Russia-EU relations: Holding out the Olive Branch

Russia-EU relations: Holding out the Olive Branch

It’s not about Eurasia versus Europe. The EU should be the one to offer an olive branch and help to ensure that some worrying trends in Russia lose their drive. Read more…

A failure to sign the Association Agreement, lingering political cronyism, and a recalcitrant political elite unwilling to compromise over human rights: the EU and Ukraine have allowed history to repeat itself.

December 2011’s disappointing lack of agreement between the EU and its eastern partner was repeated only months ago. Ukraine, which has become a sort of stage for Brussels’ and Moscow’s differing world visions, has thus far proved that neither vision is wholly practical or desirable for the government.

Eurasia versus Europe

The problem is that both the EU and Russia frame their world views as part of a wider historical narrative which categorizes the other as an adversary, as opposed to a partner. Government officials take this view even further – Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt tweeted the following: Eurasia versus Europe in streets of Kiev tonight. Repression versus reform. Power versus people.

As politically expedient as it may be, to dichotomize Russia and the EU by using such terms is not only ignorant, but serves to drift away from any understanding and closer to the kind of east-west divide which split Europe for so long. And therein lies the misunderstanding.

Different histories

The fall of communism was a watershed moment in European history and defines the way in which the EU sees itself in the world. The EU brings with it prospects of unification, development, progress, and prosperity. It predominantly sees its expansion in the same idealistic terms as the citizens who are braving freezing conditions in Kiev see their futures. The EU sees itself as the natural terminus of its neighbors’ journeys to self-realization.

Russia’s view of recent history is a less optimistic one; while Europe’s was marked by hope, unification and progress, Russia’s was blighted by disintegration, humiliation, and loss of prestige. Russia’s recent history has not been one of linear progression, but rather a perception that a creeping tidal wave of hostile forces is on its borders and seeking to deliver a coup de grâce to Russia’s influence in the world.

Russia may be more cooperative

EU expansion is either a panacea or an anathema, and Russia its opposite, depending on one’s viewpoint. This is reflected in the recent toppling of Kiev’s most prominent Lenin statue. For those who pulled it down, it was a symbolic gesture – the Soviet Union is no more. It may be tempting, as many- including John McCain, who traveled to Kiev to address a crowd- see the whole situation as one long epilogue of the fall of communism. The gulf of misunderstanding widens as these versions of history become more prescient for understanding the contemporary.

Such ways of seeing the world need to be tempered by a healthy dose of pragmatism to avoid legitimising one’s own fantasies, whether they be fears of encirclement or kitschy idealism. By recognizing Russia’s security concerns and incorporating them into dialogues, a zero-sum understanding of EU expansion need not be perpetuated. In turn Russia may be more cooperative if its main fear is addressed. In the case of Ukraine, the EU has repeatedly failed to make the most of opportunities for further integration, choosing instead to demand political prerequisites such as the release of Yulia Timoshenko.

The EU lost Ukraine

Principled action and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive; it is good to be principled, although not to the detriment of a one’s understanding, lest the EU’s demands be seen as haughty, irrelevant or hypocritical by those it wishes to convince. The EU lost Ukraine because it failed to deliver on the prescient economic realities which were troubling Ukrainian authorities, partly because it failed to appreciate these realities and partly because it believed its own narrative that Ukraine would be faced with a sort of Hobson’s choice between the Association Agreement (optimistic) and regression (pessimistic) to which Carl Bildt alluded.

The EU has shown a similar tendency with Russia. By repeatedly condemning Russia over human rights, the EU has reinforced its own self-identity as a force for progress, and Russia has reinforced its own fear that it’s the victim of an international witch-hunt. This sort of conspiratorial discourse finds itself occupying a legitimate place in Russian politics where in most European states it would be marginalized, ridiculed even.

Leaving behind orthodox paradigms

The EU has a stronger long-term outlook and is in a more realistic position to make moves which would allay Russian fears and allow for the fruition of more constructive- and effective- dialogue. Russia has limited potential to truly re-establish influence- the economic, political, and demographic balance of power lies with the EU- and as a result its foreign policy is by and large defensive, aimed at preventing and restricting encirclement of its ‘near abroad.’

The EU should also recognize that the growth of ethno-religious nationalism, rejection of liberal values, and the adoption of regressive laws are worrying trends in contemporary Russia, but more importantly trends which have all been exacerbated by a prevailing discourse of fear and encirclement in which all world powers play a part in reinforcing.

By leaving behind orthodox paradigms, which hinder rather than help to engage constructively with Russia, the EU should be the one to offer an olive branch and to help ensure that these worrying trends in Russia lose their discursive legitimacy, and that in turn their relations with other states cease to be zero-sum affairs.

Adam Lenton

Adam Lenton studies Russian, international relations and Japanese at the University of Exeter in the UK. He regularly contributes to the UK based think tank Future Foreign Policy

This article is part of our series on Russia-EU relations and was also published by the debate magazine “The European”. Read  [further contributions] to this issue in the Russia & CIS section.