The Future of EU-Russia Relations

One of the fundamental questions of our times is why European Union (EU) – Russian relations have deteriorated so badly and, as a corollary of that, can relations be improved, and if so, how. These issues will shape the future of our continent, and therefore require serious and balanced analysis. Unfortunately, too often answers are derived from entrenched ideological positions, and thus contribute to the impasse in relations. Equally, even after serious and balanced analysis, the conclusion could be drawn that there is ‘no exit’ from the deadlock, and Europe is fated to be divided yet again for an extended period of time.[1] This is the natural conclusion of the view that structural and systemic issues divide the two, and until there is a fundamental change in the international system or of the regime in Russia, no fundamental change is possible. However, those who believe that leaders and actors can change matters contest such a gloomy prognosis, and argue that in fact humans shape their own futures, although seldom in conditions of their own choosing. This paper will examine the various theories explaining the breakdown, and on that basis assess the possible futures of EU-Russian relations.

Causes of the breakdown

Some functional contacts remain, but the EU-Russian relationship today is fundamentally broken. This is undoubtedly a tragedy for Europe, with the continent once again divided. The situation today does not represent a simple reversion to the Cold War years, and today large numbers of social interactions (tourism, student exchanges, academic collaborations and business contacts) continue. However, some of the features of the Cold War have returned: a militarised frontier accompanied by hoarse propaganda campaigns from both sides. Each accuses the other of spreading disinformation, and of plotting to subvert their respective political orders. Trust is non-existent, and instead fear and suspicion of the intentions of the other predominate. So, how did Europe enter such an impasse? Here we will briefly suggest three fundamental reasons, beginning with the most abstract and then move towards the more empirical, assessing the validity of each as we proceed.

First, there is the view that there is an ontological gulf between the two sides. Russia and the EU view the world and the international system in profoundly different ways. On the one side, the EU is based on a post-national rule-based proceduralism, sometimes called a post-modern approach to international affairs. By contrast, Russia is still considered a classically modernist state, concerned with maximising power in a competitive system and governed by opportunism and Realpolitik. There is some truth in both assertions, but such a stark juxtaposition is misleading. Following the onset of open confrontation provoked by the Ukraine crisis in 2014 the EU talked about the ‘return of geopolitics’, and indeed the European Commission headed by Ursula van der Leyen in 2019 claimed that it would be ‘geopolitical’. In practice, the EU was always a power system, but had earlier been remarkably negligent about the power consequences of its own actions. On the other side, Russia in its present form is a new state (although drawing on a thousand years of history), and thus is jealous, and fearful, of its sovereignty and status. However, it also has certain ‘post-modern’ characteristics, and there is a large constituency within Russia, drawing on Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of a ‘common European home’, who see Russia’s destiny as part of a common European endeavour. Vladimir Putin himself came to power in 2000 as the most pro-European leader Russia has ever had, and he outlined his ambitions for a united Europe in his speech (in fluent German) to the Bundestag on 25 September 2001.[2] Later he moved towards more confrontational and socially conservative positions, but even today the idea of a ‘Greater Europe’ remains part of the lexicon of the Russian leadership. On this basis, we can suggest that there is no ontological gulf between the two sides.

The second approach is more historically based, and argues that the fundamental problem is the way that the end of the Cold War was managed, or more specifically, how it was mismanaged. At the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union and then Russia as the ‘continuer’ state sought a transformation of the European security. Instead, they were faced with the enlargement of the US-led Western system, accompanied by ideological formulations such as the ‘end of history’.[3] In practical terms, Russia was ultimately faced by the expansion of NATO and the EU. At first EU enlargement was regarded as a relatively benign outcome, and even NATO enlargement was acceptable, although certainly not welcomed. Putin in his early years even talked of Russian joining NATO, aware that enlargement (despite the pill being sweetened by such acts as the creation of the NATO-Russia Council) would keep Russia on the outside and create a security a security dilemma of the first order. Equally, with the accession to the EU of a number of former Soviet-bloc communist East European states bent on distancing themselves as far as possible from Moscow, and with recent memories of domination and repression, the EU itself underwent a change. The establishment of the Eastern Partnership in May 2009, while developmental in its aspirations, was obviously a geopolitical act of the first order, however much this may have been denied by the EU leadership. In short, Russia was faced by a consolidating and enlarging Atlantic power system, in which the EU and NATO appeared to advance as one.[4] This means that the security dilemma was now exacerbated by the normative dilemma. However progressive the values of the EU and benign its goals, the weakness of internal differentiation between the two wings of the Atlantic power system mean that increasingly the values of the EU were blunted by their immersion in the Atlantic system in which Brussels had relatively limited strategic autonomy. In other words, the failure to develop a sustained European continental alternative to Cold War Atlanticism returned Europe to a Cold War situation.

