Andrew Wood
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Russia and the European Union are compelled by a web of mutual interests to work together, but find it difficult to do so. The key problems in this relationship are:

  • The EU is committed under the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to work with Russia on the basis of, among other things, democratic principles, human rights, and the market economy. Russia has been moving away from these ideas.
  • The EU's instincts and traditions are founded on the idea of negotiation and compromise among partners. This is not Moscow's way.
  • Russia finds it hard to take the EU seriously when it comes to the harsher politics of interstate relations. The range of views among EU countries about what is happening in Russia and how best to deal with it is wide, and most member states act accordingly. Bilateral relationships therefore take precedence over Russia-EU dealings. And Russia is better than the EU at deciding what it wants.

It was inevitable that the EU should decide soon after Russian action in Georgia in autumn 2008, to resume negotiations on a new PCA. Russia was not abashed by their initial suspension from negotiations and was well placed to argue, insofar as they had to, that it did enough in the end to fulfil their undertakings to the EU after the military campaign against Georgia. All EU member states can agree that we must be 'hard headed' about negotiations but opinions will differ as to what this will mean.

It is a fair bet that the EU will again opt for ways to encourage Russia to behave better (meaning more like EU countries) and that once agreement is reached the Russians will pick and choose as they always have done. The test cases will be Russian implementation of WTO provisions and the treatment of their neighbours, including within that framework. One has to wonder if the EU would now be seeking to negotiate a new PCA in advance of Russia joining the WTO if it did not feel that its previous rhetoric obliged it to do so.

There have been two important developments since the EU-Russia Summit last November: Moscow's quarrel with Kiev over gas and Russia's deepening economic crisis. It would be reasonable, but wrong, to suppose that Russia's economic difficulties (which have cruelly exposed the country's dependence on high prices for energy and other raw materials as well as its need for foreign capital) would have disposed the Russian authorities towards moderation. The quarrel with Ukraine has instead been pursued with venom, giving weight to the supposition that Russia's real aim is the subjection of its neighbour. The interests of EU countries in ensuring reliable energy supplies have been treated as expendable. The sheer gall of Moscow's allegation that Ukraine should be held to account for its breach, as the Russians would have it, of its obligations under the Energy Charter should have beggared belief. The Russians have no intention after all of honouring their existing obligations under that Charter, let alone confirming them by ratifying their signature of it.

'Solidarity' and 'security' are rightly recurrent motifs in EU documents. The acronym NATO is notable for its absence. That is in part no doubt because not all members of the EU are also members of the Alliance, and partly because N A T O are four letters Moscow has done its best to make dirty. But for countries, including EU countries, that rightly or wrongly feel themselves exposed to pressure from Moscow, membership or prospective membership of the Alliance is a tangible sign of solidarity and security. The EU cannot deal only with 'soft' security. NATO cannot simply be ignored.

The EU proposal for an Eastern Partnership (EaP) is intended to balance the renewal of talks with Moscow within the context of a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in pursuit of a deepened relationship. The Foreign Office rightly attaches importance to the EaP initiative. The European Commission has said that it should be 'pursued in parallel with the EU's strategic partnership with Russia'. The risk is that having both cakes and eating them too, will be impossible if Moscow's ambition is to build up what President Medvedev has called Russia's zone of privileged interest. There are also risks in including so many eggs in this basket and in failing to establish priorities among them.

The key point is that Russia and the EU are, as noted, compelled by a web of mutual interests to work together. That is the strength of their relationship, and a cause for good courage in looking at it realistically. The EU needs to see its relationship with Moscow in the context of the well-being of the whole of Europe, including the countries of the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, the EU needs to work towards a common understanding of where those countries, and Russia, may be heading, and develop a common energy strategy, or at least some common understanding of what might underpin such a strategy.

The risk is that in approaching these issues from the ground of wide principle we will find ourselves dealing with generalities, not the hard graft of detailed work. Meanwhile, Moscow is able to do what it does so well, and so understandably, which is select individual issues of concrete interest, and pursue them to set the EU's agenda.