Russia’s EU strategy is to isolate member states

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Siim Kallas

Russia’s strategy with the EU is to isolate the member states from one other, so Europe has to remain united when it negotiates with Moscow, writes Siim Kallas.

Siim Kallas is former Vice-president of the European Commission. He is currently a professor of international economics at the University of Tartu.

During the decade between 2004 and 2014, there were eighteen EU-Russia summits.  In addition, there were three joint meetings of the European Commission and the Russian government and numerous other high-level meetings. The outcome of all these negotiations has been minuscule.  Almost nothing has been achieved. Since so much effort went in, it is pertinent to ask why nothing of any significance has come out. The answer is not hard to find: when the EU and Russian get together around the negotiating table, it is a meeting of two different worlds.

While the collapse of the Soviet Union was considered by the West as a great victory of freedom, in Russia it was seen as a geopolitical catastrophe. The Soviet Union was the great Russian alternative to the West’s fixation with democracy and free-market economics.  Right from the start, the Russians had a problem with the very existence of the European Union. In the early 1960s, a group of leading Soviet economists confidently predicted the imminent failure of the newly created European Common Market. 

That didn’t happen, but the failure of the Soviet bloc did, and Europeans should never underestimate the feeling of national bitterness the loss produced – because Russia had wanted to create its own alternative to the Western model of stability, sustainability and prosperity. So it should be no surprise that Russia’s major objective in all her dealings with the EU is to split the Member States into different camps or factions. The Russians seek to ignore the whole European Union governance structure as much as they possibly can. 

Each side has a fundamentally different understanding of their own sphere of influence: European foreign policy is based on negotiation and compromise; Russian foreign policy is based on force and propaganda. While peace is a fundamental idea of the European Union, Russia considers war to be business-as-usual. 

European neighbourhood policy is voluntary and inclusive; Russian neighbourhood policy is aggressive. The EU is a voluntary union between 28 nation states; by contrast, no nation has ever wanted voluntarily to be a part of the Russian empire.

Russians do not come to negotiate, they come to win. In the West, many people with experience of dealing with the Russians say that they are tough negotiators. This seems plausible, but it is not true. Most Russians do not actually have any mandate to negotiate.  All they can do is to repeat the bureaucratic statements prepared for them by the Moscow machinery. It might look like tough talking, but in reality it is just a sign that they have no room for manoeuvre.

To make matters worse, those who are sent to the negotiations are usually fearful that they will be thought of as “Western-friendly” when they get back home.

Negotiators from our side must therefore be firm, competent and polite. Of course,  there is absolutely no point in being provocative.  Nor should we try to please or flatter our counterparts – that will just frighten them.  Coming from a society where corruption and blackmail are widespread, Russians are very much afraid that they may be the target of bribery or blackmail themselves.

Some in the West mistakenly believe that dealing at a personal level with Russian leaders in an amicable manner can help solve the problem. The personal touch in international relations should never be underestimated and it can help pave the way in negotiations.  But there are the limits, and these limits are rooted in the general attitudes of Russian society.  It is deeply anti-Western, for a host of long-standing historical reasons. The two sides’ understanding of the main events of the 20th century is fundamentally different. In Russia, World War II is still regarded as a victory over the West. Russian victory celebrations have always contained strong anti-Western sentiments.

The current high level of domestic support for President Putin’s actions is not the result of wholesale brainwashing or complete isolation from independent information.  It is simply that the great majority of Russian society is in favour of his recent anti-Western stance. Today, when the Russian press speak about the European Union, the word they use is “protivnik”, which means “adversary”.

All this does not mean we can never have constructive economic and political relations with Russia.  But we have to get the fundamentals right, and the biggest mistake we can make is to believe that Russia is somehow like the West, even that it is part of Europe. It is not, and it does not wish to be. There is simply too big a structural mismatch.

So we should negotiate, but we should always be aware that Russia’s strategy with the EU is to isolate the member states from one other. They offer tailor-made benefits; they threaten; they work individually with politicians; they put pressure on different sensitive lobby groups; they support pro-Russian political parties in the member states.

The European Union is most successful when it is united.  It is better to be united in compromise than to be radically fragmented.

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