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Andrey Kortunov

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

Any attempt to predict the development of Russia–EU relations in the upcoming years must certainly acknowledge the fact that relations between the two sides have remained remarkably stable since 2014, and the momentum of current dynamics (or, instead, the momentum of no dynamics) will most likely continue. 2019 marked European Parliament elections, the “overhaul” of the European Commission and other EU governing bodies, as well as the formation of a new balance of political power on the continent. It may be safe to assume that 2020 will be a quieter and altogether less nerve-wracking year for the European Union, although certain states (for example, Poland or Italy) may very well have some surprises in store. Additionally, a shift towards tackling the most critical issues associated with Brexit is a distinct possibility.

Most experts believe that the political system in Russia has a sufficiently large “safety margin” to pass through 2020 without being exposed to any significant destabilization risks, and the accumulated financial “safety cushion” will allow the country’s leadership to guarantee socioeconomic stability despite possible fluctuations in the global economy or world energy prices, or any changes to the international sanctions regime against Moscow. A real political challenge to the authorities may appear later, probably no earlier than the parliamentary elections of September 2021. Accordingly, it is unlikely that any new domestic factors will pop up before the end of 2020 that may trigger a significant shift in the EU's approach to Moscow or Russia's approach to Brussels.


Any attempt to predict the development of Russia–EU relations in the upcoming years must certainly acknowledge the fact that relations between the two sides have remained remarkably stable since 2014, and the momentum of current dynamics (or, instead, the momentum of no dynamics) will most likely continue. 2019 marked European Parliament elections, the “overhaul” of the European Commission and other EU governing bodies, as well as the formation of a new balance of political power on the continent. It may be safe to assume that 2020 will be a quieter and altogether less nerve-wracking year for the European Union, although certain states (for example, Poland or Italy) may very well have some surprises in store. Additionally, a shift towards tackling the most critical issues associated with Brexit is a distinct possibility.

Most experts believe that the political system in Russia has a sufficiently large “safety margin” to pass through 2020 without being exposed to any significant destabilization risks, and the accumulated financial “safety cushion” will allow the country’s leadership to guarantee socioeconomic stability despite possible fluctuations in the global economy or world energy prices, or any changes to the international sanctions regime against Moscow. A real political challenge to the authorities may appear later, probably no earlier than the parliamentary elections of September 2021. Accordingly, it is unlikely that any new domestic factors will pop up before the end of 2020 that may trigger a significant shift in the EU's approach to Moscow or Russia's approach to Brussels.

Uncertainty Factors

Nevertheless, the features and orientation of internal processes in the European Union and Russia will undoubtedly influence their bilateral relations. In our opinion, the main uncertainty factor for the European Union rests in the level of political unity and the ability or inability of the new European Commission to successfully withstand centrifugal trends in the EU, as well as pressure exerted by populists in individual EU member states. Clearly, the new offensive launched by populists and deepening internal contradictions within the European Union will tempt Moscow to use the organization’s disunity to achieve “separate” agreements with its traditional European partners. At the same time, many in Europe will inevitably lay principal responsibility for confusion and vacillation in the European Union at Moscow’s doorstep. A strong and cohesive European Commission will restrict the possibility of the Kremlin pursuing "selective involvement" with convenient European partners.

On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that a weak and disjointed European Union will dare to launch a serious internal discussion of the prospects of its Moscow strategy beyond the five "Mogherini principles" that were formulated four years ago, given its concerns about further undermining the already fragile foreign political unity of its member states. It is common knowledge that the ongoing sanctions regime against Russia is less of an instrument of exerting influence on Moscow than it is one of the few remaining symbols of “European unity.” A weak European Union will be forced to prioritize maintaining the existing status quo and minimizing potential change-associated risks.

For Russia, the main uncertainty factor, it would seem, is still the level of socio-political tension in the country, and how authorities respond to it. If tensions continue to grow during 2020 (which can be expressed, for instance, in an increase in the number and size of rallies, picketing, demonstrations and other manifestations of street political activities) and the authorities tighten the screws in response (dispersing rallies by force, carrying out pre-emptive arrests and searches, holding trials and imposing harsh sentences), the European Union will be forced to somehow respond. This will inevitably create additional obstacles to the dialogue between Brussels and Moscow, energizing the forces that have no desire whatsoever to pursue discourse with Russia.

If the overall level of tension turns out to be relatively low and the response of the authorities relatively mild, then a prerequisite for the Russia–Europe dialogue will be more favourable. In addition to everything else, a low level of tension will serve as an additional argument for those forces in the European Union that consider Russia’s socioeconomic and political systems to be sufficiently flexible and adaptive, to remain stable for the foreseeable future. If this is the case, then it makes no sense for the European Union to repeatedly postpone dialogue with Moscow in the hope that inevitable radical political changes will take place.

