international analysis and commentary

The Kremlin’s “Eurasian choice”: a farewell to EU-Russia rapprochement?

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A profound, yet surprisingly unnoticed, shift has occurred in the relations between Russia and the European Union. Moscow has embraced the “Eurasian choice” rejecting the EU as a model for political and economic success. Since the mid-19th century Russia’s political elite and intelligentsia have oscillated between East and West. Indeed, history repeats itself. Over the past year, the Kremlin, anxious to look outward and play an influential role in global politics, re-directed its foreign policy toward a more assertive doctrine of strategic independence that stems from an identity-based interpretation of foreign policy. Thus, Russia’s “Eurasian choice” has implications on its relations with the EU in their “shared neighborhood” and vital world regions.

Since 2008, EU-Russia relations have noticeably deteriorated. During Medvedev’s presidency, the expectations of a rapprochement between Russia and Europe were grounded on solid evidence. Four years later those expectations were bitterly dispelled by a series of events including: the return of Putin to the Kremlin; the Pussy Riot scandal (which involved the high-profile imprisonment of two anti-Putin feminist punk rock band members after a performance staged at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior); and the Magnitsky Act passed by the US Congress in 2012 (named for Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in a Moscow prison after investigating Russian tax officials for fraud, the law’s principal goal is to deny those Russian officials thought to be responsible of entry into the US and use of the country’s banking system). But Russia is not Europe’s biggest disappointment; rather it’s the other way around.

The aforementioned events are marginal in comparison to the gap between the EU and Russia that has grown wider over the past few years. First, the major catalyst for cooperation, the partnership for modernization, has essentially failed. With the exception of small pilot projects, it lacks content, and remains largely stuck at a declaratory level. Second, Russia’s oil and gas exports to Europe have declined, mostly due to European economic stagnation stemming from the financial crisis. The Kremlin has sought therefore to open new markets, particularly in Asia. Russia aims at sending approximately 30% of its energy exports east in the next couple of years – compared to the current 17%. Third, the Russian political elite see the EU largely as a failure. Diluted economic, political and social values shrink the potential of the latter to be an influential player in the international arena.

If one can define direct relations between the EU and Russia as stagnant, in the “shared neighborhood” they are undoubtedly characterized by an open rivalry. Putin’s third term coincided with the forceful return of the post-Soviet space among Moscow’s top foreign policy priorities. In other words, Russia is re-assessing its role in the international arena, starting with the CIS. The Customs Union is arguably the Kremlin’s main channel to achieve this goal. In 2012, the Russian-led Customs Union (CU), of which Kazakhstan and Belarus are also members, formed a Single Economic Space. By 2015, the plan is to create a single Eurasian economic union. Meanwhile, Moscow is trying to persuade Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to join.

Ukraine in particular has become the most symptomatic example in the former USSR of the confrontation between Russia and the EU. The most ambitious mechanism for the export of EU governance to post-Soviet countries is the Association Agreement, including the so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Association Agreements are international agreements that the European Union concludes with third countries to set up an all-embracing framework and conduct bilateral relations. In some cases, they prepare for future membership. Ukraine has been, until recently, interested in ratifying the Association Agreement with the EU.

Through the CU, Russia is challenging the EU for the first time on a normative level. The Kremlin is in fact trying to persuade Ukraine to join the CU instead of the Association Agreement. Among various arguments in favor, the CU would apparently benefit Ukraine with a $219 billion increase in its annual GDP between 2011 and 2030. At the same time, Russia would offer a wider market access than the DCFTA and a prospect of dealing with the EU on “equal” terms. Russia also insists that the CU offers more short-term benefits for those who join, brushing off the bargaining chip of “democratic” and “Western” values.

Ultimately, one can draw on two lessons concerning Russia’s new engagement in the former USSR and the so-called “shared neighborhood” with the EU. First, Moscow no longer relies exclusively on soft power, energy policies, and military superiority. It now exploits institutional-based fora and organizations, namely the CU, for asserting its position and competing with the EU within the same domain. Second, Russia is expanding its efforts to solidify and institutionalize its influence in the former Soviet Union.

With regards to its global agenda, Russia aims at re-positioning itself as a strategically independent player. In order to achieve this goal, vital regions, such as the former USSR and the Middle East become leverage over the EU and US. Nevertheless, Moscow’s “Eurasian choice” and its assertive attitude do not echo the mantra of a “resurgent Russia”. The Customs Union aims primarily at projecting its influence over countries of the former Soviet Union. The eastward trajectory represents a pragmatic choice to insulate the export from the volatile market, given Europe’s economic stagnation. Moscow’s new foreign policy, therefore, is not marked by  an ideological confrontation to the West; but it is not aligned with it either. For instance, Russia opposes military intervention in Syria to protect its interests in the region, while it allowed for it in Mali.

The question is whether Russia has the capability and a long-term strategy to counter challenges on the horizon. With regards to the Syrian uprising, the nature of the conflict could significantly affect Russia’s ability to maintain its influence in the region should Assad and the Alawites be driven from power. Likewise, the future stability of Central Asia is at stake in view of the 2014 withdrawal  of NATO troops from Afghanistan. Moscow’s policy may look indeed more assertive but its capabilities and instruments are not getting stronger. The constantly changing dynamics in the Middle East and in the post-Soviet space will test the success of the new foreign policy.

The outlook of EU-Russia relations for 2013 looks bleaker than it did four years ago. The EU’s disappointment vis-à-vis the recent developments in Russian domestic affairs – above all the return of Putin to the Kremlin and the disillusion of top-down democratic reforms initiated by Medvedev – is only one of the reasons that explain the change in EU-Russia relations. The shift is in fact more profound. Cooperation is still a viable option for the future but an entirely new strategic approach will depend on mutual efforts.