Russia’s uneasy relationship with Europe
Russia’s relationship with Europe contains both a strong historical legacy dating back to the modernization efforts of the Czar Peter the Great and the institutional interactions between Russia and the European Union since the end of the Cold War era. Historically speaking three alternative narratives have shaped Russia’s relations with Europe, namely pro-Europeanism, pan-Slavism and Eurasianism.
The pro-Europeanist school of thought holds that Russia is first and foremost a European country and Russian civilization can be rightly placed within the larger European civilization. To pro-Europeanists, Russia’s modernization and transformation into a developed country will most likely occur should Russia adopt European practices and scientific and moral approach.
Many date the centuries-old modernization process in Russia to the reign of Peter the Great mainly because he sent a bunch of Russians to European countries to study European practices and set in motion a detailed transformation process within the empire in the image of then European norms and practices. Pro-Europeans also cite Russia’s contribution to European cultural and artistic civilization as proof of Russia’s European identity.
Good with Europe: From the perspective of pro-Europeans, Russia should develop good relations with European countries and try to join all leading European regional organizations as full members. The Russian economy is strongly tied to European economies and the volume of bilateral trade between the two is unrivaled in Russia’s overall trade relations. Europe is also the number one source of all foreign direct investment in the Russian economy.
Russia’s geography dictates that Russian security interests would be served well if Russia were to be considered a European country by European nations themselves. Russian territory to the west of the Urals is plain and difficult to defend against powerful armies of European nations. Noteworthy in this regard is that France’s Napoleon almost succeeded in conquering Russia in the early years of the 19th century and a similar situation occurred almost 100 years later when Germany’s Hitler invaded Russia from the west during the early years of the World War II.
This security logic manifests itself strongly in Russian attempts at helping establish buffer zones between the Russian mainland and powerful nations of Western Europe. For example, Poland served as a buffer zone between Germany and Russia in the past. When World War II ended, Russian troops invaded many central and Eastern European countries and helped install pro-Soviet communist regimes in those places. Similarly, the Warsaw Pact was established in the year 1955 when the Federal Republic of Germany was invited to join NATO in the same year.
All such security practices fit in well with geopolitical desires to protect the Russian mainland against potential territorial attacks coming from the west. The wartime alliance among Russia, the United States and Great Britain against Hitler’s Germany also attests to Russian efforts to join forces with maritime powers whenever a continental European nation puts claim to hegemony across the continent. This demonstrates that the balance of power logic shapes Russian security culture profoundly.
The pan-Slavic narrative: The second historical narrative that has shaped Russia’s approach to Europe is pan-Slavism according to which Russia is the natural leader of Slavic origin-nations. There are insurmountable differences between Russia’s orthodox and Slavic culture on the one hand and Catholic and Protestant Europeans on the other.
This suggests that Russia should not pursue a pro-European orientation at home and abroad.
There is a distinctive Russian identity that sets it apart from western European nations and the best Russia should do is pursue power politics with European nations. Russia is a civilization-state onto its own. Pan-Slavism also suggests that Russia is first and foremost a Slavic country rather than a multicultural entity in which all ethnic and linguistic communities living in Russia possess equal claims to being Russian.
Eurasianism: The third historical narrative that has decisively shaped Russia’s approach toward Europe, in particular, is Eurasianism. According to this school of thought, Russia is both a European and Asian nation. Russian identity defined alongside Eurasianism is a multicultural identity and all non-Slavic subjects of the Russian state can shape the destiny of Russia should they prove their allegiance to Russian national interests. From this perspective, Russia is defined as a quasi-imperial state. Russia is the traditional and natural leader of the greater Eurasian region.
As the center of gravity in international politics has been shifting away from the transatlantic area to the Indo-Pacific region, Russia would do well to define itself as more Eurasian than a mere European or Asian state and focus its geopolitical attention on the developments taking place in the greater Eurasian region. As geopolitical rivalries over connectivity issues increase, Russia’s Eurasian identity would accrue for its greater advantage. Today’s Russian leadership holds, that for Russia to feel secure, Russia would do well to help create fissures within the transatlantic community by wooing European nations away from the United States as well as dealing with EU members on a bilateral basis rather than treating the EU itself as a single international actor. The legacy of the Cold War era still lives in today’s Russia.
