Print Читать на русском
Rate this article
(votes: 4, rating: 4)
 (4 votes)
Share this article
Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC Member

The fundamental problem of the Russian foreign policy is not about how to cope with the external reality, but rather how to define it. It this brief paper, I try to outline some of the most significant manifestations of this problem in Russia’s policy toward the European Union, the seven common phantoms of the Russian thinking. These phantoms were not the only reason why the ambitions concept of Greater Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok was never put into practice, but they definitely contributed to its failure.

“It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality”.
Virginia Woolf

Everybody knows that the Russian leadership never makes mistakes. At least, it never recognizes having made any mistakes. Especially, in foreign policy. The current foreign policy is usually presented to the domestic and foreign alike in an explicitly deterministic way — as the only available reaction to multiple independent variables, i.e. to positive or negative changes in the external environment. “We did it, because we were forced to do it… They left us with no other option but… Under the circumstances, the only way to protect our interests was…”

It would not be fair to dismiss this logic as pure hypocrisy intended to avoid any serious criticism of the country’s international behavior. To some extent, such thinking can be attributed to a deeply rooted Russian spiritual tradition of fatalism. On the other hand, in modern Russia it also reflects a decay of the foreign policy discourse, when alternative foreign policy strategies are not openly discussed, and the borderline between a scholarly analysis and the state propaganda often becomes invisible.

However, if mistakes do happen, who is to blame for them? There are no convincing reasons to doubt the quality of the Russian diplomacy. Arguably, the Russian diplomatic school is one of the most professional, experienced and sophisticated in the world. Therefore, if the Russian foreign policy does make mistakes, these are not caused by unprofessionalism, lack of experience or sheer negligence. They are more about perceptions, interpretations and conceptual frameworks. In other words, Russia more often commits errors than it makes mistakes (errors being intentional, and mistakes — non-intentional).

The fundamental problem of the Russian foreign policy is not about how to cope with the external reality, but rather how to define it. It this brief paper, I try to outline some of the most significant manifestations of this problem in Russia’s policy toward the European Union, the seven common phantoms of the Russian thinking. These phantoms were not the only reason why the ambitions concept of Greater Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok was never put into practice, but they definitely contributed to its failure.

“We are entitled to a special status”

Sochi, May 24, 2006

Successful people have a sense of gratitude whereas unsuccessful people have a sense of entitlement. The same might be applied to nations or, rather, to national political establishments. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian leadership always claimed a special status in its relations with the European Union compared to other post-Communist states. The Kremlin tried to substantiate this claim referring to many aspects of the Russian exceptionalism: the size of the country, its geographical extension, the nuclear superpower standing, permanent membership to the UN Security Council, etc.

The central idea of a new arrangement in Europe, which Moscow insisted on, was the idea of an East — West convergence instead of an absorption of the East by the West. In other words, Russia was willing to turn more “European” provided that Europe would become more “Russian”; Moscow and Brussels were expected to make reciprocal concessions and compromises in the most important areas of their cooperation — like security, energy, visa regime, agriculture or transportation. This is why, for instance, in early 2000s Russia chose not to participate in the European Union's European Neighborhood Policy (ENP): it aspired to be an "equal partner" of the EU as opposed to being part of the "junior partnership" that Russia understood the ENP to be. Consequently, Russia and the European Union agreed to create a “Four Common Spaces” initiative for cooperation in different spheres.

The assumption that Russia could become an “equal partner” to the European Union turned out to be a phantom. In practice, from the EU standpoint, there should have been no substantial differences between its relations with Russia and the ENP Action Plans with other external partners. In both cases, the final agreement was to be based on provisions from the EU acquis communautaire and necessitated unilateral adjustments to EU regulations by the external partner in question. This approach did not match the Moscow’s perception of “equality” and was particularly disappointing in the energy field, where Russia had expected a more friendly policy because of it being the EU’s main supplier of oil and gas.

“If we build it, they will come”
Brussels, December 7, 2010

A top down approach has always been a typical feature of the Russian foreign policy. It clearly manifested itself in Russia’s tactical priorities in building relations with the European Union. The Kremlin focused its attention on ‘big things’ — like summit meetings, official visits, high-level consultations between bureaucracies in Moscow and in Brussels and on general political declarations. Over last twenty years, the European Union had arguably more formal contacts with Russia than with any other partner, including the United States, China or Turkey. The assumption evidently was that the political momentum generated at high official levels would naturally transform itself into specific accomplishments at lower levels. The summit diplomacy was supposed to serve as a locomotive pulling a long chain or railway carriages behind itself.

