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How Europe Still Doesn’t Understand Russia’s Identity

Like many readers of this blog, I’ve been following closely the embarrassing fallout which took place following the publishing of Federica Mogherini’s issues paper on EU relations with Russia, which, to put it lightly, was a frighteningly naive conception of the situation from what should be a very important governing body.

I strongly agree ECFR’s Kadri Liik’s main critique of Mogherini’s paper, which include basic misconceptions that “may guide the EU’s Russia discussions for some time.”

The most worrying problem with the paper is that it betrays a profound lack of understanding of the driving factors of Russia’s foreign policy and their relative importance.

Compare, for example, the passages that try to identify Russia’s and the EU’s interests with regard to each other. Russia’s interests are seen as largely formal and bureaucratic: they include resumption of formal dialogue with the EU, trilateral talks on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, and recognition of the Eurasian Union (EEU). The EU’s interests, while listed in the same quick and somewhat offhand manner, belong to a different world: Russia’s respect for international law and OSCE-based order, an end to Moscow’s destabilising activities on the EU’s borders and to Russian pressure in the common neighbourhood, and improvements in fundamental freedoms and human rights in Russia.

These are not compatible categories. It is absurd to expect that Russia will stop putting pressure on its neighbours in the hope of “resuming a formal dialogue with the EU” (a dialogue in which Russia was already becoming less and less interested before the current stand-off). For Russia, pressurising neighbours is almost inevitable, because it stems from its chosen identity: Russia wants to think of itself as a great power, and its definition of great power includes having “a sphere of influence” around its borders. Great power status and the ability to control vast areas also legitimise the oppressive nature of the regime at home. Moreover, it would be wrong to think of great power rhetoric merely as a propaganda tool of the Kremlin. No – the idea of other countries being afraid of Russia enjoys true popularity among large parts of the population, who are happy to sacrifice certain freedoms for the sake of this national status.

Mogherini, who is married to a Gazprom lobbyist (not that that should matter), followed her paper by comments regarding a softening approach to sanctions, even though Russia has not changed course whatsoever on Ukraine (if anything, it has gotten worse).  But the fact that people can’t even decide what to call her role within the EU – is it “foreign policy coordinator” or “foreign policy chief” – belies the painful fact that the EU still does not really have a united foreign policy per se, allowing Russia the classic option of bilateral approaches to pick apart and divide the alliance according to its individual relations with each party. But so long as officials like Mogherini continue to ignore rule #1 of dealing with Russia – that its foreign policy is always driven by domestic political interests – it wouldn’t matter anyways.