There are few reason to expect EU-Russian relations to change dramatically in 2020. The reciprocal bitter views are entrenched on both sides and constitute the new normality. The EU’s occasional statements that no return to the ‘business as usual’ is possible until Russia changes its policies (in particular, in Ukraine) are countered by Russian representatives’ saying that Moscow does not want any ‘business as usual’. Brussels expects the relations to return to the previous pattern and associates it with internal transformations in Russia. Moscow for its part looks for a fundamental overhaul of the relations, believing that turbulence of the international order transforms everything. These respective assumptions cause the EU and Russia to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, with occasional ‘selective engagement’ (in the EU’s jargon) or ‘pragmatic cooperation’ (as Russia prefers to call it). Twelve issues determine today whether ‘selective engagement’ / ‘pragmatic cooperation’ will be practiced or whether EU-Russian relations will continue to deteriorate.
The US will remain for Russia the most critical counterpart in the West because security concerns remains most fundamental for Russia. They are primarily linked to the gradual erosion of arms control (expiration of the INF treaty, unclear future of the START, deficit of confidence-building measures) and a new spiral of arms’ race. Washington remains the key interlocutor in this field, whereas no similar culture emerged in EU-Russian relations. EU ambitions in the field of security and defence remain modest. President Macron’s plans of closer (security) cooperation between the EU and Russia are praised in Moscow but hardly look credible to it in the absence of the wide EU support. Moreover, implicitly they challenge Russia’s equality because they assign the role of a junior (to the EU) partner to Moscow while teaching it on its interests. Secondly, the example of Iran nuclear deal clearly demonstrates that no deal survives in the absence of the US support. Finally, the US remain decisive in shaping Russia’s economic relations with the West, irrespective of the EU being Russia’s biggest trade partner. Sanctions initially were shaped by the two but Washington did not hesitate to further toughen them, challenging some EU interests. US secondary sanctions will also deter EU companies from dealing with Russia, even if the EU decides to use restrictive measures in a more flexible way (for example in line with Steinmeiere formula). Hence the US severely limit the EU in using trade and economic relations strategically. US-Russian relations are unlikely to critically change this year. Upcoming US presidential elections will constrain Washington with Russia remaining the most toxic topic and being already accused of 2020 electoral interference. This constellation also prevents any major development in EU-Russian relations.
China will be another increasingly important structural issue in EU-Russian relations. On the one hand, the EU experiences a growing US pressure to support its restrictive trade and industrial policy on China, especially in the field of telecommunication. In the meantime, no EU-wide consensus emerged on how to deal with this big trade and economic partner. President Macron also cited China as a less preferred partner for Russia when elaborating its plans for a new security cooperation. On the other hand, Russia has comprehensive relations with China, they cooperate on various international issues, trade extensively (Beijing is the biggest trade partner for Russia and a strategic market for its oil and natural gas). Yet Moscow is likely to turn at some near future to the EU to counterbalance a growing Chinese influence that causes some concern. Finally, any return to arms control will require Chinese participation. In sum, China will bring some new dynamic and facets to EU-Russian relations, although in a much indirect fashion compared to the US.
The Middle East will also be a potentially divisive structural problem for EU-Russian relations. The tension related to the Idlib region has recently aggravated between Russia and Turkey. As a result and due to insufficient money transfer from Brussels, Turkish President Erdogan stopped blocking illegal migration to the EU. The EU became, therefore, a hostage to the Middle East conflict while the memories of the 2015 influx are still vivid. These developments will force the EU to take a clearer position on the humanitarian crisis in Idlib, which might result in the heightened criticism of Russia. The EU’s recognition of Russia’s currently strong (in political and military terms) position in the regions will remain of key importance to Moscow. It might come at the price of Russia’s respect for the EU’s (migration) vulnerabilities. Crafting a solution that will satisfy the interests of the EU, Russia, Syria, Turkey, and some other players will prove difficult. Yet, inevitable cooperation on the Middle East will make EU-Russian political interaction denser and hence will contribute to their further mutual socialization. Talks on Libya as well as Iranian dossier already demonstrated that the EU and Russia can work towards a shared goal (although the implementation of the Berlin talks on Lybia remains to be observed). Whether this experience will be replicated in Syria remains one of the key 2020 questions.
