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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Four years ago, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini announced that Brussels was looking at new approaches to building relations with Moscow. These approaches would later become known as the "five Mogherini principles." These principles represented the culmination of a long and emotionally taxing discussion within the European Union that represented the varied positions of the 28 states that made up the EU back then. A difficult compromise was made between those who favoured a hard-line approach towards Russia and those who preferred a softer approach.

Four years later, we have no option but to conclude that the principle of "selective engagement" has enjoyed limited success in relations between Europe and Russia, if any at all. Not a single “road map” or holistic strategy has emerged from it over these past four years, nor has it served as the basis for marking out “red lines” in bilateral relations. In fact, “selective engagement” has remained nothing but a general political declaration on the part of the European Union. Relations between the eastern and western parts of Europe continue to be built by fumbling around in the dark, through trial and error. And since no one wants to risk making a political faux pas, there is no great desire to try something new. Any step forward is taken with enormous difficulty, political inertia extinguishes new ideas, and discussions of Europe–Russia relations increasingly come down to rehashing old, worn out and decrepit initiatives that were bandied around two, three and even four years ago.

It would hardly be fair to blame certain politicians, public officials or even individual EU members for the apparent shortcomings, if not the complete failure of "selective engagement." These shortcomings are, in our estimation, associated with quite objective circumstances.

We should not lose sight of the fact that “selective engagement,” as well as the balanced exchange of mutual concessions and the tactical coordination of the positions of the parties, are mainly applicable as mechanisms for resolving specific issues here and now. But the fact of the matter is that the most fundamental challenges facing Russia and Europe are not tactical, but rather strategic. These include the reduced clout of the two sides in the world economy and population, the technological inferiority of Europe and Russia compared to North America and East Asia, the rise of political populism and radicalism, the long-term decline in the stability of neighbouring regions, etc. In confronting these challenges, trading specific concessions and negotiating tactical compromises do little. Such agreements are not a substitute for a shared vision of the long-term future of Russia–Europe relations and, more broadly, a common view of the direction in which the world is headed. Agreements on specific issues should, in one way or another, be embedded in this common vision.

However, since the European and Russian elites are never going to agree on values, relations should be built on interests instead.

It would seem that the theory of “enlightened realism” could complement “selective engagement” as a platform for the development of EU–Russia relations moving forward.

Four years ago, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini announced that Brussels was looking at new approaches to building relations with Moscow. These approaches would later become known as the "five Mogherini principles." These principles represented the culmination of a long and emotionally taxing discussion within the European Union that represented the varied positions of the 28 states that made up the EU back then. A difficult compromise was made between those who favoured a hard-line approach towards Russia and those who preferred a softer approach.

“Selective Engagement” as the Foundation of the “New Normal”

It was, of course, through compromise that the European External Action Service was able to prevent a split from forming within the European Union on a crucial issue, which turned out to be a historic moment for the organization. We should note in passing that Brussels has thus far been unable to reach a similar consensus on other issues that are of fundamental importance to the European Union, such as the issue of Kosovo, the Israeli–Palestinian settlement, the civil conflict in Venezuela and the expansion of the European Union itself.

In terms of a specific policy, the most significant strategy of the European Union is the fourth of its five guiding principles – “Selective Engagement with Russia.” On the whole, "selective engagement" appeared to be a reasonably logical approach given the "post-Ukrainian reality." Europe could not conceivably go back to cooperating with Russia the way it had done in the past, turning a blind eye to the dramatic events in Crimea and Donbass, as this would mean it was somehow condoning the “aggressive behaviour of the Kremlin.” Nor was it inclined shut itself off from Moscow completely with another cordon sanitaire, as the latter was key to solving numerous issues of European politics.

The judicious decision was thus made to work with Russia only when and where it would serve the specific interests of the European Union. Mogherini’s statement touched upon potential points of contact with the Russian side, including Iran, Syria, the Middle East as a whole, migration, the fight against terrorism and climate change. “Selective engagement” can be compared to a “buffet” in a restaurant, where patrons serve themselves from a wide selection of dishes instead of being offered a set meal from the menu.

As far as we can tell, the principle of "selective engagement" was mostly supported in Moscow, albeit with little enthusiasm. Generally speaking, cooperation between Russia and the European Union was primarily selective before 2014 anyway, and the prospect of creating a unified "Greater Europe" had more or less fizzled out by the end of the 2000s. This is why, three months after the “five guiding principles” had been announced, the Russian side presented President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker with a list of proposals regarding possible areas of “selective engagement” during his visit to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Of course, the proposals that had been prepared for Juncker primarily reflected the interests and priorities of the Russian side. Thus, there was already friction about who would put on the spread for the “buffet” and who would fill their plates. Nevertheless, cautious hopes were expressed in 2016 that the new approach could indeed work, at least for a transitional period.