However, it turned out that the top down approach had its own limitations. The EU — Russia summit meetings, which took place twice a year, over time were becoming less and less productive. The so-called cooperation “roadmaps” could not qualify as real roadmaps with specific implementation schedules, monitoring mechanisms, evaluation procedures, etc.; they largely remained nothing more but nicely worded statements of intent. Moscow failed to infiltrate EU institutions with its experts, observers, advisors and fellows. Units and departments within Russian governmental institutions dealing with the European Union were hopelessly understaffed, underfunded and in deficit of badly needed expert support.

In sum, the Kremlin never managed to attach a chain of railway carriages to the political locomotive, and all the cheerful bells and whistles from the locomotive cab regretfully remained nothing but bells and whistles. When in 2014 the locomotive was abruptly derailed, there were no passengers to demand resuming the train movement.

“It’s economy, stupid!”

AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert
EU summit in Brussels, December 13, 2012

Most of those Russian public officials and bureaucrats, who ran the policy toward the European Union since early 1990s, had received a standard Soviet University education. In other words, they were explicit or implicit Marxists/Neo-Marxists with a profound belief in the primacy of economic factors in international relations. The European Union being a political dwarf and a security non-entity was almost exclusively looked upon from Moscow through the economic lens. The perception evidently was that the sheer dynamics of the economic cooperation, impressive numbers of EU — Russia trade, the scale of mutual investments, thousands of European companies localizing their production in Russia would serve as a reliable insurance policy against any crises in the relationships caused by political problems or conflicts.

Powerful constituencies of economic stakeholders were expected to have the upper hand in European political struggles about Russia. The rising levels of economic interdependence allowed Moscow to take a benign view on mounting political problems with Brussels— these problems were perceived as negligible or, at least, affordable compared to fundamental reciprocal economic interests.

The Ukrainian crisis and the subsequent EU sanctions against Russia proved this perception wrong. Of course, in Moscow the European decision on sanctions was interpreted as caused by the US pressure, but there are reasons to believe that the Russian side had expected EU countries to resist this pressure.

The sanctions were not the only example of European economic interests being outweighed by political considerations. In a less dramatic way, the same logic has been demonstrated in the persistent EU efforts to reduce its energy dependence on Russia. Brussels has supported multiple alternatives to the Russian gas though most of these alternatives have been highly questionable from the purely economic viewpoint. Famous Lenin’s remark that “the capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with”, after all, should be understood metaphorically, not literally.

“All EU members are equal, but some members are more equal than others”

Moscow, February 6, 2015

The Russian political tradition emphasizes hierarchy and this emphasis fully applies to the Russian foreign policy. Having confronted such a complex, ambiguous and controversial structure as the European Union, decision makers in Moscow tried to identify the most accessible entry points using their previous experience and their understanding of the European hierarchy. From the Russian perspective, it was only natural to focus its attention and energy on “key players”, i.e. traditional partners of Moscow from the “old Europe” — Germany, Italy and France. The assumption was that these countries should become Russia’s lobbyists within EU, using their powers to line up other member states including those very critical of Russia. In a way, these traditional partners of Moscow helped to build this perception — for many years they were trying to ‘privatize’ or to ‘nationalize’ opportunities in dealing with Russia, while at the same time dumping all the difficult issues on Brussels.

In any case, the expectations that “old Europe “, and Germany in particular, would solve all Russia’s problems with the European Union, gave Moscow a plausible pretext not to engage in a serious way in managing the negative Soviet legacy in Russia’s relations with Central European and Baltic states. Moscow preferred to talk to the ‘old Europe’ over the heads of Russia’s closest Western neighbors.

Unlike Germany after WWII, Russia after the Cold War did not consider creating a belt of friendly partners out of smaller neighboring countries to be a top foreign policy priority. German leaders had a sense of guilt for the crimes of the Nazi regime and they were ready to cover an extra mile to accommodate the neighboring nations — victims of the regime. Russian leaders, on the contrary, believed that they had dismantled the Communist system of their own free will and therefore deserved appreciation and gratitude from the part of Central European and Baltic states. When it turned out that the old anti-Soviet sentiments in these states could easily transform into new anti-Russian sentiments, Moscow started regarding these countries not as a potential foreign policy asset, but as a clear liability.

