international analysis and commentary

Partner and adversary: a difficult balance with Moscow

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 What does Russia mean for us? As the Italian-Russian Council for Economic Cooperation met at the Farnesina on October 5 with ministers and industrialists from both countries in attendance, we would do well to have clear ideas on that score. Let us attempt to air a few of those ideas.

First: If we are talking about the economy, Russia is an important partner, especially in certain spheres (not only energy but also agrifood, to mention but one example). Italy is right to defend its interests with Moscow. All of the major European countries do so, even as they continue to keep in force the Western sanctions adopted in the wake of the annexation of Crimea and of the conflict in Ukraine. The sanctions’ cost in terms of lost exports is particularly heavy for Italy (as indeed it is for Germany), amounting to 3.6 billion euro over the two-year period from 2014 to 2015. Last summer Rome sought to rekindle the issue by opposing the automatic renewal of Europe’s sanctions against Russia. Its position was noted in the Council meeting’s minutes but failed to produce any result.  And the situation certainly has not gotten any better since then. The famous Minsk II agreement (on Ukraine) is a dead letter, while even the illusion of an understanding with Moscow over Syria has aborted spectacularly with the recent air strikes on Aleppo and their tragic cost in terms of loss of human life.

Given such circumstances, it is hardly realistic to expect any rapid change in the mood with Russia, particularly in this phase of uncertainty associated with the US election campaign. Italy rightly considers that it has no options other than those that it is currently pursuing:  defending its own national interest in dialogue with Moscow, while at the same time participating in common (EU and NATO) decisions concerning Russia’s containment on the East European front. This, because unilaterally opting out would have more wide-ranging “systemic” costs for Italy on both the political and economic levels, and those costs would be higher than the cost of sanctions. We are freer to make our calculations today than we were in the past, but I do not get the impression that the result is much different.

Second: Where European security is concerned, Russia today is not a partner but an adversary. The opportunity to forge a pan-European order based on cooperation with Moscow was wasted by both sides at the end of the 20th century.  Today it is too late.  For countries such as Poland or the Baltic states, post-Soviet (yet still imperial) Russia remains a threat. For Putin’s Russia, annexing Crimea and intervening in Ukraine is still the legitimate defense of one of its own, traditional areas of influence. It is over this grey area – our so-called “near-abroad” neighborhood that separates and connects the two continental masses – that the geopolitical rift between Europe and Russia is taking place.

The most likely medium-term scenario is that the conflict will remain frozen. It is certainly not a replay of the Cold War, but the fact of the matter is that having an “adversarial” relationship with Moscow over the European theater makes it impossible to establish a new security order.  Naturally, Russia continues to be a potential partner in the struggle against the ISIL, but that demands that we manage to “separate” the various aspects of our relationship with Moscow and it requires genuine agreement over Syria’s future. Yet as I pointed out above, the Aleppo tragedy fuels serious doubts in that respect.

Third: On the ideological level, Russia at this juncture is posing as a rival under the umbrella of an illiberal democracy or (to use Vladislav Surkov’s old definition) of its own “sovereign” democracy based on tight domestic control coupled with projection abroad into the spaces freed up by the United States’ partial redeployment. Putin’s neopatriotic and neorevanchist Russia – which considers the United States to be a superpower in decline and the EU to be a power that never was – is successfully wielding a certain amount of international appeal, even in the Western world, from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump. As an antidote to that appeal we have but to consider that this Russia, so stable on the domestic front and on the rise in the international arena, actually conceals areas of deep-seated fragility. Putin’s personal designs do not necessarily coincide with the strategic interests of a country that needs to diversify and to modernize its economy. That was the sweeping project on which cooperation between the EU and Russia was (theoretically) supposed to be built.  But there is little left of that project, while tension on the oil markets is having a far tougher impact on Russia than sanctions.

All of this means that Russia today is a complicated and difficult customer – especially for a divided Europe. Finding a new balance is not going to be easy, among other reasons because the playing field has become broader. It is no mere coincidence that Putin is now cultivating not only his relations with another illiberal democracy on our borders – Erdogan’s Turkey – but also a “Eurasian” blueprint based on economic and security ties with the new eastern powers, from Iran to China. The true substance of Russia’s Eurasian scheme has yet to be ascertained.

But if we add to it the United States’ fears regarding the post-Brexit era – in other words, the fear that continental Europe may gravitate in its turn toward Eurasia, thus marking its distance from its Atlantic tie – the game involving Europe is a global game. And Italy, together with the countries of Europe, has everything to gain from playing that game rather than just passively enduring it. Asking ourselves these questions and seeking common answers to them is one way to get started.