Russia’s pivot to the east: Where does it leave the EU?

As relations between the EU and Russia remain frosty, Moscow has pivoted towards Beijing in search of deeper strategic cooperation. How can Europe re-engage with a Russia increasingly focused on (Eur)asia? 

This week marks the five-year anniversary of the Maidan Revolution, which set in motion the events that would lead to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s descent into civil war, and a seemingly endless spiral of rivalry and confrontation between Russia and the West. Moscow has responded to these developments by accelerating its declared “pivot to the east”, as part of which it has strengthened its ties with Beijing and pursued a vision of an integrated Eurasian supercontinent. In this context, Russia and China agreed in 2015 to harmonise their respective signature projects – the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

While it is now too late for a fully fledged rapprochement between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West, the process of deepening Sino-Russian cooperation has not yet passed the point of no return.

Drawing from the debate on rising illiberalism and anti-establishment populism in Western societies, some observers have attempted to paint these developments as creating a resurgent authoritarian axis bent on overturning the liberal international order. However, the situation is more complex than this: while it is now too late for a fully fledged rapprochement between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West, the process of deepening Sino-Russian cooperation has not yet passed the point of no return.

The seeds of the current stand-off between the West and Russia were planted at the end of the cold war. For the Kremlin, the 2014 Ukrainian revolution was the last straw.

Both the Yeltsin and Putin presidencies began with unilateral Russian concessions designed to reset the relationship between Moscow and Western capitals. Boris Yeltsin expressed openness to external involvement in helping to stabilise nascent conflicts between ethnic groups in post-Soviet countries, while Putin granted the United States basing rights in its proclaimed Central Asian sphere of influence as part of its cooperation with Washington in the context of the “war on terror”. After Maidan, the Kremlin concluded that further concessions would do nothing to change Washington’s seemingly endless drive to consolidate a unipolar world – nor the European Union’s push for a strictly Brussels-centric regulatory and political order on the continent that essentially reduces Moscow to a subordinate role. Russia’s aim to be recognised as a great power remains unchanged but, in the post-Maidan world, it has resolved to do so by remaining outside the West.

With Washington’s focus now partly shifting towards the consequences of China’s rise, some analysts have called for a “reverse Kissinger” – a fresh American grand strategy of forging an alliance with Moscow against Beijing (in a mirror image of the Nixon administration’s containment strategy following the Sino-Soviet split). However, the events of the past three decades make this impossible. Russia’s attempts to “return to Europe” after the fall of the Iron Curtain have ended in disappointment: the by-product of Atlanticism has been, effectively, Moscow’s exclusion from Europe’s most important institutions, opening a gaping psychological wound and producing fundamental strategic incompatibility between Russia and the West.

Just as crucially, however, the Kremlin is now committed to proving itself a reliable partner for Beijing. Despite their history of mutual suspicion, Russia and China have, during the post-cold war era, undergone a gradual but genuine normative convergence rooted in respect for each other’s interests; support for mutually beneficial arrangements in great power relations; scepticism of Western interventionism; and a desire for a polycentric world. For Moscow, relations with Beijing have become meaningful in their own right – more than a mere instrument for securing Russia’s strategic position vis-à-vis the West.

Rather than threatening the traditional Russian sphere of influence, China’s economic penetration of Central Asia helps strengthen the foundations of the region’s authoritarian regimes, thereby reducing the risk of further colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space. Moreover, the EEU and the BRI do not appear to be at odds with each other, as the former seeks to establish a new regulatory and customs system while the latter is more preoccupied with enhancing connectivity.

That said, the integration of the Chinese and Russian economies is proceeding slowly. Some of this can be chalked up to the difficulties of negotiations involving state-owned enterprises, as analysts Paul Bolt and Sharyl Cross have argued. But, more importantly, Moscow appears to be hedging its bets. Russia’s calls for an integrated “Greater Eurasia” are partly a response to the launch of the BRI – an attempt by a declining power to buy time while projecting an image of itself as an equal co-architect of a fledgling Eurasian order.

In reality, Russia’s fear that it will be unable to compete with the world’s second-largest economy limits its desire to push for a bona fide Eurasian free trade zone. This raises questions as to whether the EEU merely represents a Russian attempt to carve out a sphere of influence for itself in the Eurasian heartland rather than a genuine commitment to international integration.

Moscow has also worked to prevent Chinese economic initiatives from dominating the agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), attempting to shift the body’s focus further towards regional security. Additionally, Russia has pushed to expand the membership of the organisation – which accepted India and Pakistan as full members in 2017 – as a means of binding China to a multipolar framework, thereby reducing perceived Russian dependence on Beijing. China has responded by courting Central Asian countries bilaterally and advancing BRI-related projects outside the SCO framework.

