Europe, Russia, and the laws of nature: Importance of the EP election

The outcome of May's European Parliament elections will inform Moscow's understanding of the EU as a political actor on the global stage – but what message will Europe send? 

The May 2019 European Parliament election will provide some important signs of what to expect from the EU-Russia relationship in years to come. This is somewhat surprising, given that the parliament is not exactly the driving force of European foreign policy. The claim is based on neither the assumption that Russia might have high hopes for an anti-European and pro-Moscow takeover of the parliament, nor the assumption that it is preparing to engage in a large-scale, coordinated effort to achieve this end – as some Europeans fear.

Russia’s debate with Europe boils down to the laws of nature – two opposing forms of conviction about how the world really works. 

Instead, Russia will follow the election closely in yet another attempt to understand what the European Union is, where it is going, and what to make of it. Moscow will ask: is the EU a political and normative power to be reckoned with, or a chaotic manifestation of different stripes of activism that it is best to dismiss and ignore?

Russia’s view of Europe

Understanding the EU and the logic of its policymaking is no easy task. This is especially true in Moscow, where a historical worldview rooted in the primacy of great power relations is alive and well. Such a worldview is a poor basis for grasping Europe’s notion of pooled sovereignty, as well as its approach to policymaking – which may often be unglamorous but can nonetheless result in surprisingly resilient positions. Some people in Moscow (diplomats and experts) have developed a good feel for the EU, but they do not form a critical mass that can meaningfully inform Russia’s policymaking or, especially, its public debate. As things stand, Russian public discourse tends to take a somewhat Marxist, black and white view of European policymaking – one that might be best described as “shades of grey”.

In a superb article published in 2016, Russian analyst Andrey Kortunov summed up some of Russia’s misconceptions about EU policymaking as including: a sense of entitlement (“we are entitled to a special status”); an acceptance of technical modernisation, coupled with an abandonment of political modernisation (“cherry picking should make the trick”); and an orientation towards the big European countries combined with a tendency to ignore the small ones (“all EU members are equal, but some members are more equal than others”). Most fatefully, Kortunov argues, Russian elites’ economics-focused, somewhat Marxist education has made many of them believe that large-scale business investment in Europe would serve as a reliable insurance policy against political crises in the EU-Russia relationship. This led Moscow to severely underestimate Europe’s reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea. As Kortunov notes, it turns out Lenin’s famous remark that “‘the capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with’, after all, should be understood metaphorically, not literally”.

Such an economics-focused approach makes it very hard for Moscow to understand Europe’s true political persona and the nature of its relations with other powers. Typically, Russian commentators interpret European policies centred on norms and principles as having been dictated by Washington – the assumption being that, if Europe was truly autonomous, its economic interests would have motivated it to seek alignment with Russia. The latest example of this view can be found in Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks at the February 2019 Munich Security Conference: “the Europeans have allowed themselves to be involved in a senseless confrontation with Russia and are sustaining billions in losses from the sanctions that have been handed down from overseas,” he said.

In this context, Moscow sees European policy on both Iran and Nord Stream 2 as important tests of the extent to which Europe is capable of defying Washington; and it observes developments in these cases closely. On other matters, though, Moscow’s attempts to understand Europe’s position border on the grotesque. A good example is Moscow’s view of the much-discussed “European army” (a concept that, admittedly, also confuses Europe). As one Russian expert put it: “part of our establishment assumes that strategic autonomy leads to the creation of the European army and, that way, the West would have two armies against us: that of NATO and that of Europe. An alternative view is that strategic autonomy means Europe’s emancipation from America, but the people who see it that way, often believe that this must lead Europeans to kick out the Americans and align themselves with Russia.”

Bipolarity and extrapolation

This lack of a deep understanding of European policymaking, combined with some hard to explain but distinctive bipolarity in Russia’s worldview, can result in dramatic policy fluctuations.

Russian elites tend to see temporary trends as more sustainable and absolute than they are, exaggerating the benefits of positive ones and the costs of negative ones – along with the longevity of both. Such a boom and bust, hubris and collapse, worldview has somewhat diminished in recent years, as the world around Russia has become increasingly chaotic, but it was highly visible throughout the 1990s and subsequent decades. ECFR’s 2011 report “Dealing with a Post-Bric Russia” describes how Russia’s hubristic dream of becoming an energy superpower shattered in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. “We thought we were rising with China, but now we know we are declining with the EU”, as one Kremlin-linked expert commented. If, during a 2005 meeting with the European Commission, then Russian prime minister Mikhail Fradkov did indeed declare (as one commissioner reported) that “Russia does not need Europe”, then Medvedev-led, post-Bric, and post-crisis Russia was all about modernisation with European money and technology.

Similarly, in spring 2017, Moscow was full of talk about how the Brexit vote the previous year presaged the imminent collapse of the EU. Many in the Kremlin appeared to pin their hopes on the upcoming meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart, Donald Trump, as an opportunity to unlock relations with the West – over the head of an EU Moscow dismissed as a spent power. Russian diplomats who specialise in the EU, such as then deputy foreign minister Aleksey Meshkov, were among the lonely figures who tried to explain that “the EU has been built for a very long time and it will not disappear overnight”.

Yet, by September 2017, the tables had turned once again. The US-Russia relationship remained paralysed by fierce domestic political infighting in Washington. Far from falling apart, Europe seemed to be in the ascendancy, having been strengthened by the leadership of French President Emmanuel Macron. When Putin suggested deploying UN peacekeepers to Donbas, many in Moscow interpreted the move as a nod to Europe. “It seems that in the Kremlin, a re-evaluation of Europe is happening,” said one Russian analyst in October 2017. “We need Europe’s help to manage the dangerously unpredictable America, and a settlement in the Donbas would be a key to improved relations with the EU.”

