A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Phantom Menace


If Russia and the EU seem to be talking past each other, it may be 
because they are not having the same conversation: Moscow fundamentally misunderstands Brussels in a number of crucial ways.


© REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool

Everyone knows that Russia’s leadership never makes mistakes – at least, it never recognizes having made mistakes, especially when it comes to foreign policy. The country’s current foreign policy is usually presented to domestic and foreign audiences alike in an explicitly deterministic way, the only possible reaction to multiple independent variables: “We did it because we were forced to do it. …They left us with no other option. …Under the circumstances, the only way to protect our interests was…” This is not just hypocrisy intended to avoid any serious criticism of the country’s international behavior. To some extent, such thinking can be attributed to a deeply rooted Russian tradition of fatalism. It also reflects decay within the foreign policy discourse in modern Russia, where alternative foreign policy strategies are not openly discussed and the border between scholarly analysis and state propaganda often becomes invisible.

So when mistakes are made, who is to blame? There are no convincing reasons to doubt the quality of the Russian diplomatic apparatus: The Russian diplomatic school is one of the most professional, experienced, and sophisticated in the world. If Russian foreign policy does make mistakes, these are not caused by a lack of professionalism, experience, or attention. They are more rooted in perceptions, interpretations, and conceptual frameworks. In other words, Russia more often commits errors which are intentional than makes mistakes which are not. The fundamental flaw in Russian foreign policy is not how it copes with external reality, but rather how it defines it. There are seven phantoms haunting Russian thinking – misunderstandings of signals received, rather than completely fabricated hallucinations – and while these phantoms are not the only reason Russia’s plan for a Greater Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok never took hold, they contributed to its failure.

“We are entitled to special status.”

Successful people have a sense of gratitude, while unsuccessful people have a sense of entitlement. The same might be applied to nations, or rather to national political establishments. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russiaʼs leadership has always claimed a special status in its relations with the European Union compared to leaders of other post-Communist states. The Kremlin frequently makes reference to evidence of Russian exceptionalism: the size of the country, its geographical extension, its standing as a nuclear superpower, its permanent membership in the UN Security Council, etc. The basic idea of a new political geometry in Europe, which Moscow insisted on, rested on the assumption of an East-West convergence rather than an absorption of the East by the West. In other words, Russia was willing to turn more “European” provided that Europe would become more “Russian”; Moscow and Brussels were expected to make reciprocal concessions and compromises in the most important areas of their cooperation – like security, energy, visa regimes, agriculture, and transportation. This is why, for instance, Russia chose not to participate in the European Union’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in the early 2000s: It wanted to be an “equal partner” of the EU, not part of the “junior partnership” that Russia understood the ENP to be. Consequently, Russia and the European Union agreed to create a “Four Common Spaces” initiative for cooperation in different spheres.

The assumption that Russia could be an “equal partner” with the European Union turned out to be one of these phantoms. In practice, from an EU standpoint, there should have been no substantial differences between its relations with Russia and its ENP Action Plans with other external partners. In both cases, the final agreement was to be based on provisions from the EU acquis communautaire, and would necessitate unilateral adjustments to EU regulations from the external partner in question. This approach did not match the Moscow’s perception of “equality” and was particularly disappointing in the energy field, where Russia had expected a more friendly policy thanks to its position as the EU’s main oil and gas supplier.

“If we build it, they will come.”

A top-down approach has always been typical of Russian foreign policy, a fact clearly visible in Russia’s tactical priorities in its relations with the European Union. The Kremlin has focused its attention on “big things” like summit meetings, official visits, high-level consultations between bureaucracies in Moscow and Brussels, and general political declarations. Over the last twenty years, the European Union had arguably more formal contact with Russia than with any other partner, including the United States, China, and Turkey. The assumption, evidently, was that the political momentum generated at high levels would naturally transform into specific accomplishments at lower levels. Summit diplomacy was supposed to serve as a locomotive pulling a long chain of railway carriages.

However, it turned out that the top-down approach had its own limitations. The EU-Russia summit meetings, which took place twice a year, became less and less productive over time. The so-called cooperation “roadmaps” could not qualify as real roadmaps with specific implementation schedules, monitoring mechanisms, evaluation procedures, etc.; they were in large part nothing more than nicely worded statements of intent. Moscow failed to infiltrate EU institutions with its experts, observers, advisers, and fellows. Units and departments within Russian governmental institutions dealing with the European Union were hopelessly understaffed, underfunded, and in desperate need of expert support.

In sum, the Kremlin never managed to attach a chain of railway carriages to the political locomotive, and all the cheerful bells and whistles from the locomotive cab remained nothing but bells and whistles. When in 2014 the locomotive was abruptly derailed, there were no passengers to demand the train resume movement.

“It’s the economy, stupid!”