The following external factors affecting relations between Russia and the European Union in 2020 will likely be most significant:

1. The outcome of the 2020 United States presidential election. Victory for the Democrats would mean that erstwhile transatlantic solidarity will be at least partly restored, and the United States and the European Union will be able to coordinate their policies towards Russia better.

Moscow will once again face a “consolidated West,” which will inevitably restrict Russia’s room for political manoeuvre. On the other hand, should Donald Trump emerge victorious, this will likely further deepen contradictions between the United States and the European Union, which will allow Moscow to solidify its current tactical advantages in its relations with the “disjointed West.”

2.The state of U.S.–China relations. Further exacerbation of the trade, economic, political and military confrontation between the United States and China, as well as the movement of the international system towards rigid bipolarity, will create additional restrictions for interaction between Russia and Europe, for instance, in implementing multilateral "Eurasian" projects. Russia will be oriented towards an increasingly close alliance with China, while Europe will be forced to follow in the wake of the policies of the United States. Conversely, if the confrontation between Washington and Beijing softens, this will allow Moscow and Brussels to avoid many of the restrictions that a rigid bipolar configuration entails.

3. The situation in the Middle East. Unexpected and significant negative dynamic in the Middle East (escalation in Syria or Lebanon, an acute crisis in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia or between Iran and Israel, or a new large-scale outflow of refugees from the region) may prove to be essential incentives for deepening Russia–Europe cooperation, especially if the situation worsens against the background of the United States continuing to roll back its commitments in the region. The preservation of the current status quo also means that Russia and the European Union will be able to maintain their current (low) level of interaction in the region. However, certain escalation scenarios (for instance, Damascus launching a large-scale offence on Idlib, with one of the parties to the conflict using chemical weapons) will create an additional problem for Russia–EU relations. Any aggravation of the problem of migration from the Middle East to the European Union will be construed as part of Moscow’s hostile strategy towards Europe.

4. The global economic situation. The global economy may enter another stage of the cyclical crisis in 2020, or even fall victim to a systemic global financial crisis similar to that of 2008–2009. The future systemic crisis will likely be more dramatic than the previous one, since the principal actors in the global economy are less inclined today to cooperate than they were ten years ago. The new crisis will undermine the economic foundations of Russia–EU relations and give rise to more pronounced protectionist and nationalist sentiment in both the European Union and Russia. In a crisis, the opportunities for positive interaction between Moscow and Brussels will be limited. Conversely, economic acceleration in the European Union and Russia will increase the interest of both parties in expanding cooperation.

Probable Risks

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The current trends in Russia–EU relations carry a number of risks that should be mentioned when predicting possible scenarios for the further deterioration of these relations:

  • The general deterioration of European security due to the expiration of the INF Treaty; the degradation of confidence-building measures; and the start of an arms race, including hi-tech weapons (understanding that the military-political situation in Europe cannot change drastically in 2020, and military spending in European countries is not expected to rise sharply);
  • The continued competition for influence in the post-Soviet space, including Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia (the collapse of the political coalition in Moldova in the autumn of 2019 is a negative sign); and the further divergence of stances on the Donbass settlement will have a particularly negative effect on relations;
  • The intensification of sub-regional competition between Russia and the European Union (this competition appears to be particularly dangerous in the Western Balkans, given the possibility of an acute political crisis in one or more of the countries in the region);
  • The intensification of the information war in Europe (in particular, the European Union may approve a "blacklist" of Russian media outlets, while Russia may significantly expand its own list of “undesirable” European organizations); we cannot rule out the possibility that investigations may be launched in some EU states in connection with accusations of Russia interfering in their elections and supporting separatists and political extremists.
  • The harsh confrontation between Russia and some EU member countries in pan-European organizations (PACE, OSCE); 2020 will be a challenging year in the history of these organizations, which will be put under immense political pressure;
  • The further politicization of energy cooperation between Russia and the European Union (for instance, the emergence of new issues in completing work on Nord Stream 2; and the blatant refusal of some EU states to prolong gas contracts with Russia);
  • The clash between Russian and European interests in some regions of the world, including Africa and Latin America; and competition between Russia and Europe for preferential relations with Turkey might posit a particular issue.

