It's always good to know what Russia thinks of you, especially when it may have a point.

This piece is part of Nicu Popescu's EUobserver blog.  

I started this blog a few months ago with a post entitled "Is the EU a mistake of history?" where I argued that many, if not most, EU-watchers and policy makers in Russia think the EU is a temporary phenomenon after which Europe will return to power-politics among nations-states and ‘Concert of Europe'-style diplomacy.

It is always useful to know what others think of the EU. Here is one more opinion from Russia:

The European Union (EU) is growing weaker as an actor in foreign politics. The EU common foreign and security policy is still at its infancy because of the diverging interests of the European Union member states, and their reluctance to increase defense spending and shoulder responsibility for keeping up international peace and security. For this reason, the EU cannot be viewed as significant player in the world's political and especially military-political arena.

This is from a new paper on Russia's Interests in Relations with the US from the very influential, respected and mainstream Russian Council on Foreign and Defence Policy (SVOP), co-authored by Sergei Karaganov, Dmitri Suslov and Timofei Bordachev. The paper mainly concerns the US, but provides a glimpse on how Russian elites see the EU and the eastern neighbourhood:

"Evolution of the post-Soviet space, which is Russia's main foreign policy priority. Russia is interested in reintegrating of this space. It wants the majority of CIS countries to take part in the Russia-oriented security system (CSTO), and its integration project (EurAsEC). It is also interested in a leading role in the CIS countries' energy complex."

"Russia's vital interests include preserving a de facto predominant influence in the territory from Belarus to the Caucasus..."

Russia's ‘declinistic' views of the EU are certainly exaggerated. For example, Andrew Moravcsik gives a rather upbeat story of EU's performance in times of crisis: ‘Today, it's clear that the crisis has renewed European solidarity and seriousness of purpose. Europe is stronger than ever... The leading nations of Europe did not lose their nerve, and they did not work only to protect themselves, as many pundits predicted. Instead, they rushed to save their neighbors.' But none of Moravcik's claims refer to foreign policy.

Interestingly, back in 2005 a group of the 23 most prominent Russian experts on the EU, lead by the same Karaganov and Bordachev who wrote the above report, had an entirely different view of the EU. In a 'situation analysis‘of EU-Russia relations published in January 2005 they argued:

The EU is a viable project... it will widen and deepen. The EU acquis, norms and political culture will be increasingly influential in adjacent territories and in the long-term on all the western post-Soviet states. This changes the context of almost all the issues facing Russian domestic and foreign policies...'

('Russia should look for allies among EU member states as well as EU institutions, and create ‘coalitions of the willing' to further EU decisions which are favourable to Russia.')

Most experts (80%) agreed than in the long run (15-20 years) Russia could raise the question of joining the EU... Such a possibility would arise... because of the cultural and geopolitical realities. It will be difficult for Russia to develop and even survive in the current and future international context. The south is increasingly unstable, and a close union with China is impossible for a number of reasons. A majority, if not all the western and south-western former Soviet countries are joining or will join the Euro-Atlantic zone and the sphere of attraction of the EU...'

So why is there such a change in how the same Russian experts see the EU in 2009? The price of oil played a role in boosting Russian self-confidence, and of course constitutional failures played a role. But more important were two other factors. First, is an almost chronically lack of EU unity on Russia on way too many crucially important issues. Second is a rather sclerotic neighbourhood policy where EU member states are quite reluctant to practice what they preach in terms of contributing to conflict-resolution, promoting visa-liberalisation or support for democracy.

The problem is not only whether EU foreign policy in the Eastern neighbourhood is effective or not per se. EU policies in the region are very effective in the economic sphere - trade balances with all of the Eastern neighbours (except oil-exporting Azerbaijan), are hugely in favour of the EU, and the neighbour's economic interdependence with the EU is growing by the year (see page 38 of the recent ECFR report on the Eastern neighbourhood). Now, the EU is a bigger trading partner than Russia for all the Eastern neighbours (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia), except Belarus. But EU's economic achievements have yet to turn into political relevance.

The problem is that external perceptions of the EU determine the policies of external actors vis-à-vis the EU. Russia's perception of an ‘EU in decline' defines Russia's dismissive views and assertive policies vis-à-vis the EU.

Such a perception is not just Russian arrogance. The EU itself has the foreign policy psychology (and instincts) of a small power. And Russia has the psychology of a great, even rising power. The result is a crisis-prone relationship between Russia and the EU. : A relationship in which Russia constantly has the propensity and the incentives to test EU's limits. Thus, EU's perceived irrelevance creates problems for EU's partnerships in the region - with Russia and the Eastern neighbourhood countries.

In tough international environments, reputation is a foreign policy resource in itself. And the EU's external reputation as a meager foreign policy actor is a serious problem. The EU's current mixture of self-congratulating views on the success of the ‘European model' and half-hearted political investment in EU foreign policy is not enough to promote European interests and values.

Read more on: Wider Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.