-people cooperation continues, and this must be the very last thing to go.
Finally, he concluded: “We still hang on to the idea of an economic area from Lisbon to Vladivostok, but not right now.”

In his speech, Richard Whitman underlined that, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the difficult relations with Russia date back to 2007. In his opinion, Russia has moved itself from being a strategic partner to a strategic competitor. Indeed, Russia’s current regime is “actively trying to subvert the principle on which the continent is based”. In this context, the EU represents the “status quo power”, whilst Russia is a challenger to the status quo. On this point, Federico Santopinto strongly disagreed with this view. Indeed, according to Santopinto, it is rather the West that has been willing to change the status quo (not only in the post-Soviet area but also in Libya, Syria, the Balkans, etc.), whilst Russia has been mostly reactive and on a defensive posture.
Secondly, Richard Whitman argued that some superficial similarities can be found between current EU-Russia relations and the Cold War. First, the EU and Russia have two different economic systems (with Russia being characterised by “rentier capitalism”). Second, they have two different visions of what is an appropriate political system (with the concept of “managed democracy” dominating in Putin’s Russia). Finally, different social systems can be observed, notably concerning LGBT rights.
Later, Whitman identified three points to focus on in responding to the current situation. To begin with, he stressed the role of intelligence. Indeed, Russia’s actions against Ukraine demonstrated an intelligence failure in two senses, by showing that people had illusions about the possibilities of the partnership with Russia and that there was a failure in the sharing of intelligence. On this point, he thus concluded that more Europe is needed in the area of intelligence gathering, and that the EU needs to develop collective intelligence assets. Secondly, Whitman mentioned diplomacy, regretting that the EU’s diplomatic strategy is “to contain Russia’s actions in Ukraine rather than rolling back”. According to Whitman, if the EU wants an actual roll-back, the Minsk agreements are insufficient. Sanctions towards Russia should be further tightened and smarter (targeting oligarchs in the West), and a clearer perspective of EU membership should be given to Ukraine. In his view, building a confederation of European States would help to solve a number of problems, ranging from Ukraine, to the UK, to Turkey, to future relations with Russia. Thirdly, in a military perspective, Whitman underlined that a proxy war is going on in Ukraine, and that from the side of the EU “we are not providing proxy contribution enough”. NATO is neither equipped for the situation Ukraine: according to Whitman, whatever institution we look at, we have a collective action problem. In this context, he argued, it should be looked more towards joint actions between CSDP and NATO and national assets. Moreover, he concluded that a clear roadmap should be negotiated not only within the EU, but also “with those who have an interest, including the US”.

Giulia Bonacquisti

Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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