Dimitris Rapidis

It is only about commerce or energy, Ukraine or Georgia, or even the perception of Putin’s authoritative leadership by the Westerners that are lately put under scrutiny. To the contrary, it is something more than that that has kept Western Europe-Russia ties so close all along the previous centuries. And these are the historical and political ties, the joint alliance and fights against the common threats. From the mid-19th century onwards Western Europe has developed a strong relationship with Saint Petersburg against the Ottoman expansion in the Balkans and the Nazis in Germany. The Cold War came to imbalance this relationship, but even after that the new era in Russia and the post-communist steps helped towards overcoming these burdens and distrust first appeared in the 1960s. And the story goes on.

Different centres of influence, different interests

The problem with the current conditions of this partnership with reference to the economic sanctions lies on the fact that many political leaders in the European Union have missed to invest time to learn and understand how the Russians work and behave. The cultural and political heritage of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and now Russia is built around the notion of dominium nourished over the centuries. Driven from the daily life, the education, the cultural and political tradition, the religion, and the relationship with the other ethnic groups, Russians have developed different lenses from those of the Westerners, Europeans or Americans. The history and development of Europe is in that sense completely different from the Russian one. In this respect, there are many intra-EU groups of member-states that perceive their relationship with Russia from different ways, but not through a single encompassing approach.

The first group consists of the member-states that have religious and historical ties with Russia, such as Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, and the Baltic States. Within this group, we have an additional scaling that evolves into different levels of Russian influence in terms of soft power. Greece and Russia build more on historical and religious tradition, Bulgaria and Russia on the common communist past and the language, the Baltic States and Russia on the cultural exchanges of proximity. We missed to quote Finland in this group -as we should- because it is a more complex story with feelings of animosity and rapprochement shifting over the centuries and developing a literally delicate relationship.

The second group consists of the founding member-states of the European Community, namely France, Germany, Italy, and Benelux. All six had -and still have- strong commercial relations with Russia, but they simply miss to interpret Kremlin’s decision-making in many cases, as for instance in Ukraine (see my analysis here). The reaction of the EU was indeed problematic for another reason: the EU has not developed a mandatory body of decision-making in foreign affairs, even though it has an established, yet with restricted executive powers, portfolio covered by the High Representative in Foreign Affairs. This “gap” makes things even harder while complicating the process of building a unanimous approach in every issue or crisis that comes into surface.

The third group consists of member-states that have no special or advanced relationship with Russia, a fact that lowers their voice and involvement in such circumstances.

Things are simpler than they look like

All member-state groups need to realize that the continuous tension with Russia is detrimental for the EU, and for Russia, but to a lesser extent. Russia asks a simple thing: do not interfere to our politics, whether these might be domestic or regional. This is what we do and this is what we expect from you to do. This is the most important “red line” for the Kremlin and this is exactly the line that the EU has crossed. Doing business with Russia means leaving aside all issues of non-EU concern. And this seems fair, whatever the “democratic reflexes” of EU in the case of Ukraine might be.

From a similar prism, the insistence of the EU in squeezing Russia is going beyond rational choice. Despite the sanctions policy, Russia has come to deal with EU and Ukraine over the provision of natural gas for 2015. Now it is time for the EU to compensate and bring back the Russians in the negotiation table and thaw this nonsense deadlock.

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