Today, Russia and Europe are further apart than they were at the end of the Cold War. For the Euro-American grouping, Russia’s heavy-handed internal and foreign policies are unacceptable, while Moscow believes the broad West, led by the US, is trying to weaken it. Both sides have been minimizing all political and humanitarian links with each other, with economic co-dependency serving as the main factor that still pushes the two sides towards a compromise.
Angela Merkel’s departure from the German chancellor’s post will make the EU leadership more diluted. In this new scenario, it will be easier to sow discord with the Kremlin. Both sides will continue to argue over the old and new challenges that have been poisoning the relationship. These include the most souring questions of Ukraine, Belarus and the fate of political opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
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If the post-Merkel Europe turns out to be more dysfunctional in the absence of a strong leader, and with smaller European states growing increasingly wary of the lack of direction, the Kremlin will be tempted to exploit Europe’s weakness further. It will pursue its internal and external interests with greater aggression and enthusiasm. No tangible reversal of these trends is possible without a genuine change of leadership in the Kremlin.
Following the brief period of post-Soviet democratization, Russia entered a prolonged cycle of reaction. Despite its ambitions, supported by Vladimir Putin during his first tenure in the early 2000s, Russia failed to integrate with the EU – in fact, even to selectively cooperate with it, despite some efforts. Since the early days of his reign, Putin felt compelled to consolidate power by removing the oligarchs from politics and by circumventing – if not crushing – freedom of speech. Putin’s Russia could no longer follow even a gradual path of selective integration with Europe.
For a while, Russia and the European Union still benefited from the positive inertia accumulated during the 1990s. They discussed various forms of mutual engagement, such as the “Common Spaces” format that envisaged visa-travel and an open and integrated market with the OSCE and the Council of Europe acting as the central avenues for cooperation.
However, as Putin went further in limiting political and other forms of competition within Russia, the areas for engagement kept shrinking. With his decision to stay in power in 2011, and with Russia’s move to annex Crimea in 2014, the rift between Moscow and Brussels busted wide open. Since then, Russia and Europe abandoned all integration plans, and their relationship became strictly transactional.
Thanks to the good personal ties between Putin and Merkel and the overall special relationship between Moscow and Berlin (particularly in the energy sector), a vestige of the post-Cold War era, the two sides were still able to keep their growing mutual animosity within bounds. They exchanged sanctions, but Russia’s relationship with Europe has been much more pragmatic than its interaction with the United States, which turned essentially hysterical since Donald J. Trump’s election to the White House. Both sides still depended on each other, even though the volume of mutual trade has decreased sharply since 2014.
Today, with Merkel’s departure and with Joe Biden’s ambition to repair the damage inflicted by Trump on the Trans-Atlantic partnership, it will be easier for Russia and the EU to drift further apart, despite important elements of interdependence such as the activation of Nord Stream 2 (which Biden’s lenient approach has facilitated). Over the past two years, the two sides have accumulated additional points of contention.
One is the situation in Belarus with Putin being the main protector and patron of the blatantly totalitarian regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko. Putin is unwilling to give up the brutal Belarusian leader, fearing that it will create an unwelcome precedent and enjoying the fact Lukashenko now has no one else to turn to and thus can be easily manipulated. Europe, in turn, must react to Lukashenko’s egregious human rights violations and various hoaxes, such as the crisis with middle eastern migrants he created on Belarus’s borders with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
The fate of Aleksei Navalny represents another long-term challenge for Russia and Europe. The attempt at his life turned the tide in the special Russian relationship with Germany. Navalny was treated in the Charite hospital in Berlin. Merkel visited Navalny there, sending a clear signal that she regards Navalny as a serious political actor. German military scientists confirmed that a nerve agent was used in an attempt to take his life. Navalny’s fate has become a symbol and a crucial test of the entire attitude of the Kremlin toward basic civil rights and potential political change.
These two issues complement the already existing problems, such as the crisis in Ukraine. While it has been largely frozen for over five years now, achieving any progress is unlikely. The Ukrainian leadership and society are not happy with the status quo. The Kremlin can escalate if it feels the need for a legitimacy boost at home. Europe can do little more than watch, but in the case of an escalation, the Russia-EU ties would be further strained, and NATO would inevitably have to take a stand.
Such a prospect could be even more attractive to the Kremlin in a situation in which Europe will no longer be led – albeit through a very collective form of leadership – by such a strong and trusted stateswoman as Merkel. With divisions within the union becoming wider, Russia, as a very effective power broker willing to use hybrid methods of warfare, can be enticed to exploit them. Sectarian divisions Russia has practiced the skill of playing off European states against each other many times already.
Europe is dependent on Russia too. While many states opposed the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Germany still managed to push the project toward completion. The Kremlin is perfectly aware of its bargaining chips, as it has showed since the beginning of the ongoing energy price spike.
During Russia’s post-Soviet chaos, Putin offered strong resolute leadership and stability, something that some Europeans are in favor of too. The fact that Putin’s stability is based on Russia’s abundant natural resources and that the regime he built is kleptocratic is often dismissed. However, the fact that Putin can wield his power effectively and quickly has allowed him to punch above Russia’s weight.
Since the Soviet collapse, Europe has greatly exaggerated its value in the eyes of the Kremlin’s leadership. The truth is that Putin is concerned only about his security and the preservation of his power. While Russia and Europe are dependent on each other, rifts between them will only become wider, and new ones can emerge too.