Four years down the line and we have no option but to conclude that the principle of “selective engagement” has enjoyed limited success in relations between Europe and Russia, if any at all. Not a single “road map” or holistic strategy has emerged from it over these past four years, nor has it served as the basis for marking out “red lines” in bilateral relations. In fact, “selective engagement” has remained nothing but a general political declaration on the part of the European Union. Relations between the eastern and western parts of Europe continue to be built by fumbling around in the dark, through trial and error. And since no one wants to risk making a political faux pas, there is no great desire to try something new. Any step forward is taken with enormous difficulty, political inertia extinguishes new ideas, and discussions of Europe–Russia relations increasingly come down to rehashing old, worn out and decrepit initiatives that were bandied around two, three and even four years ago.

It would hardly be fair to blame certain politicians or public officials or even single out individual EU members for the apparent shortcomings, if not the complete failure, of "selective engagement." These shortcomings are, in our estimation, associated with quite objective circumstances.

Why Mogherini’s Fourth Principle Failed

First of all, there is nothing close to a consensus on either side as to what degree of “selectivity” would be optimal for engagement. There are two distinct camps in the European Union. The first is made up of those who advocate the “historical reconciliation” of Russia and Europe, while the second consists of those who want to stand up to the “Putin regime.” This division remains. Little has happened in the past six years to convince either camp to change its tune or alter the balance of powers between Europe’s “hawks” and “pigeons.” Neither Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, nor the results of the 2019 European Parliament elections, nor the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2020 managed to shift the equilibrium in Brussels.

This is why the European Union merely continues to renew the 2014 sanctions, each time announcing a victory for “European unity.” Agreeing on such an important and very specific issue as the feasibility of building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has proved impossible. Perhaps this is why the substantive content of the “selective engagement” with Moscow has never been brought up as a topic for serious political discussion in Brussels. After all, any discussion in this vein would inevitably jeopardize the much-vaunted “European unity,” laying bare the fundamental incompatibility of opinions within the European Union regarding the state of and prospects for relations with Moscow.

While a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle has raged among individual EU member states for the last four years in Brussels regarding the limits and possibilities of “selective engagement” with Russia, in Moscow, the concept of “selective engagement” continues to be a field of an equally fierce confrontation of influential institutional and group interests. Europe does not have a consistent long-term strategy with regard to Moscow, but Russia does have such a strategy with regard to Brussels.

In some cases, the confrontation between Moscow’s “Europhobes” and its “Europhiles” even spills over into the public space. For example, existing official and semi-official assessments of the impact of the EU sanctions and Moscow’s countersanctions on the Russian economy, as well as estimates regarding the success of the import substitution strategy vary greatly, from the clearly alarmist to the unabashedly triumphant. If the parties cannot work out their own positions on the matter, then how can we expect them to find common ground in negotiations with one another?

What is more, Russia and the European Union are very different players on the international stage, with different comparative advantages and different sets of instruments of power and influence. Significant asymmetries of both interests and opportunities between the “Russian elephant” and the “European whale” are inevitable. And this makes it extremely difficult to find a "fair" balance of interests in each specific case. For example, Mogherini talked about the desirability of working with Moscow on the issue of North Korea, but what exactly can Brussels offer Moscow in this area? Moscow, for its part, is trying to get the European Union to recognize the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as an equal partner; however, the economic potential of the EAEU is minuscule compared to that of the EU.

Moreover, while Moscow takes pride in its sovereignty and the fact that it can make independent decisions, the sovereignty of the European Union is limited one way or another by the one-sided nature of its relations with the United States. And this means that attempts to create a balance between the European Union and Russia will ultimately turn into a far more complicated game involving the decidedly scalene Brussels–Moscow–Washington triangle. Even if there is still some hope for the “Russian elephant” and “European whale” to come to an agreement, the “American tyrannosaurus” will do its best to make sure that does not happen.

Finally, we should not lose sight of the fact that “selective engagement,” as well as the balanced exchange of mutual concessions and the tactical coordination of the positions of the parties, are mainly applicable as mechanisms for resolving specific issues in the here and now. For example, offering mutual concessions on the post-conflict reconstruction of Syria, salvaging the Iranian nuclear deal or resolving issues related to the de-escalation of the Libyan Civil War are acceptable solutions. These areas can, to a certain degree, be isolated from the general background of relations, while at the same time preserving individual islands of cooperation in the vast ocean of confrontation.

But the fact of the matter is that the most fundamental challenges facing Russia and Europe are not tactical, but rather strategic in nature. These include the reduced clout of the two sides in the world economy and population, the technological inferiority of Europe and Russia compared to North America and East Asia, the rise of political populism and radicalism, the long-term decline in stability in neighbouring regions, etc. In confronting these challenges, trading specific concessions and negotiating tactical compromises do little. Such agreements are not a substitute for a common vision of the long-term future of Russia–Europe relations and, more broadly, a shared view of the direction in which the world is headed. Agreements on specific issues should, in one way or another, be embedded in this common vision.

Nikolay Chernyshevsky vs Immanuel Kant

Anyone in Russia who has at least the vaguest memories of reading Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s didactic novel What Is to Be Done? at school ought to remember the theory of “rational egoism” that he loved so much. Nothing can be done about a person’s inherent egoism, and there is no point hoping for them to change their nature and suddenly become selflessly altruistic. Chernyshevsky was a militant atheist and categorically rejected the existence of Kant’s “moral law” in such people.

