In search of “business not as usual” with Russia

Europe needs to start reconceptualising its relationship with Russia. Here’s how it can do this

In Europe’s conversation about Russia, “business as usual” has become a loaded term. “We must not go back to business as usual,” warn eastern European politicians. “We are not back to business as usual,” affirm officials in Brussels. “It’s not business as usual,” echo even businesspeople, who probably rather wish it was. Even the European Parliament recently approved a report that stated: “the EU cannot envisage a gradual return to ‘business as usual’ until Russia … restores the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.

In reality, there is no need to reiterate the mantra. The European Union and Russia cannot go back to the old model of their relationship. The path is blocked: both sides’ expectations, ambitions, fears, hopes, and the sense of what is possible have shifted so as to close it. The way ahead can only go through reconceptualisation of the relationship, but this is bound to be a long journey.

The EU and Russia are still digesting the story of the past 25 years

The EU and Russia are still digesting the story of the past 25 years, which tends to lead to recriminations and backward- rather than forward-looking policy discussions. But, while understanding the past remains important, it can offer only limited clues about the future, which will offer a profoundly different setting. In addition, for the time being, the EU and Russia are both moving targets, going through a complicated internal evolution, the destination of which remains unknown. Finally, the differences between the EU and Russia are first and foremost of a deeply philosophical, normative kind, and this means that they cannot really be settled in isolation, bilaterally – because only the direction of history and the choices of other powers can validate or disprove their different claims and show who is “on the right side of history”. The new relationship needs to be anchored in a wider world order; any settlement outside that is bound to be of a limited and provisional nature. But the world is, alas, in flux itself, and fails to provide a framing order. Thus, the journey to a new model of relationship will be long and complicated, but it is a mountain that needs to be climbed.

What is “business as usual”?

What does “business as usual”, in fact, mean; and why can one not go back to it? The history of the term, as applied to Russia’s relations with the West, is long, but it acquired its current negative connotation after the 2008 war in Georgia, when it came to signify a situation in which Russia violates the essential rules of international conduct, and the West, despite some thunderous statements (“no business as usual now!”), fails to react in a meaningful way. The EU, in particular, not knowing what to do, simply resumed its dialogue with Russia – frozen as a punishment – after a hiatus of just a few months. 

In retrospect, the Russo-Georgian war and the Western reaction to it were both logical manifestations of the late and painful stage of the relationship between Russia and the West, built on misleading expectations, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. Today, the West tends to blame Russia for reverting to authoritarianism and an imperialist mindset. Moscow accuses the West of taking geopolitical advantage of Russia’s weakness and of imposing its own rules, as opposed to meeting “in the middle” and creating a common European home there – as supposedly proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev. But on closer examination it seems that, deep down at its roots, this misconceptualisation of the relationship was not really caused by anyone’s ill-will but, rather, by the spirit of the time. In “the end of history” world of the early 1990s, Western values and global power became blended in ways that confused both Russian and Western thinking about the nature and parameters of their relationship.

Wanting a role in a “unipolar” Western-led world and, at least for a while truly believing in its own Western/European destiny, Russia signed up to a long list of Western norms. But its inability to adhere to them meant that it never quite became a fully-fledged member of the Western system with an equal say in decision-making, and this obviously caused frustration. Moscow’s failure (and increasing unwillingness) to be a rule-taker led to it becoming a rule-faker, an imitation democracy that used the form of rules-based society to escape its substance – which caused frustration in the West.

Thus Russia and the West got stuck in a relationship of pretence: Russia pretended, though ever more than lukewarmly, to be in the Western camp; while in the West many believed, and many pretended to believe, that Russia would “fake it until it makes it” and eventually get there. This constituted “business as usual” for a long time, until it ended abruptly in 2014.

Would Russia want to go back?

In the West, it is customary to think that today Russia would like nothing more than to go back to “business as usual”. But this is not necessarily the case. While Russia has certainly benefited from many of its opportunities, it grew increasingly irritated with the other side of the coin: the need to pretend to be sharing the Western world-view. Russia’s political leadership had long ago become dissatisfied with the role of a “student of democracy” that left it in an inferior position, permanently criticised, and unable to have its desired influence on global affairs that were conducted in the paradigm of a “unipolar world”. Vladimir Putin made this quite clear in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. “Incidentally, Russia – we – are constantly being taught about democracy,” he said. “But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves. … countries that forbid the death penalty even for murderers and other, dangerous criminals are airily participating in military operations that are difficult to consider legitimate.”

