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Tatiana Romanova

Doctor in Political Studies, Associate Professor at European Studies Department, Saint Petersburg State University, Head of Jean Monnet Chair

In late August, 2017, Andrey Kortunov proposed a hybrid option of Russia–EU relations that would contain two components – an archaic internal combustion engine, represented by the model of bipolar confrontation, and a modern electric engine, in other words, cooperation on the issues where the interests of the parties coincide. The analysis that sets the stage for this proposal, namely the cancellation (or postponement) of the apocalypse of the liberal world order, stabilizing the European Union and the generally effective response to (right-wing) populism in Europe, is not a cause for discussion. However, the model of a hybrid engine is questionable.

First, hybrid engines involve a unified control centre of a complex system that consists of two (or more) parts. Such a centre would seem impossible in relations between Russia and the European Union/West.

Second, the existence of common threats does not guarantee that the two sides will cooperate or even agree on how to counteract these threats. The parties will forever suspect each other of deceit and underhand tactics as they seek to minimize the efforts or demonstrate the faulty calculations of the other side and once again prove their own actions right.

Third, the guaranteed stability of the bipolar system was the theory and practice of peaceful coexistence, which was propped up by the relative mutual isolation of the two blocs.

Is there an alternative to the hybrid engine model? It would seem that there is, and it is composed of two elements:

1. The acknowledgement that Russia is not issuing a challenge to the liberal world order. Russia is rather deeply integrated into this world order, particularly its economic components, and successfully uses many of its elements.

The reason why the West perceives Russia’s actions negatively is because Russia exploits the contradictions within the existing model rather than pushing an alternative one. The acknowledgement that Russia is part of the very same liberal world order – no matter how difficult it may be for the sides – opens up opportunities for negotiation and mutual compromise. This will require efforts from both Moscow and Brussels.

2. The implementation of the concept of resilience, based on two theses: 1) the recognition that risks and threats are an inescapable part of life, which means that we should not fight them, but rather develop mechanisms for functioning within the context of these risks; and 2) a reconsideration of the relationship between the state and society, delegating a portion of the responsibility to society and the individual, as well as the creation of new management techniques that make this kind of responsibility possible in practice.

The main resources in terms of resilience for Russia–EU relations are humanitarian and economic contacts.

How can Russia and the European Union support these resources and create the conditions for their development?

1. Improve the opportunities for direct dialogue among citizens, through real contact, rather than the somewhat compromised medium of electronic technologies. The liberalization of the visa regime would play a huge role in this.

2. A transparent legislative infrastructure should be created for all non-state contacts.

3. The sides should gradually lift sectoral sanctions.

In late August, 2017, Andrey Kortunov proposed a hybrid option of Russia–EU relations that would contain two components – an archaic internal combustion engine, represented by the model of bipolar confrontation, and a modern electric engine, in other words, cooperation on issues where the interests of the parties coincide. The analysis that sets the stage for this proposal, namely the cancellation (or postponement) of the apocalypse of the liberal world order, stabilizing the European Union and the generally effective response to (right-wing) populism in Europe, is not a cause for discussion. However, the model of a hybrid engine is questionable.

Problems with the Model of a Hybrid Engine for Russia–EU Relations

First, hybrid engines involve a unified control centre of a complex system that consists of two (or more) parts. The could be both a button that the driver can press to switch the axes from one engine to another and a device that can turn the necessary engine on automatically depending on the road atmospheric conditions. There is no such button in relations between Russia and the European Union/West, nor is there an automatic transition. The dynamics of these relations do not allow for any kind of automation to be put in place. And when it comes to hands-on governance, both Moscow and Brussels will want to have the last word.

Second, the existence of common threats does not guarantee that the two sides will cooperate or even agree on how to deal with them. Energy security is important to both Moscow and Brussels. But Russia is interested in selling its hydrocarbons in order to maximize the benefits. Meanwhile, the European Union, seeing Russia as an unreliable partner, is trying to diversify its supplies. The two parts of Nord Stream are merely fragments of the overall picture. The European Union is actively building liquefied natural gas terminals, analysing pipeline supplies from other sources, increasing energy efficiency and developing renewable energy sources. Cybersecurity is an indisputable task for both Moscow and Brussels. However, Russia is seen more as a threat to the stability of EU security networks than a partner in eliminating common challenges (as eloquently evidenced by EU documents and the rhetoric of EU politicians at various levels). Terrorism is an unquestionable threat for both sides; however, they see the sources of this threat very differently, and the measures they take to fight terrorism are often diametrically opposed to one another. As such, the spheres of intersecting interests are likely to turn into arenas for continued confrontation, rather than cooperation.

The spheres of intersecting interests are likely to turn into arenas for continued confrontation, rather than cooperation.

Given the absence of a single button or an automatic transition, switching effectively between the two engines of confrontation and cooperation in terms of the time and effort spent by the two sides is highly unlikely. The parties will forever suspect each other of deceit and underhand tactics as they seek to minimize the efforts or demonstrate the faulty calculations of the other side and once again prove their own actions correct.

