September 7, 2021

EU–Russia Relations 30 Years After the Collapse of the Soviet Union: The Art of Managing Tensions

EU-Russia relations: push back-constrain-engage. European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell speaks during a news conference on EU-Russia relations at the European Commission headquarters, in Brussels, in June 2021.
EU-Russia relations: push back-constrain-engage. European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell speaks during a news conference on EU-Russia relations at the European Commission headquarters, in Brussels, in June 2021.
EU-Russia relations: push back-constrain-engage. European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell speaks during a news conference on EU-Russia relations at the European Commission headquarters, in Brussels, in June 2021.

The European Union developed a strongly idealist foreign policy in the post-Cold War international environment where liberal values and a rules-based order seemed to be the only path ahead. It is now struggling to adjust to a world where rivalry and antagonism are a normal part of international affairs. The fundamental disagreements between the EU and Russia over democratic values and European security are most likely to persist during Russia’s current regime, possibly beyond. A unified, clear-eyed EU approach to Russia could make an important contribution to keeping tensions under control.

Thirty years ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a complete reshaping of Central and Eastern Europe, with the EU playing an important role in the transformation. Today, much of the former Eastern bloc is integrated with the EU or moving in that direction. However, Russia has abandoned (for the time being) any ideas it may have had about finding its way to integrate with Europe and is determined to operate as a major and autonomous power in its own right, obsessed with a global great power status and privileged role in its neighbourhood. The current Russian leadership is scornful of European values, as embodied by the EU, and wishes to revise the European security order, rooted in the OSCE. In the foreseeable future, EU–Russia relations are framed by profound disagreements about democracy and European security.

In their own ways, both the EU and Russia have turned to a defensive mode. The EU’s post-Cold War agenda for a “wider Europe” was bold and transformative, focused on supporting the transition of former Communist countries to democracies and market economies. The model of liberal democracy had no serious challengers and seemed to spread almost in an organic manner; the EU’s role was to make the process smoother and faster. Yet in a number of countries, including Russia, the democratisation process never reached very far and was soon replaced by a contrary trend towards authoritarianism, in Russia’s case already in the 2000s. Looking at Russia, Turkey, some of the EU’s smaller neighbours and even some countries that joined the Union with a ‘big bang’ in the 2000s, it has turned out that the EU’s transformative power is not that great after all. Countries democratise or fail to do so primarily due to their own efforts and domestic conditions, while external actors such as the EU can play at best a secondary role.

Protect Values

Today, liberal democracy does face serious challenges both outside and inside the EU. Democracy promotion has been largely replaced with democracy protection. This has a number of important implications for the EU’s relations with Russia. First, the expectation that Russia would democratise has been replaced with a sober recognition that this is not happening and the EU has no magic formula to make it happen. The EU should not be seen as responsible for the authoritarian turn that Russia has taken. Russian society might want to turn to democracy sometime in the future, but the change has to come from inside.

Having said that, secondly, the violent suppression of opposition and the continuous human rights violations by the Russian regime must have a clear and consistent influence on the EU’s approach to Russia. There can be no close and friendly relations with such a neighbour; the difference in political systems creates a sharp wedge. While recognising its limited impact, not least for the sake of its own integrity, the EU has to condemn repression and continue to support civil society actors and pro-democracy forces in Russia. Democratic values are a founding component of the EU’s identity, including its foreign policy identity, that cannot be abandoned. Compromises in regard to values may be sometimes unavoidable, but they are bound to weaken the EU’s credibility and legitimacy.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the EU and its member states – the latter carrying primary responsibility – need to do more to protect their own values inside the Union. The best defence is to improve the internal cohesion of our societies and make sure our democratic systems are viable and effective. Furthermore, democracy needs to be protected against malign interference by external actors through means such as disinformation, corruption and cyber attacks.

