Russia no longer sees its future as being with Europe – but its departure may not have the results it expects.
Leaving aside a few brief moments in the Russian policy discourse of the 1990s, post-Soviet Russia has always thought of the country’s role as being with Europe, but not of Europe. Dating from the times of the Helsinki process, which led to the founding of the OSCE, a favoured metaphor in Soviet and Russian thinking was the inclusive notion of a “common European house” from Lisbon to Vladivostok. This space of sovereign states would include Russia as the largest among them – and the United States would be left on the margins or outside.
That chapter is closing now, as the Russian leadership abandons its own idea of inclusiveness. German Chancellor Angela Merkel used the term at the Davos World Economic Forum this year, but Moscow gave no answer to her invitation to return to the wider European discourse.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has never really wanted to be of Europe, because the continent is now defined in political terms by the European Union and its rationale, norms, and processes.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has never really wanted to be of Europe, because the continent is now defined in political terms by the European Union and its rationale, norms, and processes. As former Warsaw Pact countries and the previously Soviet Baltic republics have turned to the West, the EU has expanded East and now shares borders with Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. With the Ukraine war, Putin’s Russia also seems to have stopped wanting to be with Europe, because it feels its claim to remain a first-rate power has been disrespected, and that the absence of a show of force allowed its interests to be overlooked.
In effect, Russia has become the Anti-Europe, organised by geopolitical reasoning and bound by military power, and it seeks just one thing from the West: respect borne out of fear for the harm it could do. This Russia sees itself as entirely different from the EU in social and political norms, in its notion of a powerful and sovereign state, and in its view of its national identity and mission.
Moscow’s quest for status is focused on Washington. In Vladimir Putin’s world, Europe is second-class, troublesome but acquiescent.
Now, Moscow’s quest for status is focused on Washington. In Vladimir Putin’s world, Europe is second-class, troublesome but acquiescent. That some in Washington also look at Europe this way may help to reinforce his belief. However, the EU is something different: Europeans might have misread the geopolitical significance of its Eastern Partnership scheme in the eyes of the neo-Russians in the Kremlin, but they were not naïve about the transformative impact that could be effected by seemingly technical trade and association agreements. Obviously, Putin fears European soft power, since it is a force to which he has no response. Russia’s lack of attraction is one of its most serious weak spots. Its leverage rests on its state-controlled extracting industries and its military. The ideology of integration has become a new nationalism, which has as its core mission the resurrection of the Russian space.
Putin fears European soft power, since it is a force to which he has no response.
On Ukraine, EU leaders have chosen not to follow Putin’s shift from soft power to hard power. In political terms, their sanctions do not have as much effect on Putin’s Russia as they would have on a Russia that was seeking cooperation and trying to build a modern and competitive economy. To Moscow, Europe’s insistence on negotiations to end the fighting in Ukraine makes it look weak – indeed, it has allowed Russia to prevail in its attempt to neutralise Ukraine and prevent its departure to the West.
The EU is not pursuing an expansionist strategy and it will not wrest the country from Russia’s grip, but neither will it close the door on Ukraine or on any of its neighbours – not even on Russia. In the end, Putin will find that creating integration on Russian terms will have problematic implications. But for now, the consequences for those in Ukraine who would like to see their country integrated into EU and NATO are tragic. Russia may very well stop the process by way of militant separatism, and moreover, Ukraine’s economy, governance, and democracy are too weak to allow it to join the West.
Meanwhile, in its own house on the other side of the Kremlin’s dividing line, the EU will need to consolidate economic and social prosperity for all people under its roof, including the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians who must not be left marginalised and alienated in their home countries. To achieve this, Europe will need to integrate still further; it should rethink defence integration and instate more robust processes so that it can maintain a coherent foreign policy position. Ironically, Vladimir Putin could thus become an external federator of Europe – while his attempt to unite Eurasia could show up the real diversity of the actors within what he imagines as being the Russian space.
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.