Herein lies the significance of the upcoming European election: Moscow will take the result as a sign of not just Europe’s political direction but, more importantly, Europe’s ability to remain a political actor of any kind. Moscow’s conclusions on that account will directly translate into its willingness to engage with Europe, and Europe’s ability to achieve anything vis-à-vis Russia. “Moscow is wondering whether 2019 will be a new 2016 or a new 2017 for the EU,” said a well-informed analyst in Moscow. “Will it inspire a new round of inward-looking chaos, or will Europe actually emerge strengthened and outward-looking from these elections?”

But Russian meddling…?

Given the stakes of the European Parliament election, should Europe worry about Russian meddling in the vote? As a precaution, it should – but there are also several reasons to believe that Moscow will not interfere on a large scale. Firstly, Moscow lacks the expertise to do so effectively in 27 member states that all have different domestic agendas and political protagonists. Russian troll factories may become more active around elections, but most of their output is fairly generic. So far, the only elections that Russia’s “political technologists” have successfully manipulated have been the Russian ones.

Secondly, Moscow is disappointed with its European allies’ ability to change EU policy, including that on sanctions. In 2017 two prominent Russian experts noted that “Eurosceptic and traditionalist movements have an influence on the overall atmosphere in Europe, but they lack the potential, primarily the intellectual one, needed for devising … an alternative political and economic model.” And things have not improved for Moscow since then: notionally pro-Russian forces have come to power in member states such as Italy and Austria but, while being publicly critical of European sanctions on Russia, they keep lending their support to the measures in return for other perks from the EU.

Thirdly, Russia could be belatedly reassessing the value of election interference. By now, it is clear that the overall losses from interference in the 2016 US presidential election far outweigh the gains. Indeed, when asked if Moscow has learnt from the experience, Russian analysts often refer to the lack of Kremlin-linked interference in the US mid-term elections.

Moscow could draw similar conclusions from its operations in Europe. The Lisa case – which involved a fake story about a Russian-German girl who was reportedly raped by Arab migrants – generated significant disappointment with Moscow in Germany, the one European country that still truly and unselfishly cares about Russia. Interference in the French presidential election – which ended in victory for the only candidate Russia opposed – was outright embarrassing. “I think France was the turning point,” said one Russian analyst. “Putin’s visit to Versailles, where he was coldly reprimanded by Macron … that might have been a lesson.”

This does not mean that there will be no Russian interference in the European Parliament election at all. Some of it is routine: RT will surely not change its tone. Some cyber warriors do not necessarily coordinate their activities with the Kremlin. And some cases, such as that involving Russia’s alleged assistance to Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, could be explained by personal and business links. But, overall, Russia’s interference in the lead-up to the May election will probably take the form of isolated incidents rather than a well-coordinated campaign.

Head and heart

Officially, Russia is still supportive of “a strong, independent and open European Union”, as Lavrov reiterated in Munich – although the meaning of this long-standing talking point has changed over time. When President Boris Yeltsin promised in 1994 that Russia would “do everything possible to support European integration”, he was referring to this as part of Russia’s comeback in Europe. Nowadays, however, all talk about Russia’s convergence with Europe is gone. For Moscow, a united Europe has value as one bloc in a multipolar world that is no longer subject to Western hegemony. “It is rather natural for Europe to want to be independent, self-sufficient, sovereign in terms of its defence and security”, Putin said in November. “I think that this process is, in general, positive, from the standpoint of strengthening the multipolarity of the world.”

This is not necessarily empty talk: one can sense that, at times of peaking tensions or total deadlock in relations with the US, there is a rise in Russian demand for Europe as a global policy partner. For instance, at a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in 2016 – held just days before the US election, against a backdrop of tension between Washington and Moscow over Syria – many Russian analysts and politicians complained about the “complete absence of Europe”.

Still, deep down, Moscow’s position on Europe is in some ways reminiscent of its position on US involvement in Afghanistan. In 2007 a Russian military analyst asked whether he wanted the Americans to succeed there replied gravely: “yes – my head wants them to succeed, but my heart wants them to fail as completely as we did!” Equally, some Russian politicians would intellectually approve of a strong and united Europe but could not accept it emotionally.

Putin most likely falls into this category. As evident from his comments above, he nominally supports a Europe that is strong enough to act independently of the US. But his notion of power does not really accommodate the European version of pooled sovereignty. “There are not so many countries in the world that enjoy the privilege of sovereignty,” he said in 2017, and hinted that European countries, such as Germany, do not belong in that category. 

“Instinctively, he is nationalist, unilateralist, and transactional”, said one Russian analyst in December 2018. “Thus, he feels close to political forces in Europe that share this worldview. For him, this is how the world works, and he wants to be vindicated. He wants to be able to tell the West that he has always been right.”

In this way, Russia’s debate with Europe boils down to the laws of nature – two opposing forms of conviction about how the world really works. Europe sees Russia as clumsily clinging to old-fashioned concepts, unable to adapt to the modern world and its cooperative ways; Russia views Europe as reaching for an illusion that the world is busy dispelling.

This is why the upcoming European election is so important. It is the first such vote with a truly pan-European agenda. European insurgent parties are messengers of the problems the EU must address. If the EU does so successfully – becoming stronger in the process – Moscow will need to accept that the union is here to stay, and that it is a force to be reckoned with. This will not make Russia subscribe to Europe’s worldview, but it will make it accept the EU as a fact of life and a major actor in great power politics. Such recognition will inform Russian policy planning.

Conversely, if insurgent parties paralyse the EU as a united force, Moscow might sometimes come to regret it: some manifestations of a fragmented union would not be to its liking. But Moscow would take comfort in the vindication of its traditional worldview – which is no small thing in itself.

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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