Defenders of Atlantic enlargement would point to the efforts made to ensure Russian inclusion, and they are right. However, as large as the fundamental logic was enlargement of an already constituted system, Russia’s inclusion would always be as guest rather than as a family member. This implied a permanent subaltern status. Constructivist approaches suggest that resistance to this was a question of identity as well as a choice. Former great powers such as France and the UK accepted (mostly) their loss of status in the 1950s, whereas the foundational identity of post-war Germany, for obvious reasons, is commitment to Atlanticism and European integration.  However, Russia insists that it was not a defeated power, and in fact was one of the instigators of the end of the Cold War, and remains the world’s leading nuclear power (along with the US), and with global and regional responsibilities. It is the failure to create an inclusive and equitable post-Cold War order, from Moscow’s perspective, that generated tension and ultimately conflict.[5]

This brings us to the third perspective, the view that Russia’s failure to undergo a consolidated democratic transition in the post-Cold War and its stubborn insistence on its great power status precipitated the breakdown. This is an important and serious argument. Managed elections, the weakness of the rule of law, and arbitrary state interventions in the economy and society run again the normative values of the EU, even if these values are at times instrumentalised in what some call ‘human rights imperialism’.[6] Moscow counters by arguing that the very survival of the country was at stake in the Chechen wars, and that even today state disintegration and the dissolution of the polity are real possibilities, hence the need for the current soft authoritarianism. Equally, from this perspective Russia did not intervene in Ukraine in 2014 because of some essentialist logic of aggression or expansionism, but as a response to what was perceived as the geopolitical challenge of what it argues was an Atlantic-supported ‘coup’ in Kiev that overthrew the legitimate authorities, imperilled the rights and identity of the Russophone population and then threatened the basing rights of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.

Both these positions are logical, but ultimately are not ‘rational’ in the substantive sense suggested by Max Weber. The problem of ‘competing rationalities’ has long been identified as a central factor provoking the deterioration in relations between Russia and the EU.[7] Weber’s distinction between formal and substantive rationality offers an escape from logical traps. Formal rationality refers to calculation determined by rules, regulations and laws to maximise profitability, and is often negligent of humanity. In substantive rationality the choice of means to ends is guided by a set of human values. It concerns paths instead of final ends, with the focus on the values that guide people in their daily lives. Substantive rationality is a manifestation of a person’s capacity for value-rational action, but it can also be applied to the logic of action of an institution, and even a country. In international relations theory, realism is very good at developing the logic of formal rationality in the behaviour of states (notably, the works of John Mearsheimer), whereas constructivism deals in neither logic nor rationality but emotions and constructed identities. Liberal internationalism deals well with normative and value issues in foreign policy, but ultimately fails to appreciate the question of power and identity. What this means for us is that the formal rationality (or logical thinking) may lead to a certain set of coherent and even convincing conclusions, but they lack elements of the human-centred goals to be found in substantive rationality. From our European perspective, these encompass issues such as peace and reconciliation.

The impasse and the future

It is on this basis that a possible exit may be found that could frame the future of EU-Russian relations. But for that to work, a way out of logical traps needs to be found, drawing on the human-centred norms of substantive rationality. There are some signs of this, drawing on the classic repertoire of diplomacy and ‘change through engagement’, but they face severe resistance by defenders of the renewed Cold War logic.

The ‘five principles’ outlined by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative  for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in March 2016 remain the basis for EU-Russia relations. These principles are: full implementation of the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015; closer ties with Russia’s former Soviet neighbours; strengthening the EU’s resilience to Russian threats; selective engagement with Russia on certain issues, such as counter-terrorism; and support for people-to-people contacts. The EU is not one of the formal participants of the Minsk process, but France and Germany are co-sponsors of the Normandy process on which the agreements are based. By making Minsk a cornerstone of relations between the EU and Russia, an almost insuperable obstacle has been placed on improvement. This is a recipe for deadlock and makes EU-Russian relations hostage not so much to Kiev as to the radicalised neo-nationalist movements that oppose a negotiated exit to what they insist is Russia’s ‘aggression’. The political subjectivity of the so-called people’s republics in the Donbass is denied. These five principles have imposed stasis in pan-European relations, with the Ukraine-related sanctions unanimously renewed every six months. New ideas about relations between Russia and the EU cannot be introduced as long as the system is locked into the rhetoric of the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

The third Mogherini principle, resilience, is defined as a way of managing and suppressing threats emanating from Moscow, and thus reinforces Russia’s position as the subaltern as well as the power system on which the relationship is based. Russia’s implicit recognition of its subordinate position is reflected in the much-repeated formula that sanctions were imposed by the EU, and therefore it is up to the EU to lift them. Any Russian formulation of alternatives to the existing pattern of relations is thereby rendered illegitimate. Diplomacy loses its ability to negotiate common platforms and positions and thus has become little more than ritual. Russia is not a signatory of the Minsk Accords, and this only reinforces its marginality, with the initiative firmly in Western hands, even though in structural terms Russia is a major player.