Conceptual and identity discussions will frame both direct and indirect contacts between the EU and Russia. The discussions on westlessness at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) repeated Moscow’s well-known conclusions about the lack of self-reflection in the West following the end of the Cold War and about the weakening of the West. Yet, Russian participants to this discussion are mostly side-lined; security concerns of non-Western players (including Russia) are hardly taken into account, which provokes their discontent. However, the EU continues to unilaterally promote new concepts, like that of ‘rules-based’ order and multilateralism. For the EU it is a new way (in addition to resilience) to reaffirm its own position in defining and defending the values. Yet for Moscow it is another unilateral effort to bring changes to international law, and to undermine the equality of international actors, in particular, the position of Moscow. These debates, that will continue in 2020, will be important for the future of EU-Russian relations both in terms of the content that defines their identity and in the degree to which they will be dialogues rather than monologues of the deaf.
Debates on history will remain an important stumbling block in EU-Russian relations. The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the World War II. In other circumstances it could be a reason to harnessing the difficulties and launching a visionary project. Yet the year 2019 witnessed the intensification of memory wars on both sides, and they are bound to accelerate in 2020. The goals of the EU and Russia are diametrically different. Russia looks to cement a key pillar of today’s Russian state identity (the sacrifice of the Soviet (Russian) people but also their invincibility and the Soviet Union being the liberator of Europe). Any attempt to look at the dark side of the war is marginalized and branded as non-patriotic. Many in the EU (in particular in new member states), on the other hand, demand self-reflection (in line with the experience of Western Europe), in particular the recognition of Soviet atrocities, committed before, during or after the World War II. The 2019 European Parliament resolution sent a powerful signal of it. This discussion will go through its five stages of grief at its speed. Various commemorative events have already proved difficult; there are dim prospects that this will change for the better in 2020. In particular, the attendance of the 9th May celebrations in Moscow will lead to fierce internal and bilateral debates. Moscow’s plans for peace talks among five permanent UN Security Council will in these circumstances be symbolic at best, including for EU-Russian relations.
Progress on Ukraine will remain crucial for any reset of EU-Russian relations but highly unlikely this year. The conventional wisdom holds it that Russia links resolution of Ukrainian conflict to the review of the security arrangements in Europe whereas the EU looks at it as a step to any discussion on security in Europe. Yet both seem ready to advance some partial resolution as the costs of the conflict are piling up, and every new day of conflict postpones even further its resolution. However, for Russia the implementation of the Normandy December 2019 summit’s decisions remains a precondition for any further discussion. Yet only prisoners’ exchange has happened; the ceasefire is respected partially while the withdrawal of forces and the establishment of a clear demarcation zone have never started. Fierce debates on the modalities of the implementation of any decision limit severely President Zelensky internally. Ukraine’s disproportional reaction to the ‘Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Region’ is the most recent illustration of the deep ‘patriotic vs. predating’ division in Ukraine. In these conditions the realization of the Steinmeier formula is well beyond what is acceptable for present Ukrainian leadership. The EU can hardly influence it. Hence, EU-Russian relationship will remain a hostage to it.
The effect of sanctions on the EU and Russia will remain limited but negative. Russian economy managed to stabilize in 2016-2017, following the increase in oil prices. Yet, sanctions decrease Russian economic growth by at least 0,2%. Limits on the access to capital and technological transfers from the West, although partly offset by China, could reduce Russian GDP by 9% in the long term. Russian consumers have mostly adopted to changes, yet the quality of some products depreciated and additional costs were incurred (for example, import substitution in agriculture costs every citizen 3000 RUR annually). The EU has lost about 0,2% of the GDP as a result of Russian restrictive measures in 2014-2018, the effect is unevenly distributed among member-states. The EU’s export to Russia decreased from 2013 to 2018 by €34,1 bln, whereas import fell by €38,7 bln. These figures illustrate EU-Russian gradual economic disengagement, which will continue in 2020.