Moscow seems to realise that “business as usual” may no longer be available

On his return to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin set about reconceptualising Russia as a (politically) non-Western country and creating the political capacity for autonomous action, in defiance of the West if necessary. Joining the war in Syria in 2015 was the first big manifestation of that stance: it was done against the West’s wishes and making use of the absence of a coherent Western policy in the region. Most importantly, it was rooted in Russia’s philosophical world-view that values the inviolability of borders over humanitarian interventions, and the rule of a strongman over a popular revolution.

No less telling a sign of that new era was Russia’s recalibrated relationship with Iran. If Moscow had earlier leveraged its influence over Tehran to shape its relations with Washington, after 2012 things changed: Iran was no longer a bargaining chip, but rather a regional ally with which relations blossom or sour thanks to their own, or regional, dynamics, not great power relationships.

Today, Russia is not ready to give up this autonomy. It might want to improve its relations with the West – and Europe – but on its own terms, and keeping its gains, such as Crimea. This pretty much excludes going back to the old “business as usual”.

Furthermore, Moscow seems to realise that “business as usual” may no longer be available. First, the path back is blocked by the conflict with Ukraine, and it may remain so for a long time. Interviews conducted in Moscow in the spring of 2019 show that Russia’s policy in Donbas is increasingly viewed as a mistake that is not, however, easy to rectify. “Syria was a big success, but Ukraine was a big failure,” said a high-level government official working for the prime minister. “Our notion of Ukraine was drastically divergent from reality. Our goal should be to have normal relations with Ukraine as well as Europe; many people worked many years to achieve that; but then we blew it all. … Maybe it might have been possible to avoid this failure at a much earlier stage, but now it is too late.”  

Interestingly, it appears that Putin also senses that the path back is closed for him personally. His take on European-Russian relations is a curious phenomenon. As a rule, Russian politicians are not good at understanding the workings of the European Union. Their interpretation of it tends to be somewhat crude, primitive, and Marxist-influenced, overemphasising the importance of economic interests and the influence of Washington. But Putin has – probably relying on his intuitive reading of his fellow leaders’ moods – occasionally displayed a very astute feeling for Europe’s positions, sometimes long before Europe itself has managed to formulate them. For instance, when Europe’s faith in Russia’s democratic journey vanished in the wake of Putin’s 2011 announcement that he would run again for the presidency, he was among the first to feel the change of mood. “They have all ganged up against me,” he said, according to several sources, in early 2012, referring to Western leaders. In the 2014 speech in which he announced the annexation of Crimea, he made long overtures towards Germany as a former “divided nation”, which should thus understand Russia’s wish to be reunited with Crimea. It seems that, deep down, Putin realised that the legalistic Germans would not swallow the annexation quite so easily, so he went to great lengths to persuade them.

And now, even though Europe promises to unfreeze relations once Russia leaves Donbas, Putin seems to sense that things would still not be the same: “There is a strong belief that certain things, for instance dual-use technologies, will not be available for us any more,” said one Russian analyst in December. “Before the elections, [Russian politician Alexey] Kudrin tried to show Putin that economic solutions that involve modernisation are available for Russia. But Putin does not believe they are available to him. So, if they actually are, it would be important to clearly communicate it to him.”

Would Europe like to go back?

Putin’s intuition may well be correct here. One should not doubt that, if Russia leaves Donbas, the EU would lift the related sanctions – but this is not the same as returning to the old relationship with all its perks and ambitions.

Research by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that almost all EU member states perceive Russia as a threat – though first and foremost of a normative kind, as Moscow is perceived to be seeking to dismantle the post-cold war European order. Member states view Moscow’s influence as actually or potentially destabilising in almost all regions: from Europe’s eastern neighbourhood and the Baltic Sea to the western Balkans, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. It seems that bad experiences with Russia on issues such as Ukraine, Syria, and interference in European domestic politics have now spilled over into low expectations from almost everyone in nearly all areas.

This stands in stark contrast with the period between 1991 and 2011, when the EU was split by an analytical debate about Russia’s trajectory: the European mainstream, led by Germany, hoped that Russia was democratising and becoming Westernised, while the minority – such as the Baltic states and Poland – saw a dangerous authoritarian regime consolidating itself. But this debate ended in the autumn of 2011, when Putin announced his intention to return to the Kremlin. As so acutely observed by Putin himself in 2012, any remaining faith in Russia’s democratic journey vanished on that September day in 2011. The annexation of Crimea simply crystallised and cemented the new, negative view.