Relations between Russia and the EU have been remarkably stable since 2014, suggesting that bad relations are the default normal position. A weak and disjointed EU, beset by the grave economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, budgetary issues and the rise of populist insubordination in a number of member states, is hardly in a position to devise a new strategy beyond the five principles. The uncertain outcome of the 2020 US presidential election adds to the mix. If Donald Trump is re-elected, then the pressure for grand summitry and great power politics will be irresistible. If Joe Biden wins, then the Democrats, as the ‘anti-Russia’ party, means the reconsolidation of the Atlantic community, reducing even further the room for manoeuvre for initiatives. The situation in the Middle East is unclear, with the long legacy of the Syrian war driving yet another wedge between the EU and Russia. There will be a continued struggle for influence in post-Soviet Eurasia, despite some tentative steps towards organisational engagement between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union. The information war between Russia and the EU will intensify as various structures are created (such as Stratcom East) to wage the struggle. Despite president Volodymyr Zelesnky winning election in April 2019 on a peace platform, the road to ending the conflict is littered with minefields. The scope for energy cooperation is minimal, and although normal trade relations in this sphere continue, the idea of establishing an ‘energy union’ is long gone. The ‘grey rhino’ of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic did not unite the two sides in the struggle against a common enemy but only intensified distrust and accusation of disinformation.

The five principles are clear that there can be no return to ‘business as usual’, and they are right to do so. The previous pattern of relations had not averted the crisis in the first place, and the future of Russo-EU relations does not lie in the past. However, the block on a return to the past pattern of relations is accompanied by equally tough obstacles to a breakthrough to a new future. The three logics outlined earlier are all serious and substantive, but as long as they are viewed precisely through a logical prism, they offer only a deepening of entrenched antagonisms. Only new forms of substantive rationality offer an alternative future.

In this context, what are the possible alternatives? The first is pragmatic and transactional, yet governed by the norms of substantive rationality. This builds on Mogherini’s principles of selective engagement and people-to-people contacts. In August 2019, French president Emmanuel Macron insisted that it was time to bring Russia out of the cold, arguing that ‘We cannot rebuild Europe without rebuilding a connection with Russia’.[8] His comments were welcomed in Moscow, although tempered by a healthy dose of scepticism on his ability to deliver. Even in his speech Macron warned of ‘deep state’ forces that would oppose a rapprochement with Moscow. There is a social basis for such a rapprochement, however much opposed by dyed-in-the-wool Atlanticists. Surveys suggest that European public opinion is in favour of engagement with Russia.

The second option is based on what could be called a ‘second reset’, although more extensive than the first launched by President Barack Obama in 2009, which was largely limited to strategic arms issues. One of the leaders in this field is the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Vienna, which has come up with various ideas for revising the regional order. Their basic argument is that ‘Disputes over the regional order in post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia are at the core of the breakdown in relations between Russia and the West and have created major security and economic challenges for the states caught in between’, and they have come up with various ideas on how to address the issue.[9] Some of the EU member states are also increasingly in favour of a rest in relations. For example, the German energy minister Peter Altmeier called not only for greater economic cooperation but above all political engagement: ‘I would like a breakthrough in bilateral relations. Russia has undergone a huge transformation, in many areas it has become a modern country. We are ready and really want to continue and improve our economic relations. Russia is a necessary partner for Germany in our quest to solve the problems of the world’.[10] There are signs that some EU member states are becoming impatient with the stasis in Russo-EU relations and could strike out on their own.

