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Competing Paradigms On Russian-EU Cooperation

The paths of Western Europe -- in this case understood as all members of the European Union and the European Free Trade Association -- and Russia have frequently, though not always, been different.

Most influential political groups and governments across Western Europe share a belief in the possibility of establishing a European and global order built on cooperation, mutual understanding, common values, and nonconfrontation.

Elzbieta Stadtmuller
On the other hand, many Russian politicians, including significant leaders, hold views typical of the realist theory of international relations, under which states are struggling for their own security alone and international relations are an arena of eternal competition and conflict.

A zero-sum game is the only possibility. Hence fear and mistrust have to be included as significant elements in policy.

And such an approach from Moscow inevitably produces its mirror image among Russia’s European counterparts: a sense of unpredictability and doubts concerning Russia’s true intentions.

As a result, a difficult situation has emerged. Russia does not seem to trust the EU’s concept and Europe’s long-standing plan to build spaces for sustainable non-zero-sum games. And the West is split into two groups – one that does not trust Russia and one that believes Russia can be weaned away from its realist approach and made to see the merits of international relations based on common interests and mutual benefits.

'Game Of Pretending'

Of course, outward statements and gestures do not always mirror real attitudes and intentions. Russia’s realist approach and open doubts about the real value of European integration might stem at least partly from the “game of pretending” that Moscow plays toward the West and toward its own society.

But whatever its true source, Russia’s attitude is reinforced by at least two factors. The first stems from the policies and doctrines of the previous U.S. administration, a set of views that were very close to those currently held by Moscow. In fact, the Bush administration’s rhetoric was even more unilateral and national-interest focused than the Kremlin’s. It was easy for Moscow to justify its own approaches and actions by echoing U.S. attitudes.

The second factor reinforcing Russia’s approach is the EU’s lack of a coherent foreign policy – and the often-prevailing national interests of individual EU member states. This lack of unity gives Russia the room to play separate games with particular EU members and to benefit from those games.

Such a situation encourages strong reactions on everyone’s part regarding sensitive matters such as NATO enlargement, energy cooperation, any sort of interventions in the region between the EU and Russia, and the development of new military weaponry. Memories of the past do not make the situation easier – particularly for the countries of the former socialist bloc. And Russia has its own memories to cope with and adjust to.

Negative Terms

Russia is a big state, with interests and ideas extending beyond its immediate neighborhood and, because of its geography, beyond Europe. While many in the “old” Western Europe viewed the 1990s as a period of new opportunities for Russia, it is now plain than many in Russian society and the political elite, quite justifiably, see the transformation of their state and its place in the international environment during this time in negative terms.

Changes that were viewed in the West as positive developments for international security (especially when former socialist bloc and Soviet states opted for democracy and cooperation with the West) were perceived in Russia as steps in a dangerous process of disintegration that amounted to an existential threat to the country.

The global economic crisis can be a window of opportunity for enhanced cooperation between Russia and the West. But whether this opportunity can be seized depends on how the whole world reacts to the crisis.
Since the 1990s, Russia has undergone a process comparable to what some former Western colonial powers underwent in the 1950s and 1960s; in the case of those powers too, the process of parting with their colonies was often painful and bloody and produced years of national soul-searching. The former colonialists often found ways to maintain a “zone of influence” among their former colonies, and some even discovered that the loss of formal, political control was economically advantageous.

But can these differences between the Russian and Western approaches toward international relations and interests be overcome? In today’s world, economic factors are crucial to boosting or weakening interstate relations. Common interests in this area permit states to break free of old prejudices and establish long-term cooperation beyond the zero-sum-game framework. In economic dealings, partners can more easily see and agree to conditions that are mutually beneficial. The area of energy cooperation, in particular, offers considerable scope for new paradigms.

The global economic crisis can be a window of opportunity for enhanced cooperation between Russia and the West. But whether this opportunity can be seized depends on how the whole world reacts to the crisis. If it pushes actors toward global solutions and close regional cooperation, it will naturally facilitate the further integration of Russia. But if actors move toward more intense national politics, it will strengthen the pursuit of national interest and reinforce the zero-sum model.

Many Common Concerns

Whether the world can move toward mutually beneficial strategic partnership depends on many factors that are impossible to predict, including the scale of the economic and energy crises, developments in Afghanistan and the Islamic world generally, the situation in North Korea, and so on. These areas can create the background for closer cooperation or can present obstacles to it.

In today’s world, all actors – governmental and nongovernmental – are inevitably interconnected by common challenges and problems. It stands to reason, then, that Russia and the West have many common concerns. But many in the Russian ruling elite do not see things this way. Russia is trying to rebuild its lost international position and a part of this process is a move toward greater independence from other states and international structures. Accommodations are accepted on particular, specific matters, but are always treated as changeable.

While economic cooperation, combating terrorism, meeting the challenges of a rising Asia, and cutting nuclear-weapons stockpiles could be seen as common interests between Russia and the West, the drive in Moscow to rebuild its own “sphere of influence” often compels the Kremlin to view Europe and the United States as its rivals. But if Russia seeks real internal economic development – development that is stable and sustainable and can serve as a device for Russia’s reassertion into the wider world – then it needs to exploit the strong Western market for its oil and gas. Cooperation will be needed to achieve the Kremlin’s wider aims.

The future of relations between Western Europe and Russia depends on the interplay of these two drives within Russia’s policy-making elite. But it also depends on bolstering and maintaining a strong attachment by the EU – as a bloc – to its current international-relations paradigm. A cohesive external EU policy is also crucial to strategically improved EU-Russia relations.

Elzbieta Stadtmuller is chairwoman of the European Studies Institute of International Studies at the University of Wroclaw, Poland. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.