The case for change in Russian foreign policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

File photo. Russian Permanent Representative Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov speaks to the press at the start of a conference on 'Supporting the future of Syria and the region' at EU council headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium, 25 April 2018. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA/EFE]

Russian Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov recent speech on EU-Russian relations was skilfully made but his claims lack credibility, responds Michael Emerson.

Michael Emerson is Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov’s recent speech delivered at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Valdai Discussion Club, published by Euractiv on 7 June, merits comment and debate. For sure Chizhov is a most skilled diplomat, uniquely experienced in European affairs from his long tenure in Brussels. He also makes some points that are refreshingly different to the messages of the Kremlin’s media propaganda campaigns, such that the European Union is collapsing: he says that those who are advancing such views “seriously underestimate the viability of this integration union”.

He considers today’s state of relations between Brussels and Moscow to be “frozen”, and also “abnormal”, given “our common Eurasian civilization”.  Yes, we both belong to the vast Eurasian land mass, if talk of “Eurasian civilization” seems premature. But our common European history and cultural heritage is so real and precious.

The Russian relationship is indeed “frozen” and “abnormal”. Yet many Europeans and Russians have got to know each other so well over the last quarter century, after the end of the Soviet Union’s self-isolation. Many of us would wholeheartedly like to see the wonderful personal relationships that have been established to find their counterpart at the level of official relations.

For practical purposes the ambassador advocates “integrating the integrations”, of the EU and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), as a desirable step forward. He says that being an economist is not necessary to understand its advantages, “having common sense is enough”. Actually a little economics would help. The EAEU is a poorly functioning customs union, with many transitional exceptions, and much dissatisfaction among Russia’s partner states. Its main operational competence is as a free trade area. The EAEU seeks to negotiate free trade areas with other countries, but not with China for which it has only a ‘non-preferential’ agreement: i.e. excluding free trade for which Russian industry is not competitive enough to risk. Similarly Russia is today too deeply protectionist to be ready for free trade with the EU. Being a petro-currency has its disadvantages, that results in an exchange rate at which most industry is internationally uncompetitive. Russian economists and European observers can understand this. There have been several econometric studies done, including in the EU, to explore the costs and benefits of a free trade agreement between the EU and Russia, with the finding that there would be benefits for the EU but not for Russia. For this reason the EU can understand that Moscow basically does not want free trade with the EU, which makes a nonsense of Chizhov’s ‘common sense’. The speech about integrating the integrations is empty political rhetoric. There is much else that the EU and Russia could do together, but the EAEU does not have the real competences to be an integration partner.

Chizhov’s narrative becomes politically contestable when he says that the relationship is frozen “though no fault of ours, I would stress”. Who annexed Crimea, and engaged in hybrid war in the Donbass? Bringing this story up to date, the Kremlin chose the first day after Volodymir Zelenskyi’s election as President of Ukraine to introduce a scheme for the Russian ‘passportisation’ of Ukrainian citizens of the separatist regions of the Donbass. This initiative has been described as the annexation of citizens, if not of territory, given that dual citizenship is not possible for Ukrainians. This signals continuing aggressive intent and action towards Ukraine, which is why the sanctions are being continued.

Chizhov further departs from credibility by referring to the EU’s response to the attempted Novichok assassination of Sergei Skripal as “blowing up an international scandal on the dubious pretext of a chemical incident in Salisbury”. The evidence is that the Russian security services, and their two agents visiting Salisbury to admire the cathedral spire (so they said later on Russian TV), blundered in trying to execute the perfect murder (leaving no trace) on foreign territory, and then doubling the offence by denial. This palpable dishonesty in high level diplomacy is no isolated incident; witness also the years of attempts by Russia to portray the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over the Donbass in 2014 as due to the Ukrainian air force.

The abnormal state of affairs calls for changes in Russian foreign policy and diplomatic method, if there is to be the basis for an agreement between the two parties for enhanced cooperation across a potentially huge range of topics. What changes should there be in Russian foreign policy? Let’s focus here on our common European space, although there is much to be criticized about Russia’s actions in other continents (Syria, Venezuela, etc.). For the “pragmatic partnership” between the EU and Russia advocated by the ambassador, there has to be trust, which today does not exist. The first step towards this would be for Russia to desist in its self-declared ‘information war’, which sees massive and continuous adverse propaganda against the EU and its member states, both overtly through mainstream media and covertly through the social media and cyberwarfare. Correspondingly there would be an honest cleansing of diplomatic discourse, compared to the present when Russian diplomats are obliged to use their remarkable skills in defending the indefensible. A second step would be to get out of Donbass. The complicated Minsk agreements can be debated. But the fundamental point is that Russia continues to support the separatist regimes there militarily, financially and politically, with soldiers being killed on the separation line there almost every day. Kyiv could help the process by removing the current trade blockade of the region. We do not see this happening today, and have to wait patiently if sadly.

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