The United States defined the Soviet Union as the existential enemy in geopolitical and ideological terms and adopted the so-called containment strategy during the Cold War years. NATO was established to help bring into existence a powerful defensive alliance in Europe under American leadership and all successive American administrations supported western European allies in their efforts to strengthen their integration in economic and other realms. For the United States to deal with the Soviet menace, strong security bonds between the two shores of the Atlantic Ocean would prove to be decisive.
Given this historical experience, Russian leadership is now paying the utmost importance to help drive wedges between Americans and their European allies. The number one message Russian rulers are giving to their European counterparts is that Russia and European nations are neighbors and occupy the same geopolitical landscape.
Therefore, Europeans nations would do well to get along with Russia if they wanted to have an ultimate degree of security. During the Cold War years, the Soviet leadership warned NATO’s European allies against the dangers of entrapment in a potential American-Russian face-off had they toed the American line blindly.
Accordingly, the Soviet leadership supported Germany’s efforts to reach out to the Soviet Union through economic engagement in the early 1970s. The Soviet leadership also tapped into the strong German opposition to the installment of American intermediate-range nuclear ballistic missiles in the territories of European allies.
This thinking manifested itself in the immediate aftermath of the post-Cold War era as Russia proposed to help bring into existence new security structures in Europe that would leave no European nation outside the tent.
Even before the Cold War era ended in 1991, the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed the common European House initiative whereby all exclusionary security organizations in Europe should be replaced by an all-inclusive structure in which all European nations would feel themselves at home. Likewise, from the Russian perspective, the end of the Cold War-era confrontation between two rival power blocks justified the dissolution of the NATO alliance.
Alliance with contrastsAs part of its efforts to woo European allies away from the United States, post-Cold war era Russian leadership has consistently sided with key European allies such as France and Germany whenever these countries had strong geopolitical and foreign policy disagreements with the United States. Two examples stand out in this regard.
First, Russia cooperated with France and Germany inside the U.N. Security Council to help scupper American plans to organize a military operation against Iraq in 2003. Likewise, Russia does now feel sympathy with any European call for a multipolar world order in which Europe and the United States might part ways. Russian leadership would feel content with any European initiative that might potentially hollow out NATO from within.
The second example concerns Russian support to European initiatives to help find a solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute through diplomatic mechanisms. Neither Russia nor key European allies see Iran as an existential enemy. None of them thinks that Iran is now on the threshold of developing nuclear weapons capability. This is why Russia and other signatories have shown strong opposition to the withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement in May 2018 under the watch of Donald Trump’s administration.
Economic terms: Another aspect of the Russian approach toward Europe is that Russia has long preferred to engage with European nations on a bilateral basis rather than treating the EU as a credible international actor that could speak with one voice. As is well-known, Russia mainly exports gas and oil to European nations. Russia wants to make sure that European dependence on Russian energy resources continues unabated.
Rather than negotiating with the European Union the economic terms of any energy trade, Russia prefers to engage with European nations bilaterally because this way it would be in a more advantageous position to dictate its terms. Russian oil and gas companies offer different deals to different EU members. The well-known example in this regard is the North Stream II gas pipeline project connecting Germany directly to Russia.
Another example of Russian attempts at courting EU nations bilaterally is that Vladimir Putin’s presidency has lately intensified its efforts to help bring into power pro-Russian political parties across Europe. Reminiscent of its support to communist and socialist parties in Europe during the Cold War era, today’s Russia is trying to cultivate cooperative relations with populist parties of the right and left, hoping that Russia’s influence in Europe would likely increase if anti-globalist, anti-American, anti-immigrant and anti-integration parties came to power across the continent. Given such a not-so-rosy picture, one wonders whether the latest initiatives of the French President Emmanuel Macron to mend fences with Vladimir Putin’s Russia will yield any positive results in the context of unfolding geopolitical competition between the United States and China.