Most of the Russian public officials and bureaucrats who ran European Union policy since the early 1990s had received the standard Soviet university education. In other words, they were explicit or implicit Marxists/Neo-Marxists with a profound belief in the primacy of economic factors in international relations. They evidently believed that the sheer dynamics of economic cooperation, the impressive amount of EU-Russia trade, the scale of mutual investments, and the thousands of European companies localizing their production in Russia would serve as a reliable insurance policy against any crises in the relationship caused by political problems or conflicts.

Powerful constituencies of economic stakeholders were expected to have the upper hand in European political struggles concerning Russia. Rising levels of economic interdependence allowed Moscow to ignore mounting political problems with Brussels – these problems were perceived as negligible or, at least, affordable compared to fundamental reciprocal economic interests.

The Ukrainian crisis and the subsequent EU sanctions against Russia proved this perception wrong. Of course, Moscow interpreted the European decision to utilize sanctions as the result of US pressure, but the Russians had expected EU countries to resist.

The sanctions were not the only time European economic interests took a backseat to political considerations. In a less dramatic way, persistent EU efforts to reduce energy dependence on Russia demonstrate the same logic. Brussels has supported multiple alternatives to Russian gas, though most of these alternatives have been highly questionable economically. Lenin’s famous remark that “the capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with” should be understood metaphorically, not literally.

“Some EU members are more equal.”

The Russian political tradition emphasizes hierarchy, an emphasis carried over to Russian foreign policy. Confronted with a structure as complex, ambiguous, and complicated as the European Union, decision makers in Moscow tried to identify the most accessible entry points using their previous experience and their understanding of the European hierarchy. From the Russian perspective, it was only natural to focus attention and energy on key players, traditional partners from the “old Europe” – Germany, Italy, and France. The assumption was that these countries should become Russia’s lobbyists within EU, using their powers to line up other member states, including those very critical of Russia. In a way, these traditional partners helped build this perception – for many years they tried to “nationalize” their relationships with Russia, while at the same time dumping all the difficult issues on Brussels.

In any case, the expectation that “old Europe “, and Germany in particular, would solve all of Russia’s problems with the European Union gave Moscow a plausible pretext not to engage in a serious way in managing the negative Soviet legacy in Russia’s relations with Central European and Baltic states. Moscow preferred to talk to the “old Europe” over its closest Western neighbors.

Unlike Germany after World War II, post-Cold War Russia did not consider the creation of a belt of friendly partners out of smaller neighboring countries a top foreign policy priority. German leaders had a sense of guilt for the crimes of the Nazi regime, and they were ready to go the extra mile to accommodate neighboring nations, which had been victims of the regime. Russian leaders, on the contrary, believed that they had dismantled the Communist system of their own free will, and therefore deserved appreciation and gratitude from the Central European and Baltic states. When it turned out that the old anti-Soviet sentiments in these states could easily transform into new anti-Russian sentiments, Moscow started regarding these countries not as potential foreign policy assets, but as clear liabilities.

As a result, most of post-communist Europe became a wall between Russia and the EU rather than a bridge connecting the two – a significant negative factor complicating the overall relationship. Especially after the Caucasian crisis of 2008, these countries have been the most active in shaping EU strategy toward Russia, and their impact on the decisions made in Brussels has been, as a rule, detrimental to Russia’s interests. To be fair to Moscow, it did try to initiate a Russian-Polish “reset” to change the momentum, but for a variety of reasons cooperation with Warsaw ran out of steam long before the Ukrainian crisis, buried the nascent initiative.

“EU leaders are like us.”

The values through which we filter our experiences are often entirely unique; however, we tend to project our own values, principles, expectations, and concerns onto other people, expecting them to see the world the way we do. In dealing with the European Union, Russian leaders often made this mistake, leading to frustration and disappointment.

For example, as champions of the realpolitik approach to foreign policy, Kremlin strategists expected EU leaders to see the world the same way; clear manifestations of European foreign policy liberalism were routinely ridiculed as phony rhetoric or pure hypocrisy. In the West, there is a wealth of literature on the KGB career of Vladimir Putin and how this career influenced his world outlook, but very few experts in Moscow know that Angela Merkel is a former Lutheran ministerʼs daughter and a devoted member of the German-Lutheran Church. Even fewer analysts would argue that religious beliefs have an impact on Merkel’s political decisions.

Russians like long-term strategies and comprehensive plans, though they usually have no patience to properly implement these strategies and plans. Projecting their practices and thinking onto the European Union, strategists in the Kremlin always suspected the EU of long-term strategies, sophisticated plans, and even sinister conspiracies against Russia, which in reality the EU could never design and agree upon, let alone implement consistently.

The complexities and ambiguities of the EU decision-making process were perceived in Moscow not as an inherent feature of European political culture, but as a clear manifestation of the lack of commitment and consistency. At the same time, this typical European feature was often interpreted as a sign of weakness and decline; in Moscow, policymakers drew parallels between the EU and the former Soviet Union. It was also very hard for Russia’s politicians to believe that the EU was not controlling the activities of numerous European NGOs operating in Russia and neighboring countries. European civil society was perceived not as an independent or autonomous actor, but rather as yet another convenient foreign policy tool in the hands of Brussels bureaucrats.

