Over the past decade, the relations between Russia and the European Union have made a complete cycle. In the early 2000-s, there were expectations of intensive joint work and enthusiastic hopes of qualitative rapprochement, if not integration. Since the early 2010-s, the prevailing feeling has been mutual irritation, and the agenda has been reduced to just a handful of items.
Why is the relationship between Russia and the European Union in a crisis, although, according to all objective aspects, they should be ideal complementary partners? There are several factors that have brought about the present-day state of affairs. Let us ascend from specific factors to more general ones.
Firstly, there are ideological and political contradictions. During the post-soviet period, which lasted up until the mid 2000-s, both Russia and the EU existed in the paradigm that had emerged on the turn of the 1980-s and 1990-s. It was assumed that Russia was striving to build some sort of European model, and Europe was encouraging it to do so, at the same time becoming an increasingly large, strong and consolidated player on the world stage. Contradictions were arising along the way, but neither party would admit to being ready to back off.
The end of the post-soviet period in Russia saw a revision of principles that had seemed matter-of-course at the early stage of the transformation period. The exhaustion of the ideological resources connected with the European transition after the demise of Communism (the resources which Russia, despite all its specific character, had been going by for a long time) gave rise to new ideological search that drew upon the pre-so-viet tradition. This partly followed the developments that had been taking place in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In Russia, an outburst of this kind of sentiment occurred a lot later, after the country had got over the shock caused by the collapse of the USSR. As the issue of Russia's European integration had never been raised, there was no external constraint to the conservative search, and the people inside the country had to arrive at some logical conclusion by themselves. Be that as it may, the opposition to many aspects of European policies, which had always been there in this or that form, has now formed itself as a rather consistent traditionalist narrative.
In its turn, Europe was also undergoing ideological changes. Over the 20 years, it has noticeably drifted towards a much more liberal idea of democracy with a very considerate attitude to minorities and emphatically secular establishment. The standards of a sound modern state, as they are perceived by the present-day Europeans, are very different from those that existed 25 years ago.
This is connected both with the general logic of the development of the Western model and the specific character of the Old World, which has become the harbor for people from many other parts of the world, especially Muslims. The drive to painlessly integrate the newcomers leads to conscious liberalization and diluting of traditional European concepts and increases the flexibility of the model. However, an attempt to show this as a universal and mandatory for EU's partners standard of the social order meets with lack of understanding of many of its external partners. The collision is especially acute with Russia, which is undergoing an opposing conservative trend, although only a short while ago it did not deny its wish to keep abreast with Europe.
Secondly, there are the institutional crisis and the competition of projects. The expansion of the European Union and its reforms aimed at deepening its integration have significantly limited its functionality. The internal imbalance of the EU reflects on its ability to act, which is especially manifested in the its external relations. As a consolidated political player, the European Union has not succeeded. Moreover, the attempt to create it has led to a drop in the power and influence of individual countries (France, Germany, the UK), which used to be powerful players 10 years ago. That is to say, the deepening of integration did not enhance their joint power, but instead reduced their individual capability. A series of unfulfilled ambitions, global at first, and then regional ones in the Middle East, has led to the situation when the Eastern Partnership, a program for the attraction of post-soviet countries, seems to be of key importance to prove the soundness of EU's foreign policy and its attractiveness.
At the same time, Russia has formulated its own integration offer, a Customs Union, which should grow into the Eurasian Economic Union. So the countries situated between Russia and the European Union are the object of not abstract but quite concrete competition. This, in its turn, has brought to the forefront those EU members, such as Poland, the Baltic states and Sweden, that advocate putting a cap on Russia's ambitions. Even Germany was infected by the fighting spirit. At that, the actual value of Ukraine as a party to any integration format is not even equal to zero but negative, as a country which is so full of problems and public dissent can only shatter any structure.
Thirdly, there is a general shift in the global balance of power. The orientation of its economic and political activity towards Asia is making Russia change its priority system. The reason is not its attitude to Europe but the objective fact: only a country with solid and acknowledged positions on the Pacific may seek to become a great power in the XXI century. It is just like the positions on the Black and Baltic Seas back in history. To achieve this, Russia needs to hurl all effort to implement a complex strategy of re-orientation towards Asia Pacific, which should include a development program for Siberia and the Far East, as well as strategic positioning in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical structure. So, it does not any longer make sense for Russia to keep regarding all its actions through the prism of its relationship with Europe. Its priorities are shifting from the West to the East for quite a natural reason, and the struggle over Ukraine or the planting of missile systems in response to Europe's missile shield is nothing but momentum and the completion of the previously started games.
Another significant reason for the loss of interest is the change in the pattern of energy supply. The shale revolution in the US, the advent of more advanced kinds of renewable energy sources, the fast advancement of energy saving technologies, the liberalization of gas trade, both pipeline and liquid - each of these components on its own cannot provide a solution for the gas supply problem of Europe, but all of them taken together reduce its dependence on the supply from Russia. Hence the decreased political interest in keeping up a good relationship, as concern about energy security of citizens is a great incentive for contacts. Russia, on its part, is fated to reorientate its delivery routes towards Asian markets, because they are the most actively developing ones, and because Europe is doing its best to reduce its external dependence.
Russia and the European Union cannot seriously be at feud with each other, as their mutual dependence and attraction are too strong. But they do not have to draw together, either, as they have different aims and different horizons. Maybe, when the dust settles, the real pragmatism will prevail.