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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

Differences between Russia and Europe have been discussed at length. The fact that these differences exist has taken root in political ideology and social stereotypes in the EU and Russia as well. The only disagreement concerns the depth of the scission. On the one hand, some believe that there are deep and insurmountable civilizational differences. On the other hand, there is also a more moderate vision of Russia as an integral part of European culture and diplomacy, but with a peripheral economy and an autocratic regime.

Differences between Russia and Europe have been discussed at length. The fact that these differences exist has taken root in political ideology and social stereotypes in the EU and Russia as well.

The only disagreement concerns the depth of the scission. On the one hand, some believe that there are deep and insurmountable civilizational differences. On the other hand, there is also a more moderate vision of Russia as an integral part of European culture and diplomacy, but with a peripheral economy and an autocratic regime.

Indeed, Russia is unlike any other country in many respects. However, throughout its history, Europe was extremely heterogeneous and developed at an uneven speed. In many ways, it has remained such to this day. There are different political traditions. Different underlying principles of economy. Different levels and a pace of development.

In the grand scheme of things, Russia’s "otherness" is the European norm, rather than an anomaly. Deep down, Russia is a European country. It has become a European country as a result of long and diverse links with Europe, including a fair amount of European practices and institutions that have been adapted to Russia. Furthermore, the vast majority of Russia’s "birthmarks" of the present and recent past, which the EU tends to point to, are of European origin. The authoritarian regime? State control over the economy? Brutal and unforgiving freak show in the person of a pervasive state? Mass propaganda? The bureaucracy and war machine? Nationalism? Control and supervision? Mass political parties? Marxism and socialism? The wild market? Conservatism of all hues? Imperialism? Aren’t they all European inventions?

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Russia is Europe’s own flesh and blood. Many of its features come from many years of European conflicts, wars, and its race for efficiency and political leadership. The issue of Russia’s European identity is as momentary as were the discussions of Germany’s European identity in the 19th century, or similar debates about Italy, Spain, Finland, Greece, and many others in the 20th century. This issue should be settled once and for all.

What is causing problems in the relations between Russia and the EU then? I would venture to suggest that these problems are caused primarily by specific political factors rather than abstract historical traditions, civilization, or destiny. Resolving them is more important than "teaching" Russia good manners or proper behavior. What kind of problems are they?

Objective political problems include dissimilar principles underlying the organization and functioning of the Russian state and the vast majority of EU countries. Usually, the political regime is mentioned in this context. A common point of view implies that the EU is composed of democracies, whereas Russia, even if it is apparently a democracy, certainly cannot be referred to as such in substance. Russia cannot be part of Europe until it becomes a "real democracy." The weakness of many of its political institutions and the political system’s undivided focus on presidential power is Russia’s genuine problem. By and large, Russia’s politics are still in transition. The search for the best available institutional formulas is still on. However, the problem of the regime is more of an ideological nature. Something else is much more important.

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The Russian state remains "modernist" by type. Primarily, this implies that it enjoys real sovereignty, i.e. it bears the entire responsibility for its security and development. In this sense, Russia is much closer to China and even the United States than EU countries, which are "postmodern" in nature. They enjoy high levels of security and development. However, both these factors are determined by supranational institutions. "Post-modern" countries are grouped into two superstructures — NATO and the EU – which project formidable military and economic power.

This difference strongly affects relations between Russia and its European partners. The problem is that integration into NATO or the EU is only possible if these organisations retain their dominant position. This sits perfectly well with smaller countries, which are willing to delegate some of their sovereignty. But it’s not likely to be a good choice for Russia with its idea of "comprehensive sovereignty." The post-Soviet transition has shown that Russia cannot and does not want to sacrifice its sovereignty even in the face of an economic plight. Even if it were willing to make such a sacrifice, its European partners are unlikely to want to accept it given our country’s complexity. So, there are only two choices left: an equal partnership as part of Greater Europe or rivalry.

Quite subjective political factors, such as the specific interests of the United States, EU, individual European countries, Russia and former Soviet countries have become a major barrier on the way to a Greater Europe. The post-Soviet space has become a key stumbling block. Structural differences have played a key role here.

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Building an equal Greater Europe was at odds with the interests of the United States, EU and NATO. This does not just concern the political ambitions of Washington and Brussels, or their desire to take advantage of Russia and feast on what’s left on the former Soviet Union. The process of designing Greater Europe gave rise to a huge uncertainty. What are the underlying principles of the project? How can it be made manageable? Russia’s problems and Europe’s concerns about sharing responsibility with a country torn apart by a severe crisis played an important role in decision-making. In fact, Russia wasn’t even seen as a reliable partner, even though its liberal rhetoric was encouraged.

Ultimately, the phased-in integration of small- and medium-sized countries in existing EU and NATO structures was a more predictable scenario, which, in addition, brought tangible political dividends. By the time Russia had become stronger and made it back to international politics, the structural principles underlying modern Europe’s functioning had already been put in place. Russia had a marginal political role to play in this arrangement. It was not in a position to halt this process once it was set in motion. Therefore, the discussions about Europe stretching from Vladivostok to Lisbon were becoming more of a ritual as years passed. The real face-off between Russia and Europe gained intensity as NATO and the EU kept their eastward expansion and the number of color revolutions and quasi-coups in the former Soviet Union republics continued to rise. The Ukraine crisis has highlighted the shortcomings of the new post-Cold War alignment in Europe, including Russia’s marginalization amid integration processes, instability in post-Soviet states and weakness of European cooperation institutions.

The future of Russia-EU relations depends on resolving these structural contradictions. There may be at least three scenarios.

The first one is the most negative and includes Russia’s geopolitical defeat under the weight of its confrontation with the EU and NATO, and its domestic problems. Under this scenario, the alignment of forces will marginalize Russia still further. However, such a scenario can be bad for Europe itself. Another source of instability will greatly devalue its political acquisitions in the former Soviet space.

The second scenario is moderately negative and includes the adoption by Russia of the existing structure, its relaxed attitude toward the European integration of its neighbors, and playing a special role in this structure. This scenario had its advantages two or three years ago. Today, it has become much more negative, as it may have Russia agree to give up ground and sustain major losses.

The third — moderately positive – scenario concerns building new integration-based economic entities and security institutions with Russia’s active participation, as well as using these structures’ capacity to properly reset the dialogue with the EU and NATO.

Russia should act consistently to promote the Eurasian Economic Union. First, it can promote economic growth in Russia, as any integration project is doomed to failure without resolving key problems. Second, the success of the union will make it possible to at least partially depoliticize the agenda in the post-Soviet space. Resetting relations with Europe should start precisely with promoting the EAEU-EU relations. It is important to refrain from debates about Russia being part of the European civilization. Clearly, this is so, and has only an indirect bearing on the main issue at hand. However, these issues are unlikely to be resolved without fixing the structural imbalances that have developed in Europe following the Cold War.

First published in Valdai Discussion Club

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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
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