EU-Russian economic disengagement will be accelerate by economic policies. EU sanctions limited Russia’s access to international financial resources and Western technologies. Russia’s countersanctions and import substitution limit the market for some EU goods while the positions of stake holders, interested in the continuation of sanctions become more entrenched with every year of sanctions. A new spiral of arms race lead to further militarisation of the Russian economy. On the EU’s side the biggest disengagement factor is energy. Concerns about Russia lead to the diversification of gas supply, in particular through LNG. The Green Deal, although well-intended in itself, is marketed as a way to ease the EU’s dependence on Russia. Much will depend on how the Green Deal will be shaped in 2020 and whether Russia will have a role to play (in particular through the so-called blue hydrogen). These developments mean a gradual disappearance of the safety net in the form of economic relations that has long stabilized EU (EC)-Russian (Soviet) relations. The choice that will have to be made is whether to transfer economic relations to a new gear on the basis of energy transition or to move EU-Russian relations mostly to the domain of politics and security. And the 2020 will be highly significant in this respect.
Common threats will not lead to much EU-Russian cooperation. Threats that the EU and Russia share rangie from terrorism, violent extremism and illegal migration through cyber challenges (including electoral manipulations) and artificial intelligence abuse to climate change. Yet mutual suspicions and deep mistrust prevail over the need to pull forces together to counter these threats effectively. Moreover, Russia is frequently portrayed as a source of some of these problems (cyber threats or influx of illegal migrants to the EU). In these circumstances any cooperation seems ill-fit; zero-sum calculations prevail. Only an unexpected and tragic accident can change this dynamic in 2020.
Social interaction will poorly contribute to the relations. EU-Russian transgovernmental contacts will remain limited because most dialogues are suspended and only take place on an ad hoc basis. Sanctions will continue to constrain economic cooperation. Civil society contacts remain limited due to the sceptical attitude of Russia, travel limitations for some Russians (due to their jobs), costs and remaining visa barriers. That leads to limited socialization, thinning of transnational contacts, which will be preserved in 2020. In these circumstances grassroots on both sides will remain easy targets of the opinion manipulation. In the EU positive views of Russia at present range from 12% (Swedes) to 72%( Bulgarians) with the EU’s average being around 30%. Yet opinion polls witness that among the Russians the positive attitude to the EU has grown from 32% in January 2018 to 49% in January 2020. It illustrates that anti-Western stances cede their position to more mundane demands of economic growth and social protection.
Internal debates about the power transfer will dominate in Russia distracting it from EU-Russian relations. Constitutional changes have been in the limelight in Russia since the start of 2020. Suggested social provisions respond to the growing social discontent. Provisions strengthening the State Duma, Federation Council and the State Council and correction of presidential terms are meant to shape the system before a new president is elected in Russia. These changes can also create a legal possibility for Putin to run for presidency again twice (as the constitution is renewed). These changes can also be viewed as an imitation of activity to respond to the societal demand for change. Whatever it is, Russia will concentrate on internal political changes this year and in the consequent years to ensure a smooth transition in 2024 (or before), and to address the growing (yet passive) demand for changes and mounting societal discontent. This process will be complicated by the poor economic growth and mounting social problems, which national projects have so far failed to address. In this context any developments in EU-Russian relations will stall.
Internal problems will also constrain the EU externally in 2020 (including in developing relations with Russia). Although the new European Commission announced plans to be more geopolitical, these declarations have seen modest implementation at the EU’s eastern border. Negotiations with the UK on new relations, multiannual financial planning, and the growth of populism (including the criticism of the European Union) will be particularly resource-consuming. The looming new migrant crisis following Turkey’s abrogation of its agreement with the EU will exacerbate the EU’s internal problems. The Russian card can be negatively played in this context. The conventional argument is that Russia would like to profit from the EU’s internal division has to be taken with the grain of salt, however. This attitude of Russia is due to the fact that the EU is mainly united around the negative for Russia thesis whereas positive experiences are rarely europeanised. Yet, internal divisions, and difficulties will limit the EU’s ability to work externally, including in the relations with Russia, in 2020.
To conclude, the prospects for EU-Russian relations in 2020 are relatively dim. This year will hardly be a game-changer unless some tragic black swan event will drive Moscow and Brussels closer to each other. The leeway for Brussels and Moscow is limited at present as twelve issues above demonstrated but some further deterioration of the relations cannot be excluded. What the EU and Russia will make out of these twelve issues will also shape the environment for any future change. The timing of the latter is defined at present by internal changes in Russia and by turbulence of the international system as a whole; this timing is geared to 2024. The really worrying aspect in this context is that the relative weight and importance of bilateral EU-Russian relations decreases, both politically and economically. And the 2020 can hardly make much difference to it.
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