Russia’s long-standing desire to be treated as an independent great power, coupled with its nominal commitment to constructing an international order that upholds the norm of non-interference in states’ internal affairs, places limits on the potential depth of Moscow-Beijing cooperation. Indeed, Russia’s obsession with gaining recognition of its privileged position in global affairs, along with its vocal attempts to counterbalance American hegemony, sharply contrasts with China’s focus on preserving the international conditions necessary for it to continue its economic modernisation and development (except in instances when Beijing perceives its core interests to be at stake).

Thus, the Sino-Russian partnership rests on uneven foundations. But this should not breed complacency in Western capitals: the longer Western sanctions on Russia remain in place, the more Moscow’s dependency on Beijing will grow, and the more the economic dimension of their relationship will likely acquire an overtly strategic character. To realise its full economic potential, Russia requires a healthy trading relationship with the EU. A protracted stand-off between Russia and the West will probably, therefore, give a weakened Moscow no other option but to drift gradually, if somewhat reluctantly, further into Beijing’s orbit. This would place China firmly at the centre of Eurasia’s geopolitical triangle, with Beijing closer to both Brussels and Moscow than Brussels and Moscow are to each other.

In response to China’s launch of the BRI, the EU has demonstrated a growing appetite for shaping and securing a rules-based order in Eurasia, partly through the establishment of strong environmental and labour standards. European leaders have often stated their aim to strengthen the EU’s “sovereignty” in international affairs. But if it fails to develop an institutional and trading architecture with Russia to govern and stabilise the security environment in their shared neighbourhood, the EU will raise doubts about its capacity to influence the international order further afield.

Brussels and Moscow continue to promote rival norms and visions for the neighbourhood, making aspirations for a “Greater Europe” that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok implausible. Such rivalry has tremendous risks, as the clash in the Sea of Azov late last year attested. Western sanctions have failed to change Russia’s behaviour, in the sense that it continues to view Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation as vital to Russian security, a perception reinforced by the profound and unique cultural and historical links between these two predominantly Slavonic nations. This leaves the EU with the prospect of an open-ended security dilemma on its eastern frontier – hardly an enticing scenario for the world’s most successful peace project.

A wholesale renegotiation of Europe’s political and security order is not on the cards for now, meaning that an incremental approach will be needed to build the foundations of a more stable and secure continent. These could include, following Ukraine’s presidential and legislative elections this year, joint economic assistance for Donbas and renewed efforts at a cessation of violence short of a political solution – which remains out of reach, for now – in exchange for limited sanctions relief. This would allow both sides to save face while opening a path toward renewed collaboration and dialogue on questions related to Ukraine’s future. (Sanctions related to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, among others, would remain in place.)

Subsequently, the EU could launch a dialogue with the EEU on customs and regulatory standards – informally at first, but eventually taking institutional form. This would help the EU draw its eastern neighbourhood into its orbit in a stable and non-confrontational manner, while avoiding the political toxicity that comes with dealing directly with Putin’s Russia. At the same time, this initiative would help legitimate one of Russia’s signature foreign policy initiatives, reassuring the Kremlin that its vision of a polycentric Europe in which it is treated as an equal still has currency.

This would have advantages for both sides, charting a path out of the current stalemate. Brussels – often thought of as slow-moving and bureaucratic due to its consensus- and rules-based character – would benefit from a piecemeal approach to reconciliation that does not force it to compromise on its principles. Nor would the EU have to budge from its generally Atlanticist international orientation to engage in mere conflict management and dialogue. Moscow, more concerned with big-picture questions, would gain satisfaction from the perception that the EU was accepting the legitimacy of its interests and its integration projects. Russia would also be willing to cooperate more meaningfully with the EU if it saw the organisation as independent and interested in pan-European convergence rather than as an American vassal.

Ideally, both sides should resolve to undertake these initiatives early in the next decade, as any significant delay would result in them having to contend with the complications associated with the Kremlin’s succession planning. Domestic political factors could produce escalating rhetoric and hostilities if the rivalry between Russia and the West continues unabated between now and 2024. The events of the past five years have made any genuine reconciliation between the EU and Russia impossible so long as Putin remains in the Kremlin. But the seeds of greater European sovereignty and security are more likely to grow if they are planted while he is still in office.

Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is senior editor at Global Brief magazine and an assistant lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent.

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


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.