Why the EU should stop waiting for the Godot of Russian decline

Many in Europe think Russia is in decline, but basing EU policy on such deterministic thinking is a mistake. The EU should deal with Russia of today, not with that of 2050 or 2070

As EU leaders prepare for a summit on 25-26 March, at which they plan to discuss Russia, many of them are convinced Russia is a declining power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of American and European policy on Russia has been predicated on the idea that Russia is in decline and one needs to smoothly manage, or even wait out, the current phase of Russian foreign policy activism, regardless of how disruptive it is for the interests of the European Union and the United States. This approach is sometimes called ‘strategic patience’ – but there is nothing strategic about basing one’s policy on determinism. Given that it is an open question whether Russia will decline, such expectations are short-sighted. It is time for the EU to deal with Russia of today, not with that of 2050 or 2070.

When predicting Russian decline, many American and European thinkers and policymakers – from Joseph Nye to Barack Obama – like to point to Russia’s diminishing share of the global economy, the size of its GDP (which is comparable to those of Spain and Portugal combined), and demographic trends. They also cite Russia’s dependence on raw materials and inability to fight back against corruption, as well as many other chronic ills of its state and economy. Such thinking leads to a policy of trying to wait until Moscow accepts the inevitability of Russian decline, at which point the West can have a reasonable conversation with it about their future interactions.

There are several reasons why predicating the US and EU approaches to Russia on this idea of inevitable decline is a policy dead end. To begin with, GDP and other socio-economic indicators are just one measurement of power. The link between GDP and geopolitical influence is never linear. Of course, it helps to have a large economy. But history is full of cases in which states – or even proto-states – with less than impressive economies have dominated or destroyed richer and more technologically advanced neighbours. The fall of the Roman Empire is one such example. The Mongols overran China several times. Iran is not the richest country in the Middle East but, for decades, it has increased its geopolitical influence relative to countries with higher GDPs. And Russia itself was poorer than much of Europe when its troops crossed the Alps in 1799 and when Cossacks taught Parisian waiters the word ‘bistro’ after defeating Napoleon in 1815.

Russia’s history of reversing declines shapes its current foreign policy – and could continue to do so for a couple of decades at least

Today, Turkey and Switzerland have similar GDPs, while Ireland has a higher GDP than Egypt. But Ireland and Switzerland are not in the same league as Turkey and Egypt when it comes to their influence on global and regional affairs. So, one should not invoke Russia’s GDP as a predictor of its eventual geopolitical downfall.

The other problem with basing Russia policy on the idea that Russian geopolitical power will decline is that, even if it does, several decades could pass before this started to affect Russian foreign policy. In the past decade, Russia has engaged in an increasing number of hostile actions against the EU and countries in the bloc’s neighbourhood, the Middle East, and Africa – such as Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Libya, Syria, and even the Central African Republic. Russia has pursued a strategy designed to maximise its geopolitical power, often directly challenging the EU’s standing, interests, and influence. It would be highly irresponsible for any power to just watch as the process unfolded for another, say, 20 or 30 years, in the hope that decline would force Russia to change course.

Russian declinism is also a fallacy because it projects the history of most European empires onto Russia. Most European empires had a somewhat linear history of rise, decline, and fall, followed by the acceptance of a comfortable existence as a small or medium-sized state. Austria, Britain, Belgium, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden have all gone through this linear boom-and-bust imperial history. But such development is not necessarily the norm. Plenty of states have cycled through phases of rise and fall. Chinese, Iranian, and Russian power has expanded, contracted, and then expanded again for centuries – even millennia. In the past millennium, Russian imperial power ballooned and then collapsed several times.

This historical memory has concrete foreign policy implications for EU-Russia interactions today. Where the EU sees irreversible Russian decline, Russia sees one of several temporary slumps it has experienced over the centuries. Russian leaders believe that they can reverse such decline just as their predecessors did following the contraction of the Russian state after the 1917 revolution. In 1918 Russia lost control of huge swathes of territory (including Finland, Poland, the Baltic states, and what is today Moldova). But, within less than three decades, it had recovered parts of those lost territories and expanded its control to Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, and Tirana. Russia’s history of reversing declines shapes its current foreign policy – and could continue to do so for a couple of decades at least.

The truth is that no one knows whether Russia will decline or recover. Russia might well muddle through for decades, inflicting serious damage on EU interests in the process. Many of the challenges Russia poses to the EU – especially those related to the bloc’s influence in the Balkans, the Middle East, and eastern Europe – will not go away by themselves. The EU will need to address such challenges through actions that increase its strength relative to Russia and the bloc’s own neighbours – not through strategic patience, which is a polite term for strategic inaction.

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


Distinguished policy fellow

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