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Roman Mayka

Program Coordinator and Website Editor at the Russian International Affairs Council

Today, instead of becoming the bridge between Russia and the EU, the Baltic countries have become a stumbling block, which only makes Russia’s relationship with the West more problematic. Especially after the crisis in 2008 and 2014, when the Baltic states became more active in shaping EU policy, their influence posed a threat to Russia’s interests. Therefore, alternative strategies must be developed.

Russia’s behavior in Ukraine has brought more distrust and increased tensions in relations than any other conflict. As Ukraine remains a highly sensitive topic between Russian and the West, progress in that sphere could be a significant step forward towards stabilizing Russia-EU relations. However, we should not be looking for a solution outside of the region at hand. It should not be Ukraine, Syria, or anywhere else. Regarding the Baltic, it is clear that the Ukrainian crisis is an entirely different issue. This crisis was not the initial cause of tensions, and solving it wouldn't change the nature of relations between Russia and the Baltics. The roots of these tensions existed long before Ukraine and while the Ukrainian crisis should not be excluded from the discussion, other aspects of the relationship should also be given attention.

To overcome the political division, both sides should maintain their commitments to areas such as research, cross-border cooperation, maritime safety, implementation of environmental programs, and climate change. On paper, these strategies work out, but both sides should be prepared to step out of their comfort zone and to fully understand whether they are ready for this change. Now it has turned into a circular dilemma — the current status quo is at an all-time low. While both sides are willing to improve relations, they are not ready to change the status-quo. It is impossible to understand who is to blame because both sides are convinced they are right. History teaches both sides that they must choose among realistic options, and play the cards they are dealt.

This paper was written primarily for the RIAC-ECFR meeting dedicated to the security in the Baltic Sea region, which was held in early June 2019. It was designed as a food-for-thought paper, so it doesn't propose any solutions on how to get out of the crisis (on how to resolve the crisis). It's rather a provocation to generate the discussion about such a complicated issue as the relations between Russia and the Baltic states.

It's no secret that relations between Russia and the EU are at a stalemate. Imposed sanctions, the policy of "selective engagement", and disagreements over the Ukrainian crisis and other problematic parts of the world continue to pose complications for both sides. The Ukrainian crisis in particular did much to intensify tensions between Russia and the EU, particularly the Baltic States. While the Baltic States are institutionally dependent on the EU and NATO, the nature of relations in this specific case are more complex than the relations between Western Europe and Russia. The irony is that Moscow, technically, is capable of establishing good ties with Portugal, Greece, Italy, Germany, and any other Western European country, but it wouldn't solve the problems or change the nature of Russian relations with the West itself. While Europe will still view Russia as an aggressive state and a problematic neighbor, it should be noted that Russia is interested in establishing a trustworthy partnership with the Baltic states. While many problems still exist between the two sides, nothing is impossible with political will. Many may view tensions between East and West works in favor of the West, but the opposite can also be possible. With the right approach, the tensions can be eased, and the "spoilers" can become the keys to good relations between the EU and Russia.

Looking back at the 1990s, it is clear that Russian leadership failed to formulate a thoughtful strategy regarding the Baltic countries. Even back then, the relations between Russia and the Baltics were defined by a low-intensity crisis. A post-colonial syndrome in the Baltic states resulted in a negative attitude towards Russia as the successor of the USSR, and the depiction of large Russian-speaking communities as a fifth column leading to tensions that exist to this day. After a while, problems have accumulated, and Russia's unchanging attitude pushed the three Baltic republics towards the Western institutions: NATO and the European Union. In the midst of these problems, Russia has yet to change its attitude towards the Baltic states. Moscow preferred to talk to the 'old Europe' over the heads of Russia's closest Western neighbors. Russia still expects that Brussels, Berlin and Paris would solve all the problems within the EU and the Baltic states in particular. Such an approach gave Moscow a plausible pretext not to engage in managing the negative Soviet legacy in Central European and Baltic countries. Now it is clear that if Russia seeks good relations with the EU, it has to start with the closest western neighbors.

Little weight is given to the fact that Moscow’s policy towards the Baltic states is not the only factor contributing to the situation. It was not Russia who approached NATO's border, increasing military tensions – rather the opposite. Anti-Russian sentiment has also driven the foreign policies of the Baltic states. In the long-term, this can become too costly and too irrational.

Today, instead of becoming the bridge between Russia and the EU, the Baltic countries have become a stumbling block, which only makes Russia’s relationship with the West more problematic. Especially after the crisis in 2008 and 2014, when the Baltic states became more active in shaping EU policy, their influence posed a threat to Russia’s interests. Therefore, alternative strategies must be developed.

So where we can start? Russia’s behavior in Ukraine has brought more distrust and increased tensions in relations than any other conflict. As Ukraine remains a highly sensitive topic between Russian and the West, progress in that sphere could be a significant step forward towards stabilizing Russia-EU relations. However, we should not be looking for a solution outside of the region at hand. It should not be Ukraine, Syria, or anywhere else. Regarding the Baltic, it is clear that the Ukrainian crisis is an entirely different issue. This crisis was not the initial cause of tensions, and solving it wouldn't change the nature of relations between Russia and the Baltics. The roots of these tensions existed long before Ukraine and while the Ukrainian crisis should not be excluded from the discussion, other aspects of the relationship should also be given attention.

Unfortunately, the issue of international politics and security between Russia and the EU, specifically between Russia and the Baltic states, has taken over other areas of possible cooperation. To overcome the political division, both sides should maintain their commitments to areas such as research, cross-border cooperation, maritime safety, implementation of environmental programs, and climate change. On paper, these strategies work out, but both sides should be prepared to step out of their comfort zone and to fully understand whether they are ready for this change. Now it has turned into a circular dilemma — the current status quo is at an all-time low. While both sides are willing to improve relations, they are not ready to change the status-quo. It is impossible to understand who is to blame because both sides are convinced they are right. History teaches both sides that they must choose among realistic options, and play the cards they are dealt.

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