Third, guaranteed stability of the bipolar system was the theory and practice of peaceful coexistence, which was propped up by the relative mutual isolation of the two blocs. Modern technologies and heightened suspicions of hybrid threats and propaganda have increased the uncertainty of the parties as to whether or not the other side really wants a peaceful coexistence. It is no secret that the most deeply rooted point of view in the West is that Russia poses a threat to the liberal world order, which it is trying to bring down with all its might. In this sense, the paradigmatic rhetoric of the West (particularly the United States) is similar to the rhetoric that can be heard in Russia about the lack of respect on the part of the West towards Russia, its clout on the global stage, its culture and chosen path.

These circumstances make the model of a hybrid engine in Russia–EU relations unrealistic.

An Alternative to the Hybrid Engine Model

Is there an alternative to the hybrid engine model? It would seem that there is, and it is composed of two elements. First, acknowledging that Russia is not challenging the liberal world order. Russia is rather deeply integrated into it, particularly in its economic components, and successfully uses many of its elements. It is not by chance that certain Russian experts resort to subterfuge, proposing to separate the liberal world order from the liberal world economic order. The current restrictive measures implemented by the West (in connection with Ukrainian crisis) take effect at the expense of Russia’s integration into this system. Moscow has not proposed a single alternative to this system.

In fact, Russia articulates only those contradictions that already exist in the liberal world order and are generally known to theoreticians and practitioners alike. The first contradiction is the dilemma of pluralism and universalism that has contributed to the transition from the promotion of liberal values to a neoliberal approach based on respect for the specifics and cultural aspects of various cultures and peoples. This confrontation of liberal value promotion and neoliberal caution causes discussions, but Russia’s position is simply a radical point on the continuum of universalism and pluralism. The second contradiction is connected with the first: the dilemma of interference in the internal affairs of another country in order to protect human rights and democratic norms and respect sovereignty. There is also a long-standing dispute within the framework of the liberal world order and an entire range of ideas of how to combine intervention and non-intervention. Finally, the third contradiction concerns the dispute with regard to the importance of the hegemon (the United States) on the one hand and democracy at the level of the world order – that is, with due account of the specifics and opinions of all states – on the other. This international definition of democracy has been sharply illustrated in Russia’s recent foreign policy concepts, but, again, it has articulated them within the existing liberal world order dispute. This is closely linked to the issue of double standards, much loved by Russian experts.

The reason why the West perceives Russia’s actions negatively is not because Russia is pushing an alternative model, but rather because it exploits the contradictions within the existing one. What is more, Moscow is prepared to defend its extreme stance on all three contradictions, even if it poses a threat to the world order. Russia is not content with its current status in the world order, and its past investments into this world order remain unchecked, creating opportunities for destructive steps.

The acknowledgement that Russia is part of the very same liberal world order – no matter how difficult it may be for the sides – opens up opportunities for negotiation and mutual compromise.

The acknowledgement that Russia is part of the very same liberal world order – no matter how difficult it may be for the sides – opens up opportunities for negotiation and mutual compromise. This will require efforts from both Moscow and Brussels. The West/European Union will need to adopt certain views towards Russia from the practical as well as the theoretical points of view. This is particularly important in terms of Russia’s place in the global system. Moscow in turn will need to go beyond its current role of user and critic of the system and become a player in the game, an entity that guarantees the stability of the system. The Ukrainian issue can only be resolved through this kind of mutual compromise on the part of Russia and the West/European Union.

The second element in improving Russia–EU relations is the implementation of the concept of resilience. Originating in the technical sciences and crossing over into the environment, this concept was strengthened by the Anglo-Saxon notions of security put forward in the early 21st century and is now spreading to cybersecurity, energy and many other aspects of everyday life. The concept of resilience is increasingly being adopted as a basis by various UN structures, as well as by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The European Union’s 2016 Global Strategy made this category central to its external activities. At the same time, the European Union is not developing specific aspects of the resilience concept. In this context, it is imperative that approaches to resilience in Russia–EU relations be defined – approaches that would meet the interests and views of both sides. Such approaches would also contribute to discussions about the role of Russia in the liberal world order and protect the fabric of Russia–EU relations from shocks connected to the clarification of various aspects.

Two theses form the foundation of the concept of resilience. The first is the recognition that risks and threats are an inevitable part of life, which means that we should not fight them, but rather develop mechanisms for functioning within the context of these risks. Resilience shifts the focus onto the primary social resources and the need to make these resources capable of anticipating and limiting risks and threats, as well as recovering from crises and returning to normal operations. The second thesis is a reconsideration of the relationship between the state and society, delegating a portion of the responsibility to society and the individual, as well as the creation of new management techniques that make this kind of responsibility possible in practice.