However, according to Chernyshevsky, people do not come into conflict with one another because of egoism as such, but rather because of how they perceive their own interests. Most people are so focused on achieving their near-term goals, serving their basic instincts and acting in a reactionary manner that they not only ignore the interests of those around them, but also effectively neglect their own longer-term ambitions. This inevitably impacts both the egoist’s environment and the egoist himself.

“Rational egoism” proposes articulating these interests in a “rational” manner, that is, by taking the interests and wishes of others into account and building a rational hierarchy of diverse desires, propensities and personal tasks – all without denying a person the opportunity to pursue their own interests. Reason softens the most dangerous and destructive manifestations of egoism without encroaching on the fundamental features of human nature.

As applied to international relations, the theory of "rational egoism" could be interpreted as "enlightened realism." An analogue of Kant's "moral law" in this case would be the unity of fundamental values between Russia and the European Union. However, since the European and Russian elites are never going to agree on values, relations should be built on interests instead. That is, not on non-dogmatic religious views of Immanuel Kant, but instead on the atheist rationalism of Nikolay Chernyshevsky.

It would seem that the theory of “enlightened realism” could complement “selective engagement” as a platform for the development of EU–Russia relations moving forward.

Why We Need “Enlightened Realism”

The noun realism in this formulation implies a sober assessment of the specific moment we are experiencing, as well as the constraints associated with it. We cannot go back 20 years to the "honeymoon" period of Moscow–Brussels relations. And even if we could, it would only mean a return to a situation of “bad infinity” and the very same problems that continued to pile up and eventually led to the 2014 crisis. “Realism” forces us to acknowledge that, in all likelihood, we will not be able to find a solid institutional basis for developing relations that is acceptable for both sides in the foreseeable future.

Relations between Europe and Russia are going to be shaky for a long time to come, regardless of the paths of political transit that have already been embarked upon in the East and the West. Irrespective of who will be in power in Moscow and Brussels five or ten years down the line and regardless of whether or not we can reach a fair and satisfactory solution to the "Ukrainian issue" during this time. The difficulties are caused by differences in geographical location, historical experience, existing traditions and the psychologies of the respective peoples. We cannot merely draw up some kind of framework agreement or charter to get past the crisis; this did not work in the past, and it will not work now.

The noun enlightened places the concept of “realism” into a certain framework. To be sure, the politics of Donald Trump can be characterized as “realistic” (and also pragmatic, transactional, self-centred or cynical – underline as necessary). However, Trump’s “realism” is in no way “enlightened.” “Enlightened realism” means that the sides should take both their tactical and immediate interests, as well as their strategic and long-term needs, into account.

Foreign policy decisions should be made not only with a view to the next presidential campaign or how the general public might react, but also with an understanding of the strategic challenges, opportunities and priorities facing the sides. The further into the future we are prepared to look, the greater the number of areas of common interest between Russia and the European Union we will find.

What is more, “enlightenment” implies that the parties have to be mindful not only of their own interests, but also of the interests of the system of international relations as a whole, since the destruction of this system does not bode well for Russia or Europe. No tactical victory can outweigh the strategic costs associated with the destabilization of the global system, the breakdown of international organizations, the degradation of international law, and the transition to a “game without rules” where “every man” is “for himself” in world politics.

This understanding is especially relevant today, when other leading centres of power in world politics (the United States, China and India) are, for various reasons, not ready to bear the responsibility for preserving regional and global stability. It is in these conditions that Europe and Russia are inevitably assuming greater responsibility for maintaining peace and resolving conflicts in such regions as the Middle East and North Africa.

Let us stress once again that we are not talking here about abandoning “selective engagement” once and for all. Engagement will continue to be selective for the foreseeable future, as the only alternative would be no interaction whatsoever. The task right now is to give this engagement a new depth, greater clarity and a fresh perspective. Figuratively speaking, we are talking about moving from two-dimensional interaction to three-dimensional interaction, or, in other words, leaving the rowdy market square where narrow-fisted buyers haggle prices with dodgy traders for the tranquillity of university laboratories where we can start designing the future European and world order.

This will require a qualitatively different level of interaction between the two sides both at the level of political leadership and at the level of diplomatic missions, ministries of economy, independent experts and non-governmental organizations. Not a return to the rather meaningless biannual EU–Russia summits, but the beginning of practical work on the implementation of large, forward-looking joint projects.

The only way that the principle of “enlightened realism” can work in the engagement between Europe and Russia is if the sides endeavour to apply it to themselves first and foremost, and then to the other party. After all, "enlightened realism" is not about making concessions to the other side or surrendering one's position. Rather, it is merely a more extensive and less opportunistic understanding of one's own interests. Right now, both Brussels and Moscow are following in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s famous words: “[T]he nuisance of the intellectual sphere is the man who is so occupied in trying to educate others, that he has never had any time to educate himself.”

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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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