As a result, most of the post-Communist Europe instead of becoming a bridge between Russia and EU turned into a wall — a significant negative factor complicating the overall relationship. Especially after the Caucasian crisis of 2008 these countries were the most active in shaping the EU strategy toward Russia and their impact on the decisions made in Brussels, as a rule, was detrimental to Russia’s interests. To be fair to Moscow, it did try to initiate a Russian-Polish ‘reset’ to change the momentum, but for a variety of reasons the cooperation with Warsaw ran out of steam long before the Ukrainian crisis, which became the ‘kiss of death’ for this nascent initiative.

“EU leaders are like us and only pretend to be different”
Strasbourg, October 7, 2015

The reality in which all of us live is largely defined by the set of values we have. Individuals filter their environment and see challenges and opportunities according to their values. However, we commonly project our values, principles, expectations and concerns onto other people, expecting them to see the world the way we do. In dealing with the European Union, Russian leaders often made this mistake followed by subsequent frustrations and disappointments.

For instance, being strong champions of the Realpolitik approach to foreign policy, the Kremlin strategists expected the EU leaders to follow the same line; all evident manifestations of European foreign policy liberalism were routinely ridiculed as phony rhetoric or pure hypocrisy. In the West there are tons of literature on the KGB career of Vladimir Putin and on how this career influenced his world outlook, but only very few experts in Moscow know that Angela Merkel is a former Lutheran minister's daughter and a devoted member of the Evangelical church. Even fewer analysts would argue that religious beliefs have an impact on Angela Merkel’s political decisions.

Russians like long-term strategies and comprehensive plans though they usually have no patience to properly implement these strategies and plans. Projecting their practices and their thinking onto the European Union, strategists in the Kremlin always suspected EU of long-term strategies, sophisticated plans and even of sinister conspiracies against Russia, which in reality EU could never design and agree upon, let alone any consistent and long-term implementation.

The complexities and ambiguities of the EU decision-making process were perceived in Moscow not as an inherent feature of the European political culture, but as a clear manifestation of the lack of commitment and consistency. On the other hand, this typical European feature was often interpreted as a sign of weakness and decline; in Moscow they were making parallels between EU and the former Soviet Union.

it was also very hard for Russia’s politicians to believe that EU could not control the activities of numerous European NGOs operating in Russia and in neighboring countries. The European civil society was perceived not as an independent or even an autonomous actor, but as yet another convenient foreign policy tool in the hands of bureaucrats in Brussels.

The same approach was applied to the European media, which were considered to be as tightly controlled by respective European governments as the Russian mainstream media were controlled by the Kremlin. This inclination to ignore fundamental differences in how Russian and European leaders see the world was a source of many misunderstandings and complications that could otherwise have been avoided.

“Cherry picking should make the trick”

Daniel Maclise, Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard

Since Peter the Great, Russia demonstrated a highly selective approach to utilizing the European experience in various fields. For more than three centuries Russian rulers from the Romanov’s dynasty to Politburo members, tried to borrow from Europe the needed technologies, experts and managerial models without importing European social and political practices. This approach produced mixed results: the Russian modernization trajectory had its historic highs and lows; it was constantly criticized from both liberal and conservative sides, but in most cases it reflected an attempt by the authorities to keep a delicate balance between the urgent economic needs and the commitment to a political and social status quo.

This approach was used by the post-Soviet Russian leadership, especially after the chain of ‘color revolutions’ in the Russian neighborhood associated with the Western social and political influence. The Russian interpretation of the Partnership for Modernization signed with EU in June of 2010 was one of the graphic illustrations of such cherry picking. Form the EU standpoint, this partnership was to comprise not only technological and economic components, but also judicial reforms, support for civil society and human rights in Russia. The Russian interpretation was much more restrictive, focusing on harmonization of technical regulations, standardization, facilitating Russia’s access to advanced European technologies, etc.

The problem with this approach is that at every next stage of Russia’s development it is becoming more and more difficult to build a firewall between economic/technological and social/political dimensions of modernization. What was a relatively easy task for Peter the Great in early XVIII century became a real problem for Alexander III in the end of the XIX century, and it appears to be an impossible mission for Russian leaders in early XXI century. The fact is that cherry picking does not work in a post-modern world. Modernization these days is a wholesale, not a retail business.

