Dynamics of EU-Russia relations & Ukraine | By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

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Dynamics of EU-Russia relations & Ukraine 


THE Ukraine factor has largely determined the dynamics of the relationship between the EU,NATO and Russia, thereby having the interplay of all the actors relating to regional security more broadly.

Veritably, the Ukraine crisis developed a deepening impact on the EU’s foreign policy and its approach towards Russia.

It highlighted that the EU’s eastern neighbourhood is characterised by intense geopolitical competition with Russia.

The crisis also underscored the weakness of the EU’s low politics approach in its relations with Russia and post-Soviet space orchestrated in the post-Cold War period.

On the other hand, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have made EU member states more willing to act together and take a harder line against Moscow

EU-NATO cooperation, therefore, remains problematic and the West’s relations with Russia are by no means past some “point of no return”, to the confrontation of the past half-century.

As for the Euro fans, the conflict over Ukraine was caused in no small part by competing visions of what constitutes a legitimate pan-European security order.

Dreams of a ‘Greater Europe’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok have since faded amid reciprocal sanctions and mutual recriminations. Yet NATO holds a very important connection as far as the scope of the EU’s relationship with Russia is concerned.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has retained special attention as a Eurasian country with a defining role in the evolution of the former-Soviet space.

We argue here that the issue of Russian evolution under Putin’s leadership has raised specific questions in the security realm, potentially affecting the entire post-Soviet space and the European security architecture.

The overlapping remit of each is complementary and provides a potentially beneficial way to address current military and soft security concerns.

This progress seems pragmatically impressive when considered in historical context — against the backdrop of East-West confrontation.

A few, of course, would have foreseen such progress fifteen or even ten years ago. However, there is no “triangle”— ambiguity and contradiction mar all the relationships which are dogged by a number of conflicting interests.

Moreover, although the top leadership of all three entities — EU, NATO and Russia — profess the desire to enhance the relationships, it is clear that a number of constituencies on all sides do not seek similar developments, for a number of reasons.

President Putin has perceived that the EU had no political will or strategy of its own, and complied with American interests.

Frustrated by Russia’s inability to keep status quo in Ukraine by economic and political means, Putin decided to change the game by creating a fait accompli on the ground by force.

Yet the idealistic European strategy of building “a circle of peaceful well-governed states” is in ruins, the eastern neighbourhood is defunct, and the task of even returning to the situation before 2014 to the East of EU boundaries is daunting.

Both sides, the EU and Russia are not ready – intellectually and politically – for a constructive bargain beyond the manifestly unworkable Minsk-II agreements.

Some actors on the Western side want to punish Russia, to make it feel the pain. Too few actors, so far, are ready to risk the opprobrium of making ‘a deal’ with Vladimir Putin.

Indeed, Russia and Europe have historical and civilisational ties that are vital for maintaining regional peace, long-term security, and stability, especially following the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

In February 2021, the European Union’s (EU) Foreign Affairs chief Joseph Borrell arrived in Moscow to discuss “the fraught state of EU-Russia relations amidst the ongoing trial of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and protests against his detention.

Russia continues to harbour grievances towards the EU, leading it in recent years to turn to Asia: the desire to be treated as an equal player, lingering concerns about EU and NATO enlargement, and the lack of a common European agenda that includes Russia as a sovereign member.

Some European analysts argue that Brussels should be in no hurry either to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime or to force a diplomatic crisis.

Rather than vacillating between resets and crackdowns, Brussels should pursue a strategy of principled indifference.

In its immediate neighbourhood, the European Union faces three former global powers that are obsessed with their past imperial glory: Russia, Turkey and now the United Kingdom.

Each has a unique relationship with Europe, currently as well as historically, and all share some commonalities.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia clings longingly to memories of its superpower status, when the Soviet Union was the global equal of the United States.
The Turkish factor is also inevitable.

Turkey under Erdogan, positively dreams of reprising the Ottoman Empire’s geopolitical and cultural expansion from the Balkans and the western edges of Central Asia to the eastern Mediterranean and the North African coast (Libya), all the way down to the Persian Gulf.

And, importantly, post-Brexit Britain is searching its soul in self-imposed isolation, even as it remains close to continental Europeans through NATO and strong cultural and historical ties.

In recent years, the EU has based its Russian policy on modest sanctions, periodic offers of engagement, and a careful accommodation of Russian strategic sensitivities.

Recently, Russia started calling on the EU to stop interfering in the domestic affairs not just of post-Soviet states (as it long has) but even Western Balkans counries, which happened to ask for such ‘interference’ in the form of EU accession.

Yet the Russian quandary is that the major bulk of its territory is in Asia, but over 70% of its people live west of the Ural Mountains.

Russians are committed to rebalancing their ties with both Europe and Asia, and it is of no surprise that under the astute leadership of Putin Russia has the capability to strike this balance.

EU’s synergy of interaction and engagement with other powers— including Russia—could be more successful if the EU itself is strong. The Bloc has to learn to live with other powers being irritated by its bolder actions – be it Russia, Turkey, Iran or China.

—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.

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