Not Much Light at the End of the Tunnel
On 7 May 2018, Russia entered the fourth and probably final presidency of Vladimir Putin. This was preceded by a further increase in tension and mistrust between Russia and the West as a result of the Skripal affair and yet another chemical attack in Syria. In this context, the European Union reconfirmed its policy on Russia, centred on five principles: the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, which is a precondition for the lifting of sanctions; strengthening relations with the EU’s Eastern Partners; strengthening the EU’s resilience; selective engagement with Russia; and fostering people-to-people contacts.
This report analyses the ramifications of and short-to-medium-term prospects for relations between the EU and Russia. It is structured around three main arguments. First, the views of the EU and Russia on the international and European security order are largely incompatible, which constitutes a difficult framework for the relationship. Second, these disagreements are on display in the conflict in and over Ukraine, where both the EU and Russia remain committed to the Minsk Agreement but pursue their own interpretation of it. And third, economic ties between Europe and Russia will remain significant in the foreseeable future, but this is no panacea for improving the relationship.
Foreign-policy experts on both sides broadly share the view that a rapid normalisation of relations is unlikely. Ukraine remains a key obstacle where no quick progress is to be expected. Moreover, the Skripal case revived doubts over whether Russia is really interested in normalising relations with the West; most probably it lacks a domestic consensus on the importance and viability of such a goal.
Hence, the report argues that this is not the time for major new initiatives from the EU side. Its priority should be to maintain both its own coherence and pressure on Russia, emphasising that a change of policy is needed on the Russian side as a precondition for improved relations, including the prospects for Russia to benefit from the restoration of full economic ties. Maintaining a consistent approach on security issues, aimed at defending the European security order in the face of Russia’s actions against Ukraine as well as against EU member states, should continue to be at the core of EU policy.