Unfortunately, “black swans” may very well throw a spanner in the works – the unfortunate incident in Salisbury in March 2018 and the events in the Kerch Strait in November of the same year are prime examples. Such events may again lead to a deterioration of relations between Moscow and Brussels, regardless of who is to blame. A distinctive feature of Russia–EU relations today is that significant progress should be visible along the entire line of interaction between the parties, while a single negative event in any of these areas is enough to provoke a new crisis. This makes the process of restoring even limited cooperation extraordinarily fragile and unstable. And this a situation will continue throughout 2020.

Potential Opportunities

At the same time, we can identify several most promising areas of Russia–EU cooperation where, under favourable circumstances, certain practical results may be achieved as early as 2020:

  • Progress in settling the conflict in the east of Ukraine. The recent domestic political scandal in the United States in connection with Ukraine further obstructs Washington's constructive involvement in resolving the crisis. The Ukrainian crisis is objectively less critical for the United States than for Europe, and certainly for Russia.
  • On the other hand, the new leadership in Kyiv is more focused than its predecessors on achieving a peaceful settlement to the situation in the Donbass. By all accounts, Moscow is ready to (or could) demonstrate more flexibility than before in its approach to Ukraine’s implementation of the Minsk agreements. If progress is achieved at the upcoming Normandy Four summit in terms of implementing the Steinmeier formula, then opportunities will appear as early as the first few months of 2020 to involve the European Union in the peace process, including post-conflict reconstruction programmes in the Donbass.
  • Expanding interaction in the “shared neighbourhood.” Neither Russia nor the European Union are interested in further escalation in the area. The example of several post-Soviet states, for instance, Armenia, shows that the balance of influence between Russia and the European Union does not necessarily have to be a zero-sum game.
  • Deepening interaction on Iran-related issues. The positions of Russia and the European Union on topics such as the Iranian nuclear and missile programmes and Iran's role in Syria and the Middle East are not identical, although they are close. Given the current escalation in relations between Iran and the United States, as well as between Iran and Israel (this trend will most likely continue in 2020), Russia and the European Union can and should coordinate their actions more closely concerning Iran.
  • Launching full-fledged dialogue between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union. In 2020, this dialogue can be moved from the current technical to political level. It could include coordinating multilateral cooperation in Central Asia, implementing the European “connection” concept and possibly even discussing progress in implementing China’s “Belt and Road” project.
  • Developing a new “energy/environmental plan” for Europe. There is reason to hope that politically difficult problems related to Nord Stream 2 and the future of gas transit via Ukraine will be partially resolved in 2020. If this does happen, then it may be possible to try to “depoliticize” the European energy agenda. This could include, for instance, climate change, prospects for energy cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, issues of standards, energy security and energy efficiency, training personnel and the exchange of experience.
  • Making Europe’s Russian sanctions regime more flexible. We should not expect the European Union to lift the sanctions against Russia in 2020, even if progress in settling the Ukrainian crisis is achieved. However, the European Commission might set itself the more modest task of modifying the mechanisms of applying the sanctions. History shows us that sanctions, especially bilateral sanctions, do not work if the sides do not have the option to respond to even small behavioural shifts promptly. In mid-2016, Frank-Walter Steinmeier proposed modifying the EU's sanctions mechanism, and this idea has maintained its relevance for the last three and a half years.
  • Preserving pan-European areas. Despite the growing divide in Europe along the East-West axis, common European areas of science, education and culture can still be maintained. If progress is achieved in other areas in 2020, then the connecting role of humanitarian areas should be strengthened further. For instance, the parties could spearhead a joint plan to liberalize the visa regime or introduce visa waivers for students, scientists, scholars, artists and cultural figures.
  • Developing a new “road map” for the development of the OSCE. 2020 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Astana declaration, the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris and the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act. Structured dialogue on military and political issues was launched in 2016, and it turned out to be one of the most productive formats of East-West communication in Europe. The OSCE still needs political support from both the European Union and Russia.

Of course, we should not assume that activating some or even most of the abovementioned areas of cooperation in 2020 will result in a “reset” of Moscow–Brussels relations. The current "strategic disconnection" between Russia and Europe is not caused by their differences on specific issues (even issues as serious as Ukraine and Syria), but rather by their profoundly opposing views on the fundamental problems of global politics, its contents, driving forces, priorities and the desired model of the future world order.

Until these differences are overcome, relations between Moscow and Brussels will remain primarily focused on rivalry. Consequently, the next common task for Russia and the European Union is to cut the costs and reduce the risks that are inextricably related to such rivalry. However, achieving even modest progress in this area in 2020 and creating an atmosphere of positive dynamics would be a significant outcome of the year that concludes a challenging decade in global politics for both the European Union and Russia.


(votes: 7, rating: 5)
 (7 votes)

Poll conducted

  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  
     21 (19%)
 
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