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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Europe and Russia – A misunderstood and difficult partnership


During the Cold War, the relationship between Europe (in this case Western Europe) and the former USSR were mostly marked by a pure geostrategic policy implementation. Europe was just a potential battlefield between the main global adversaries USA and USSR, and Europe’s relationship to the USSR heavily depended on the goodwill of its protecting power USA, even on the bilateral nation state level. Even the first years after the collapse of the USSR, European-Russian relations remained difficult. While European integration rapidly increased, the Russian Federation struggled to consolidate its new free market economy and new political freedom. Back in the 1990s, Europe was strong, whereas Russia was weak.

Now, the roles have switched. While Europe is in a deep economic crisis and desperately trying to find a solution out of the crisis (with a deteriorating outlook), post-Soviet Russia under President Vladimir Putin is stronger than ever before, specifically in geopolitical terms. Russia is currently going through a significant political rekindling process, the strongest ever since the end of the Soviet Union. Russia is consequently using this new role in the view of the Syrian civil war, as the main gas provider using gas as a powerful political weapon against several gas transit countries in Eastern Europe, and as an emerging economic power within the BRICS group.

Europe finds itself in a delicate situation: it has to deal with two major superpowers, by attempting to be accepted as a political superpower of its own. Even though it has institutionalized its foreign policy and sets foreign and security policy agendas, it still remains weak compared to any other global power. The EU has reached the limits of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) due to distinguished approaches and foreign policy interests of its member states. Additionally, no strong foreign policy is possible without strong leadership, which is the EU’s biggest foreign policy dilemma.

While Europe was mostly opposing Russian policies for decades, this strategy can no longer be used. With the US’s global power in a relative decline and suffering from severe credibility and popularity (especially as a long-term effect of the former Bush-Administration’s Anti-Terror strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq), Europe has to seek for other strong global partners. Russia is a logical alternative.

Or is it?

As Andreas Stergiou correctly states in his recent article for the EU Institute for Security Studies, EU ISS (http://www.iss.europa.eu/publications/detail/article/russian-policy-in-the-eastern-mediterranean-and-the-implications-for-eu-external-action/), the EU is facing a difficult balancing act. In the view of Russia’s increasing influence in the Eastern Mediterranean region (specifically for Greece, Cyprus, and the Middle East), the EU has to ensure that it does not lose all of its remaining political power in the region. This means that the EU will have to cooperate closer on all levels with Russia. However, most European countries (and above all the Baltic States) are sceptic regarding a closer economic and political cooperation, and the gas disputes in the past has caused a severe increase in distrust towards Russia, mostly by the Eastern European transit countries.
Russia on the other hand is struggling for international respect, which has eased a bit through its recent acceptance to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2011. However, Russia is still suffering a massive distrust by most of the Western actors. No doubt, you can still feel the long term effects of the Cold War. The behaviourism we got used to in the more than 40 years East-West antagonism are continuing to affect contemporary relations with Russia, and vice versa.

Some Russian actors, specifically in the Foreign Ministry and the FSB keep a “healthy” distrust towards the west, and they regard the EU as a mostly western oriented actor. The very simple fact that nearly all former Warsaw Pact members are now members of the EU and of NATO – the ultimate arch enemy – causes a logical reaction of being increasingly surrounded by potential adversaries. As a logical consequence, Russia expands its influence in regions where the west has proven itself to be weak or where it has experienced fundamental set-backs, i.e. the Middle East.

As much as Brussels wishes a normalization of its relations to Russia, it is still marked by a post-Cold War “paranoia”, simply by the matter of fact that – according to Walter Laqueur in his book “After the Fall” – it does not to fall back into a “satellite state” like status. It should be mentioned that it was former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who postulated the “Common European House” in the view of his Glasnost and Perestroika policy, talking of a united Europe, including Russia.

By now, Europe has moved closer to Russia, but it will not get much closer than absolutely necessary. Laqueur also says that Europe more or less accepted the matter of fact that Russia would not become a democratic state according to western standards, just as it is not interested that Russia increases its economic influence in Europe. But neither Brussels, nor Paris, nor Berlin will be able to prevent an increasing Russian influence in the Mediterranean region. They won’t even dare to prevent such a Russian influence.

The assumption that the Cold War has come to and enf with the collapse of the Soviet Union was rather premature. It still continues, although under a slightly different framework. And Europe is right in the middle of it, again.

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