Some of Europe’s leaders have recently talked big about improving relations with Russia. Success is unlikely to follow, as the tensions between the West and Russia have deep-rooted causes that cannot be expected to be resolved any time soon.
The EU should not give signals suggesting that it is gradually coming to terms with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and activities undermining the democratic systems of the West, or that these activities are beneficial.
In particular, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has spoken about a new start in relations with Russia. His statements reflect France’s historical attitude to Russia, which Paris is used to seeing as a European power and a potential partner. Over the centuries, Russia has alternated between an ally and adversary of France. In his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, the British historian Tony Judt describes how de Gaulle, driven by his distrust of Great Britain and the US, attempted a partnership with the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Stalin, however, did not share de Gaulle’s illusions and was not interested in supporting France’s unrealistic endeavours to strengthen its position with the help of the Soviet Union.
Macron’s new move towards Russia is part of his efforts to strengthen Europe’s strategic autonomy and position in relations between the great powers. The need to improve relations with Russia has been justified in Europe with problems in transatlantic relations and the new challenges stemming from the rise of China. Macron seems to envisage a partnership between the EU and Russia to be a counterweight to both the US and China. Such an idea is as unrealistic as a partnership with the Soviet Union was in 1945.
France does not like to mention the fact that the US contribution to Europe’s security is indispensable, especially for its deterrent effect with respect to Russia. Defence cooperation within the EU is making serious progress, but the EU still has neither the ability nor the political will to take responsibility for the territorial defence of its member states. This is a task for NATO and the member states themselves. President Trump has created unprecedented uncertainty over the continued willingness of the US to take responsibility for NATO and Europe’s security, but this uncertainty does not reduce the importance of the transatlantic alliance for Europe.
Relations between the EU countries and Russia are seriously aggravated by the differences in their political systems. Russia is an authoritarian state whose heavy-handed methods of suppressing civil society and the opposition have been sharply criticised, including by Macron. Western democracy is a serious threat to Russia’s current system, which is why the Kremlin is making efforts to weaken the effectiveness and legitimacy of the democratic systems of European states and the US, interfering in elections and supporting extremist political forces. The Russian and Chinese leaders have a common interest in protecting themselves against democratic values and in breaking the unity of the West. Thus, from the Russian viewpoint, the EU cannot offer an alternative to a partnership with China.
What’s most dangerous is that Macron has expressed his desire to agree with Russia on a new security architecture for Europe. Differences of opinion over this are the main source of tension between the West and Russia. France has not said what it would be willing to change in the current European security order. The points that Russia is discontent with are well known: the Kremlin cannot accept the idea that each European country may select its own direction of security policy, and wants recognition for its privileged position with regard to states that it considers its “near abroad”. On the positive side, France is not known to have changed its position on these issues or concerning the Ukraine conflict and the ensuing sanctions against Russia.
European politicians calling for better relations with Russia often recall the several conflicts in the EU’s vicinity that cannot be resolved without Russia’s participation. They are right; however, the EU and Russia have different interests in these conflicts, especially the hot and frozen ones in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood that the Kremlin is interested in maintaining. The EU or the West yielding to Russia’s expectations would not lead the latter to redefine its geopolitical goals; rather, it would encourage the Kremlin to use more forceful means to achieve them.
The EU should base its policy towards Russia on a realistic understanding of how Russia defines its strategic interests and to what extent these go against the interests of Russia’s neighbours and Western countries. Tensions between the EU and Russia are unavoidable in the current situation; the best the EU can do is manage and control them. An improvement in relations requires changes in Russia’s behaviour. As long as there are none, any talk about a new beginning in the relationship are just beautiful illusions, destined to shatter as soon as they collide with reality.
This article was originally published in the Finnish newspaper Kaleva.