It is quite clear that this new consensus needs to be matched by a new policy. Some EU countries had earlier sought to change Russia – Germany with the carrot of dialogue and engagement, the Baltic states with the stick of bitter criticism – while others, such as France and Italy, adopted a more hands-off attitude, saying that one needs to deal with Russia as it is. Now, all need to adapt to the new reality. Germany is beginning to acknowledge that there are limits to how far engagement and dialogue can actually influence Russia. The Baltic states are still eloquent critics, but struggle to convert their analytical assessment into workable policy proposals. Italy and others in its camp mostly do realise and accept that “dealing with Russia as it is” now needs to include some restrictions – though there is no clarity or unanimity on how far these should go.

Most crucially, the EU as a whole needs a new conceptual Russia strategy that should seek realistic answers to certain questions. What does the EU want to achieve with Russia? What can it achieve? What leverage does it have? How can Russia fit into the liberal world order that the EU seeks to promote? And what happens if it does not fit at all?

Start small

As explained earlier, some of these questions may take years, if not decades, to sort out. But the EU will still need a Russia policy of some sort for the coming years – in circumstances where the West is split, its credibility as a norm-setter is shattered and the world order is in flux. Coherent vision may take a long time – and perhaps more crises – to emerge, but one could start in a small way, by conducting a review of the relationship and asking what needs to change. Most cooperation and dialogue formats between Russia and the West have been set up under the assumption that Russia is a like-minded partner. Today many of them could be made more functional by honestly admitting that, for the foreseeable future, it is not.

The EU has defined norms and values as an integral part of its foreign policy, especially when it comes to its neighbours. When it comes to Russia, however, it should not give up on that aim, but should drastically change the means. Direct promotion of democracy is treated as a threat by Russia’s leadership – and with a yawn by the general population, who have been overexposed to didactic Westerners telling them how to live. The view of the West as a cynical hypocrite is widespread. But the EU still has a reliable way to help democracy in Russia, and this starts at home: putting its own house in order and thereby revalidating liberal democracy as a governance model for the 21st century is the best thing the EU could do for Russia’s democracy.

The EU should change its rhetoric: giving up the position of a paternalistic norm-setter, acknowledging that, at the moment, the European world-view is losing out in the world market of ideas and admitting that the West had made some mistakes would make Moscow take Europeans a lot more seriously than eloquent moralising that lacks policy to back it up. “Say less but mean it more” would be a good recommendation for the times ahead. The rhetoric of humility is also a good way to reach out to Russian society, activist groups, and NGOs. When a Western speaker addresses Russian audiences, it is noticeable how people’s eyes brighten up and attention grows when he or she departs from the rehearsed moralistic lines and tries to give a more in-depth take of the world, Europe, and Russia.

The EU should begin to accept Russia “as it is”, as Moscow has long wanted. But this would not have the implication of accepting Russia’s domestic arrangements as being as good as those of the EU – as Russia wishes, and some Europeans fear. Democracies, even if in trouble, remain a special club. And the EU is perfectly capable of distinguishing and showing – subtly, politely, but matter-of-factly – the difference between those it considers its own and those it does not.

Finally, the EU should stop treating dialogue with Russia as a reward. Fixation on dialogue, fear that its resumption means legitimising Russia, and going back to “business as usual”, is rooted in the humiliating trauma of the Russo-Georgian war, when Europe indeed failed to react. But now it has reacted to events in Ukraine: for five years, it has stuck to sanctions; it is working on its resilience in the cyber and information spheres; it has reshaped its energy market; it is slowly starting to tackle illicit Russian money; and, as NATO members, EU countries are providing military reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland. In these circumstances, contacts with Moscow would not show weakness and surrender. At the same time, insisting that “not talking is a punishment” hands too many cards to Moscow: the Kremlin can currently present each contact (and some are inevitable) as a victory, which it is not.   

This does not, however, mean that the EU must seek to restore the whole format of the previous interactions with its pompous twice-a-year summitry. These formats were often empty of relevant content even before 2014, and much of the old agenda has now become entirely obsolete. But if a new agenda, rooted in the new reality, emerges, the EU should not fear talking about this with Moscow as and when needed.

The EU should stop fearing the return of “business as usual”.  One cannot return to the old model of the relationship: that door is closed. The way ahead is long and vague: it goes through a re-examination of the past, the “five stages of grief”, mutual recriminations, occasional tests of will, and a confused search for new concepts – and all against the background of internal and external turbulence. But, in the end, it may result in a more sober, clear, and functional relationship between the EU and Russia.


A longer version of this article has been published in: Post-Crimea Shift in EU-Russia Relations: From Fostering Interdependence to Managing Vulnerabilities, Kristi Raik & András Rácz (eds.) (2019), Tallinn: International Centre for Defence and Security/ Estonian Foreign Policy Institute

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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