There are two gaps in Russia-EU relations at the moment. On the one hand, there is a growing political and economic gap due to Russia’s intervention into pro-European Ukraine and the EU’s subsequent sanctions on Russia. On the other hand, there is a shrinking territorial gap with the outbreak of the civil war in Ukraine backed up by Russia, not to mention the annexation of Crimea. The key problem and the solution to the current decline in the relations between the two is the gap itself: Ukraine.
Prior to the Ukrainian crisis, EU-Russia economic relations were on the rise. Russia was the EU’s third most important trading partner, accounting for 9.5% of EU trade while the EU was accounting for 57% of Russian exports and 46.5% of Russian imports. Those numbers have dropped significantly due to the sanctions imposed by the EU, as a reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and backing the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s expansion has had a burdensome cost of crumbling national economy, enormous trade balance deficit and uncertain future. The EU was not left unaffected by the sanctions either, though they have not been as impacted as Russia, mostly due to quick liberalisation of the gas market. As for non-economic issues, EU and Russia had multiple common policies in the areas of education, security, justice and freedom. It would make a lot of sense to the EU to lift the sanctions and rebuild ties for the mutual benefit. Unfortunately, this looks highly unlikely, as there are forecasts of extensioning the sanctions in January 2016, with Ukraine as the key determinant.
It is clear at this moment that Crimea is not going to be returned to Ukraine. Whoever thinks it is unjust and wrong have the right to say so, but don’t be disillusioned: things work differently in the Russian-speaking world. Russian flags are proudly hanging around the peninsula, Ukrainian national currency is abandoned and all the inhabitants are issued Russian citizenship. Even though the barbarous annexation is unacceptable in Western Europe, it is not a big deal for the people in Crimea as long as they can work and live in peaceful environment. It should not take Europe by surprise that Russia quickly organised a referendum and took Crimea under its control, the peninsula is one of the most vital strategic locations for the country. While revolution in Kiev was overthrowing the old corrupt regime, which was friendly with Russia, the Kremlin could not allow to endanger its position in the Black Sea, especially if it meant the loss of its Black Sea Fleet guarding Russian borders with the West. It is naive to think that Russia would simply lose its neighbour to the ‘hostile west’ and let it have such a great influence right next to the border both culturally and strategically.
In the minds of many people in the EU, the Cold War is over. Russia is perceived as a newly emerging state that would integrate into the western world with its values of freedom, justice and democracy. In reality those who think so are deeply mistaken, as they don’t understand that modern Russia is filled with deep humiliation about its defeat, and would not simply ‘submit’ to the West. Vladimir Putin, long before the crises in Ukraine, during his speech in the Valdai Club described very clearly Russia’s vision of itself as a regional leader, with its distinct culture and identity that is different and separate from EU or US visions. The Eurasian Customs Union is Russia’s key economic project competing with the European Union. It is based on the same values of integration, yet it is not taken seriously by the EU. One of the reasons why the Kremlin is not happy about recent developments in Ukraine is that they are losing a potentially very big market and economic partner that could contribute to the establishment of the EU rival, as it is seen by Russia.
It is because of strategic and economic interests of Russia in Ukraine we are observing a civil war on the doorsteps of the European Union as well. Donbass region, where the war is taking place, is not only important because there are people whose native language is Russian. In fact it is one of the most developed industrial areas of Ukraine, and has close economic ties with Russia as a producer of coal and steel as well as a place with a lot of shale gas potential. Considering Russia’s heavy dependence on the gas exports, it is vital to keep this area under its control and not let ‘the westerners’ grab such a big slice of natural resources. Apart from economic interests perspectives of NATO in Ukraine are not helpful in the conflict as Russia is practically paranoid about the US and EU coming closer to its border. Thus keeping the region under control and making sure that it is compatible with Russia’s vision is crucial.
If the EU wants to reestablish good relations with Russia it needs to consider all these factors and together work on common policies that will make both sides satisfied. There needs to be a more clear strategy concerning the EU’s and the Eurasian Union’s cooperations in the future and division of the market. The idea of NATO in Ukraine should be abolished if the EU and the US do not want to provoke more security issues. Finally the most important part is to work on federalisation and reformation of Ukraine together and enforce the implementation of the Minsk agreements. They were approved by both Russia and the EU so that both sides could be satisfied and when this is done possibly we could establish peace in Europe and restore our relations.
Written by Alina MARCHENKO, a third year Political Economy BSc student. As a Ukrainian national, she has experienced the tensions between the EU and Russia in her homeland.