While the EU has turned to democracy protection, the Russian regime sees the possible spread of democracy as an existential threat. Its defensive measures include hardening repression of any domestic dissent, but also active efforts to weaken democratic systems abroad and cast them in bad light as inefficient, weak and hypocritical. This is happening in the broader global context where contestation of values and rivalry between different types of political systems have made a strong comeback into international relations. In their latest debate on Russia, EU heads of state rightly stressed “the need for a firm and coordinated response by the EU and its Member States to any further malign, illegal and disruptive activity by Russia”.

Connections as Vulnerability

The EU is also defensive in regard to the European security norms established in the OSCE framework, while Russia has over many years expressed its desire to revise the European security order. The hotspot of tensions is obviously Ukraine, with Russia aggressively seeking to keep the country in its sphere of influence and denying Ukraine’s right to define its own interests and even its own identity. For the EU, consisting of many small member states, the right of each country to choose its orientation is of fundamental importance.

Furthermore, the EU is a unique international – partly supranational – structure where the small states have a relatively strong influence and common institutions and norms constrain the power of the big countries. This is an anathema to Russia whose world view is centred on major powers and their superior role in international relations. From Russia’s perspective, the self-determination of smaller states must have limits that are defined by major powers. The latter are almost by law of nature entitled to a privileged role in their sphere of influence – which Russia is fiercely defending. A balance between major powers, each controlling their adjacent areas, is central to Russia’s vision of stability which was implemented most extensively and violently by the Soviet Union after the Yalta agreement of 1945 – which Putin’s Russia would like to revive. The relative stability that was thereby reached during the Cold War era, with the aspirations of many smaller countries forcefully silenced, proved untenable.

From the EU’s perspective, support for democratic reforms and economic integration have been the main instruments to strengthen security in Central and Eastern Europe. This approach is rooted in the history of the European project after WWII. Consolidation of democracy and creation of complex economic interdependencies across Europe has been the EU’s method to build peace and stability. However, today’s Russia sees these processes as undermining, not strengthening its security.

In an effort to defend its regime, its great power status and its sphere of influence, Russia has become increasingly inward-looking and self-isolating. Cooperation with the West does not even belong in the vocabulary of the latest Russian security strategy launched in July 2021. In an increasingly interconnected world, Russia sees connections as a source of vulnerability and seeks to reduce its dependencies on outsiders to the minimum. The EU’s offer of economic integration is not attractive to Russia, and economic modernisation is not a priority for the current regime.

Prepare for the Unexpected

The EU–Russia cleavage is deepened by the global environment where Russia sees new opportunities – though also risks and threats – emerging with a transition towards a multipolar international order. The relative weakening of the West and decline of US hegemony are most sharply expressed in the US–China rivalry, leaving Russia and Europe with a secondary role. Russia does not see the EU as an autonomous player in these developments. This view is at least partly justified: while the EU is making efforts to strengthen its capacity to act on the global scale, the US continues to play an indispensable role in European security. Furthermore, democracy protection is a shared challenge of the EU and the US that binds them together. Amidst the tightening competition between democratic and authoritarian systems, Russia has largely turned its back on Europe and is placing increasing emphasis on its partnership with China.

All of this means that the space for EU–Russia cooperation has become narrow, although not inexistent. Shared interests are not easy to identify, and more difficult to operationalise, even in the most likely areas of cooperation such as the Arctic, climate change or non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. The main task for both sides should be to manage tensions and maintain contacts that help to avoid unwanted escalation. The EU has the capacity to do much more, together with the US, to push back Russia’s destabilising actions and violations of international law.

Thirty years have passed since the latest rupture in Russia’s relations with Europe. Russia remains partly European, too big and too different to be integrated, but its history and future are still tied to the old continent in spite of the changing global constellation of forces. The EU should be prepared to live with and manage the current confrontation for years to come. Yet at some juncture in the future, another turning point will come, a radical change that will set the relationship on a new trajectory. We cannot predict its timing or direction, but it is crucial for Russia’s European neighbours to maintain their knowledge of and contacts with Russia in order to prepare for the unexpected.


This article was originally published in “Vahva EU”, EVA Raportti 1/2021, Finnish Business and Policy Forum (in Finnish).

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).