The Resources of Resilience in Russia–EU Relations

Perhaps the most important resource in Russia–EU relations is human contacts, which are made possible by geographical and cultural proximity. Some examples are tourism and cultural events, business and academic ties, joint environmental protection initiatives and the implementation of social projects. Accusations from both sides that the other party is engaging in propaganda and hybrid warfare make these resources all but useless, lead to mutual bitterness and marginalize the positions of both Russian scholars specializing in Western studies and Europeans who “get” Russia.

Another resource in mutually beneficial economic contacts. Traditionally, this means supplies of oil and natural gas. However, reciprocal supplies of equipment for improving the energy efficiency of the Russian economy and generating renewable energy sources for deep-sea mining and the high-level processing of hydrocarbons are just as important. In the modern technological era, so-called “new industrialization,” where the European Union is already rich with experience and Russia is able to offer certain essential and rare minerals and metals, is extremely important. The policy of import substitution may be needed in certain industries, but it cannot be implemented across the board, as it is not an effective means of using the limited resources and preserves the development gap. It is worth thinking about carrying out joint research projects, cooperating in the field of science and commercializing the results.

How can Russia and the European Union support these resources and create opportunities to develop them?

First, the two sides can broaden the opportunities for direct dialogue among citizens, not through the Internet (which are compromised by the incomprehensible algorithm for determining the order in which search results are presented by search engines and Facebook feeds, the various propaganda posts and trolls, and the fear of post-truths), but rather through real contact. The liberalization of the visa regime would play a huge role in this. Visa regimes in a world where it is possible to trace the movements of any individual are archaic relics that perform an exclusively symbolic role. At the present time, as the European Union has opened discussions on simplifying the visa regime and transitioning to a visa-free situation, Russia could take the lead in being the first to abolish visas. It is unlikely that anything negative could come from such a step. Passport control will remain, as will the ability of passport control officials to refuse entry. The number of tourists will grow, which will bring dividends and improve the perception of Russia as a country that is close both geographically and culturally. At the end of the day, people wishing to visit Russia could simply fill in an online application form a few days before travel instead of applying for a visa. This would be an asymmetrical step on Russia’s part, and it would, of course, violate the diplomatic tradition. But is this established norm really that important in the current climate if the ultimate goal is to improve relations now? What is more, it would take great courage to take the first step in today’s climate.

Visa-free regime (even unilateral), improving legal guarantees and getting rid of a part of the restrictive measures will significantly improve the conditions for developing the basic resources of Russia–EU relations.

Second, a transparent legislative infrastructure should be set up for all non-state contacts (economic and non-profit). Clearly, negotiations on a new basic agreement between Russia and the European Union will not resume any time soon. The 1994 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement allows for cooperation to be improved in several areas. It also provides for the creation of management practices that support the abovementioned resources in Russia–EU relations. Despite all the anti-Western rhetoric, Russia continues to test many of its new norms and standards for compatibility with EU law. This is helped both by the standardization and certification projects initiated by Russia and the European Union after 2014 and by the pressure being exerted by Eurasian Economic Union partners. The question, however, is not in the specific measures taken – these can differ in Russia and the European Union, but they have to be understandable, rational and clearly implemented. To do this, the judicial branch of power needs to be strengthened in Russia, and it should be made truly independent. And the European Union should be guided more by the letter of the law, rather than by the abstract spirit of the law that often leads to decisions being made on the basis of reducing dependence on Russia (the situation surrounding Nord Stream 2 is a prime example).

Third, the sides should gradually lift sectoral sanctions. Despite the fact that Moscow and Brussels are competing in terms of official attempts to prove that the effect of the sanctions has been insignificant, the resource of bilateral economic interdependence has weakened significantly. New projects are not being implemented. The prospects for stepping up the dialogue on anything other than hydrocarbons are vague at best (and progress in the oil and gas sectors is limited as it is). And it is not so much the large companies that are to various degrees involved in the events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The Russian government was able in part to compensate the losses of major Russian companies through various benefits, loans from national funds and government contracts. The opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses and the welfare of ordinary citizens, however, have decreased significantly.

Lifting sectoral sanctions will give impetus to mutual trade and investment, even if it is for a relatively narrow segment of Russian society. Individual sanctions can remain, all the more so as it would allow them to serve as a more effective tool of external activity compared to large-scale sanctions. What is more, they are directly connected with the clarification of Russia’s role in the liberal world order and its evolution.

Introducing visa-free regime (even unilateral), improving legal guarantees and getting rid of a part of the restrictive measures will significantly improve the conditions for developing the basic resources of Russia–EU relations. They will strengthen the resilience of relations between the partners, contribute to the de-politicization of individual aspects of cooperation (a positive thing for international contacts) and a more fundamental dialogue on the role of Russia in the liberal world order and its reform. The combination of resilience and discussions on the modalities of the development of the liberal world order will allow Moscow and Brussels to overcome the current crisis in their relations. This is a necessary condition for the qualitative improvement of the dialogue between the two sides on various issues, but one for the distant future. Still, the groundwork for this improvement (and should) be laid now.


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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
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     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
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