Cherry picking could work — up to a point — in China, since China is still in many ways a developing nation, but not in the post-modern Russia. Even in the European Union had accepted the very restrictive and technical Russian definition of the Partnership for Modernization (something that the European Union could not do due to its very nature), any systematic and successful implementation of the Partnership would eventually generate formidable challenges to maintaining social and political status quo in Russia.

"Europe is not the only game in town”


One of the most remarkable recent features of the Russian policy is the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’. It started before the Ukrainian crisis, but the crisis became a powerful catalyst for changing Russian international priorities from the West to the East. Numerous official and academic advocates of this change use the following arguments to make their case. First, in the XXI century Asia appears to be much more dynamic and promising economically than Europe. Future Russian markers, sources of funding and modern technologies should be looked for in the East, not in the West.

Second, Asian countries — from China and ASEAN members to India and Iran — are not in the business of promoting ‘colored revolutions’ or sexual minority rights in Russian or in its neighborhood. Even if these countries are not too happy with the Russia’s policies toward Ukraine, they are unlikely to follow the West in imposing economic, financial and other sanctions on Moscow.

Third, centralized authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes are more efficient and reliable as partners than cumbersome and overcomplicated EU bureaucracies. Xí Jìnpíngcan deliver where Jean-Claude Juncker will be drown in procrastinations caused by the need reconcile multiple national, political, institutional and other group interests. The frustrating experience in dealing with the red tape in Brussels is a powerful incentive to look for potential alternatives.

These arguments make a lot of sense. However, in my opinion, they are outweighed by counterarguments that are far more powerful. Let me limit myself just to three of them. First, despite all the setbacks and mutual disappointments, cooperation with EU countries remains and will remain quite unique for Russia — not only in terms of the overall scale of trade, but also in terms of the quality of the relationship. The extensive legal base of cooperation, the visible role of SMEs, the degree of production localization in Russia by EU companies, the size of the Russian and Russian speaking communities in Europe, numbers of Russians with degrees from European Universities — nothing like this exists between Russia and Asia and nothing is likely to emerge between the two anytime soon.

Second, for a variety of reasons Europe is — or, at least, should be — much more interested in a true Russia’s modernization than Asia. While the latter is looking mostly for Russian natural resources and military technologies, the former would benefit a lot from unleashing the now dormant creative potential of the Russian nation, from a renaissance of the Russian R&D capacity, from a vibrant Russian civil society, from a flourishing Russian culture that rightfully belong to Europe as an integral part of the European culture.

Third, and the most important, Europe is indeed no longer the only game in town, but the town does play by the same rules all over the place, Or, at least, these are the rules in all the respectful saloons, casinos and gambling houses on the global Main Street. Therefore, in Asia Russia will and is already confronting the same limitations as it has been confronting in Europe for a long time. Most of these limitations are domestic, not external — poor governance and omnipotent bureaucracy, rampart corruption and absence of independent judiciary, energy dependency and few incentives for innovation. Without these fundamental problems addressed in a serious way, any shifts of geographical priorities will produce only very modest positive results for the country.


Phantom is an Illusion, a distortion of the senses. Though illusions distort reality, they are generally shared by most people and nations at large. Unlike a hallucination, which is a distortion in the absence of a stimulus, an illusion is a misinterpretation of a true sensation. As psychiatry textbooks teach us, hearing voices regardless of the environment would be a hallucination, whereas hearing voices in the sound of running water (or other auditory source) would be an illusion. Russian phantoms have not emerged from nowhere — they do reflect some realties of the Moscow’s long-term experience with its Western partners. Each phantom has a life of its own; each has been fed not only by the Kremlin and its propaganda warriors, but also by mirror phantoms, illusions, misperceptions, specific actions or inactions on the Western side. European leaders should not forget this causal relation when they urge their Russian counterparts to part with their distortions of reality. It is, of course, up to Russians to chase the Russian phantoms, but EU should probably also consider engaging experienced ghostbusters to cast wicked spirits out of European houses. As they used to say, medice, cura te ipsum!

(votes: 4, rating: 4)
 (4 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%)
For business
For researchers
For students