The third option is the genuine return to great power politics, including elements of ‘superpower’ summitry in the forms of meetings between the leaders of Russia, the US and China. A modified version of this is the summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, scheduled to meet in New York at the time of the General Assembly in September 2020. Either way, the marginalisation of the EU would be confirmed. Paradoxically, EU-Russian relations could improve as a result of by-passing the EU. One item on the agenda would probably be some sort of deal over Ukraine. The EU has maintained an impressive degree of solidarity over the six-monthly renewal of sanctions on Russia, which has to be adopted unanimously, but the rationale let alone the efficacy of these sanctions have long become doubtful, as some of the EU leaders have pointedly noted. Critics have long argued that the almost masochistic single-mindedness with which the EU has maintained its united front against Russia has been short-sighted and contrary ultimately to its interests. At the same time, the US leadership in the form of Donald Trump has shown nothing but contempt for the EU and its interests, This was the case with the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) in May 2018, with the imposition of US sanctions against Nord Stream 2, despite Germany’s repeated protests, in December 2019, and Trump’s attempts in April 2018 to peel France away from the EU.[11]

The fourth option is the one advanced with increasing conviction by even moderate commentators in Russia – that EU-Russian relations in any substantive sense are no longer a priority for Moscow. Economic relations will continue, but any serious moves towards complex interdependence have been abandoned. At the extreme, this is the view that the EU is doomed to marginalisation, if not to outright collapse, but even more mainstream voices suggest that Russia no longer needs the EU as a partner. Years of sanctions have only confirmed the EU as a minor element of the Atlantic power system, while becoming increasingly irrelevant. Timofei Bordachev gives voice to this view, condemning policies in the 1990s and early 2000s that assumed that Russia would join Europe as a ‘junior partner’. He argues that ‘these hopes were a temporary delusion, since they would have caused irreparable harm to Russia’s national interests and threaten its statehood’. The EU and NATO had failed to support Moscow in its struggle against separatism and terrorism, ‘But when Russia was once again able to deliver on its military and political objectives on its own, all talk of building a “common European home” became irrelevant.[12] The major states – Russia, China and Turkey – operated according to what he saw as ‘the common rules of international politics, where the EU has very few resources, if any’.[13]


What is the most logical is not always the most rational. It is logical for the EU to defend its normative principles and to maintain its alliance with the US in the framework of the Atlantic power system, but at what point does this lose its substantive rationality and become formalistic. Equally, it is logical for Russia to be alienated from an expanding Atlantic power system and increasingly to denigrate what it perceives as the EU’s failure to advance a foreign policy of its own or to advance a continental vision of Europe. It may appear rational to shift attention to established and rising powers, notably the US as well as the new powers in the East, above all China. However, voices caution against ‘Ruxit’, a Russia without Europe, and this is why Russia returned to full membership of the Council of Europe when the door was opened in 2019. This is why Russia’s permanent envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, argues that Mogherini’s five guiding principles have become an obstacle preventing progress in relations.[14] Managing a difficult relations and preventing its deterioration appears to be the best policy at present.[15] No reset in EU-Russian relations appears in prospect, and there is very little ‘new political thinking’ in Europe or Russia that can change the intellectual climate. Until new ideas emerge and a new generation of leaders appears to render the structural and systemic features that currently shape the antagonism redundant, the impasse looks set to continue.

[1] Writing about the onset of war in 1914, Barbara Tuchman writes ‘The nations were caught in a trap … a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit’, The Guns of August (London, Penguin, 2014), p. 483.

[2] Vladimir Putin, ‘Speech in the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany’, 25 September 2001,

[3] Richard Sakwa, Russia against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[4] John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 5, September/October 2014, pp. 77-89.

[5] For a recent Russian examination on these issues, see Glenn Diesen and Alexander Lukin (eds), Russia in a Changing World (Singapore, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

[6] For a discussion, see Thomas Diez, ‘Normative Power as Hegemony’, Cooperation and Conflict, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2013, pp. 194-210.

[7] Derek Averre, ‘Competing Rationalities: Russia, The EU and the “Shared Neighbourhood”’, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 61, No. 19, (2009), pp. 1689-1713.

[8] Emmanuel Macron, ‘Ambassador’s Conference – Speech by M. Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic’, Paris, 27 August 2019, Video of the speech available on YouTube:

[9] FES Vienna, 27 February 2010, See also their publication A Consensus Proposal for a Revised Regional Order in Post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia, 9 October 2019,

[10] Anastasia Frank, ‘Vector of the European Political Agenda is Changing: Russia is Becoming a Necessary Partner’, The Duran, 19 February 2020,

[11] Andrew Grey, ‘Macron on Trump Suggestion to Leave the EU: “You Can Imagine my Response”’, Politico, 29 June 2018,

[12] Timofei Bordachev, ‘We Don’t Have Another Europe and We Don’t Have Another Russia’, Valdai Discussion Club, 4 January 2020,

[13] Timofei Bordachev, ‘Europe’s Latest Dilemma’, Valdai Club, 24 March 2020,

[14] ‘Kommersant: EU may Revise Strategy for Relations with Russia’, TASS, 10 January 2020,

[15] Dmitri Trenin, European Security: From Managing Adversity to a New Equilibrium (Moscow, Carnegie Moscow Centre, February 2018,