I arrived in Moscow as the EU’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation exactly four years ago. At the time, relations with Russia were strained but still functioning. Our efforts to engage Moscow had not yielded much but still allowed open channels of communication. But only a few months later, our relations with Russia plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Since then, we have undergone a deep and acute crisis in relations. My task has been to staunchly defend the EU’s values and interests while at the same time maintaining a bridge between Europe and Russia.
As I leave my post, I am pessimistic that Europe and Russia will return to being partners for some time to come. The differences are vast and about principles of European security. I am optimistic, however, about the EU’s ability to stick to its values and principles and to remain united in the face of countervailing pressures. But this will require political will and staying power by European leaders.
Today, the entire apparatus of the Kremlin has a singular focus: ensuring that the presidential elections in March 2018 are smooth and 'credible' – and that they unequivocally re-elect President Vladimir Putin for another 6-year term. This will be his second, and presumably last, presidential mandate in a row; his fourth since 1999. What can we expect from Putin’s last mandate as president? And how should the West respond?
Whatever happens in Russia between now and 2024, the “clash of world-views” between Russia and the West will continue. At the heart of this clash are fundamental differences over Ukraine and Georgia's right to choose their alliances and their association with the West. This clash is about Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea and about the European choice inherent in the Eastern Partnership.
It is also about core European values. Inside Russia we are likely to continue to witness the rejection of civil society activism, freedom of speech, and political pluralism – all of which flourished during Yeltsin and Gorbachev’s times. Foreign investors will also face uncertainties because of increased protectionism, weak rule of law, and political unpredictability.
The Russian leadership will continue to reject the outcome of the Cold War and insist on a new European security order, based on spheres of interests rather than the free choice of nations to forge their alliances. Russia respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours – but only when their geopolitical choices align with Moscow.
Russia’s behaviour is unlikely to change, at least not before 2024. There will continue to be major issues of contention and disagreement, as in the case of Ukraine. But we will find ourselves compelled to seek cooperation with Russia, for instance in any attempt to end the conflict in Syria.
So what should the West do given these fundamental differences? We need to have a realistic, long-term, strategic approach towards Russia. This will require a set of principled policies and considerable staying power from Western decision makers. It is of critical importance that they share a unified understanding of the challenge that Russia poses for Europe, but also of what we can realistically do. Sticking to a common line will be crucial.
Firstly, we must put our own house in order. The EU needs to successfully cope with Brexit and its fallout, and ensure stable economic growth and prosperity for our people. We have to find a way to manage the migration crisis, which has contributed to the rise in anti-EU, nationalist and increasingly xenophobic sentiments in our own countries. The EU needs to shore up popular trust in its institutions through better and more transparent law-making. And we – 28 EU member states – must remain politically united because in unity lies our strength. All this may seem self-evident, but it is precisely our internal problems that the Russian regime is using to undermine the credibility of the EU model among ordinary Russians, in our common neighbourhood, and within EU countries themselves.
Our strength lies in unity, consistency and resilience. While efforts by member states and Brussels to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation are essential, they are not enough. We must counter Russia’s comprehensive approach to meddling. This includes depriving Russia of opportunities to use business interests to split and weaken the EU. Energy security is of particular importance given our dependence on Russian gas. The North Stream II project does not comply with the objectives of the EU Energy Union, which has at its core the diversification of suppliers, routes and sources of natural gas. We should also retain vigilance when attempts are made to award member state with business contracts as a quid pro quo for questioning the sanctions regime or broader EU policies.
Secondly, the EU should stand its ground in supporting the international rules-based system. From the UN Charter, through the WTO rules, to the Helsinki Final Act, and different Council of Europe conventions and protocols – the EU should continue to defend these rules and principles and hold others who have subscribed to them accountable. How President Trump's administration will position itself in promoting global governance and international rules based system will have a very serious effects wherever we try to do around the World. The EU needs strong and predictable ally in Washington D.C. to defend and promote our shared values of democracy, liberty and the rule of law Worldwide.
Thirdly, we need to solve the Ukrainian conflict. Without a solution to this conflict, it will be difficult to normalize relations with Russia. As long as the fighting continues and the security situation does not stabilize, it is hard for Ukrainians to reciprocate on political front. This however should not be an excuse for inaction. Kyiv should do its utmost to retain the hearts and minds of citizens living in the East. It is high time for the EU to be part of the Normandy Format or whatever future table to contribute with its comprehensive approach for handling the Ukraine crises in all its complexity. If the US appoints a Special Representative for Ukraine, why the EU does not do this?
In parallel to stepping up our support for resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the EU should step up support to Kyiv in its reform efforts, in particular addressing corruption, carrying out judicial reform, and advancing the economic modernization agenda. This is critical to ensuring that the Ukrainian people are not disillusioned by their chosen European path – as it is to ensure continued Western support.
We not only need to acknowledge these European aspirations of the Ukrainian electorate, but at some point to grant Ukraine an EU membership perspective. We know from the experience of the EU's Eastern European Members that such a perspective works as a major stimulus for the implementation of modernization efforts and reforms, no matter how difficult they may be. Uncertainty and ambiguity about Ukraine's geopolitical place also leaves the country exposed to further destabilization by Russia. This in turn only negatively affects EU-Russia relations. A successful Ukraine will contribute to the stability in our common neighbourhood and will represent a powerful example for the Russian people.
Fourth, we should aim at working with Russia constructively where our interests coincide. The Iranian nuclear talks, with constructive and important Russian participation, produced a landmark agreement. The recently adopted UN sanctions against North Korea, demonstrate potential for the West, Russia and China to act jointly in the Security Council. The conflicts in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan could also benefit from joint action. With both Russia and the US promoting the functioning of de-escalation zones in Syria, the EU's comprehensive approach would provide the necessary support for the ceasefire. The EU’s humanitarian assistance and funds for reconstruction would in turn be instrumental to advance the UN facilitated political process towards peace and long term reconciliation.
Finally, as Soviet dissident and leading human rights champion Lyudmila Alexeyeva reminded me recently: “Please tell Brussels not to give up on the Russian people”. She believes, that after the grandchildren of the current governing elite will return from working and studying in Europe and America, Russia will re-embrace European values and return to the European modernization agenda. Therefore while defending the EU's interests and values, we should continue to retain bridges with people and expand educational, cross border and scientific exchanges.
This includes speaking up when abuses of human rights and freedoms occur and use international forums as well as bilateral and the EU platforms for this purpose.
We should note with satisfaction that despite political tensions, Russian citizens want to engage and visit Europe and vice versa. During the last 3 years 11.000 students and staff from EU and Russia participated in academic exchanges thanks to the “ERASMUS+”. Last year, 3.2 million Schengen visas were issued to Russian citizens. We should be smarter and more confident by reopening talks over visa facilitation and being more forthcoming in opening the visa free regime to Russians with regular passports.
The future of Russia lies in the hands of the Russians themselves. It is also up to them to decide who they want to be: Europeans, Asians, or some “unique/distinct formation”. If after 2024 – or even before then – they decide go the European way, we should be ready to support them. However, it must be made very clear: the road to Europe goes via Kyiv, and it involves respect of Ukraine's European choice, and adherence to the European security order. Moreover, it cannot go through “managed” democracy in Russia itself.
Vygaudas Usackas was EU ambassador to Russia from September 2013 until October 2017.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.