The same approach was applied to the European media, which was assumed to be as tightly controlled by respective European governments as the Russian mainstream media is controlled by the Kremlin. This inclination to ignore fundamental differences in how Russian and European leaders see the world was a source of many misunderstandings and complications that could otherwise have been avoided.

“Cherry-picking should do the trick.”

Since Peter the Great, Russia has demonstrated a highly selective approach to the European experience in various fields. For more than three centuries, Russian rulers from the Romanov dynasty to the Politburo tried to borrow necessary technology from Europe, taking expertise and managerial models without importing European social and political practices. This approach produced mixed results: the Russian modernization trajectory had its historic highs and lows and was constantly criticized from both liberal and conservative sides; but in most cases it reflected an attempt on the part of the authorities to maintain a delicate balance between urgent economic needs and a commitment to the political and social status quo.

This approach was used by the post-Soviet Russian leadership, especially after the string of “color revolutions” in the Russian neighborhood, which were associated with Western social and political influence. The Russian interpretation of the Partnership for Modernization, concluded with the EU in June 2010, is a perfect illustration of such cherry-picking. From the EU’s standpoint, this partnership was to comprise not only technological and economic components, but also judicial reforms, support for civil society, and human rights in Russia. The Russian interpretation was much more restrictive, focusing on harmonization of technical regulations, standardization, facilitating Russia’s access to advanced European technologies, etc.

The problem with this approach is that at every subsequent stage of Russia’s development it becomes more and more difficult to build a firewall between the economic/technological and social/political dimensions of modernization. What was a relatively easy task for Peter the Great in the early 18th century became a real problem for Alexander III at the end of the 19th century, and it appears to be an impossible mission for Russian leaders in the early 21st century. The fact is that cherry-picking does not work in a post-modern world. Modernization these days is prix fixe, not à la carte.

Cherry-picking could work – up to a point – in China, since China is still in many ways a developing nation, but not in the post-modern Russia. Even if the European Union had accepted the very restrictive and technical Russian definition of the Partnership for Modernization (something that the European Union could not do due to its very nature), any systematic and successful implementation of the Partnership would eventually generate formidable challenges to maintaining the social and political status quo in Russia.

“Europe is not the only game in town.”

One of the most remarkable recent features of Russian policy is the so-called “pivot to Asia.” It started before the Ukrainian crisis, but the crisis became a powerful catalyst for shifting Russian international priorities from West to East. There are a number of reasons Russia has pursued this course. First, in the 21st century, Asia appears to be much more dynamic and promising economically than Europe. Future Russian markets, sources of funding, and modern technologies should be sought in the East, not in the West. Second, Asian countries – from China and ASEAN members to India and Iran – are not in the business of promoting “color revolutions” or human rights in Russian or its neighborhood. Even if these countries are not too happy with Russia’s policies toward Ukraine, they are unlikely to follow the West in imposing economic, financial, or other sanctions on Moscow.

Third, centralized authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes are more efficient and reliable as partners than cumbersome and over-complicated EU bureaucracies. Xi Jinping can deliver where Jean-Claude Juncker will be drowned in delays caused by the need reconcile multiple national, political, institutional, and other interests. Moscow’s frustrating experience in dealing with the red tape in Brussels is a powerful incentive to look for potential alternatives.

These arguments make a lot of sense. However, in my opinion, they are outweighed by far more powerful counterarguments. Let me limit myself to three. First, despite all the setbacks and mutual disappointments, cooperation with EU countries remains unique for Russia – not only in terms of the overall scale of trade, but also in terms of the quality of the relationship. The extensive legal base of cooperation, the visible role of SMEs, the degree of production localization in Russia by EU companies, the size of the Russian and Russian-speaking communities in Europe, the number of Russians with degrees from European universities – nothing like this exists between Russia and Asia, and nothing is likely to emerge anytime soon.

Second, for a variety of reasons, Europe is – or at least should be – much more interested in Russia’s modernization than Asia. While the latter is looking mostly for Russian natural resources and military technology, the former would benefit a great deal from unleashing the now dormant creative potential of the Russian nation, from a renaissance of Russiaʼs R&D capacities, from a vibrant Russian civil society, and from a flourishing Russian culture that rightfully belongs to Europe as an integral part of European culture. Third, and most important, Europe is indeed no longer the only game in town – but the whole town does play by its rules. In Asia, Russia will confront the same limitations it has been confronting in Europe. Most of these limitations are domestic, not external – poor governance and omnipotent bureaucracy, rampant corruption and the absence of an independent judiciary, fossil energy dependency, and few incentives for innovation. Without addressing these fundamental problems in a serious way, any shifts of geographical priorities will produce only very modest positive results for the country.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – July/August 2016 issue.