I regret to admit that relations between Russia and the EU are now in an abnormal or, to put it bluntly, are in a deplorable state. Moreover, a negative trend in their development continues. We see no true willingness on the part of the EU to engage in an equitable and mutually respectful dialogue. Brussels seems to have taken a fundamentally flawed course towards geopolitical confrontation with its largest eastern neighbour. The EU has actually trapped itself by linking normalisation of Russia-EU cooperation to implementation of the Minsk agreements which are being deliberately sabotaged by the Kiev authorities, including with openly admitted aim of maintaining sanctions against our country. The EU has acquired a taste for it and is relentlessly inventing new excuses for introducing illegitimate unilateral restrictions. Though our detractors clearly lack imagination, and for three years now have been able to come up with nothing but “Novichok”, a very dangerous substance that has fortunately killed no one yet, and two GRU pseudo-operatives who have become omnipresent – from Salisbury to Vrbetica. The ongoing, this time against Belarus, attempts by the EU to unscrupulously interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states, contribute nothing positive.
Most of our cooperation formats that used to be effective are standing still. And we have not closed any door. All the "freezing" has been initiated by the EU. The turning point was, of course, 2014, when the EU, having failed in its attempt at mediation, ended up condoning the unconstitutional coup d'état in Ukraine and then found nothing better than shift the responsibility for its consequences on Moscow. As a result, regular summits, meetings of members of the Russian Government and the European Commission were suspended, two dozen sectoral dialogues were frozen.
However, with hindsight, an objective assessment shows that the Ukrainian events were not the root cause, but rather a catalyst of negative trends. For example, an agreement on visa-free travel between Russia and the European Union had been almost ready as long ago as in 2013. But when the time came to sign the document, some "bright minds" in the EU decided that it would be politically incorrect to grant Russia visa-free travel before Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova received it. And, though we did not object to synchronising these processes at that time, the result is well known. The EU's unwillingness to cooperate on an equal footing came to the brightest light in the rushed conclusion of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, the draft of which failed to incorporate the country's commitments vis-à-vis its neighbours and CIS free trade area partners. It became clear that Brussels preferred the logic of gaining instant unilateral advantages to the philosophy of building strategic partnership between Russia and the EU.
It must be said that we had long showed restraint and tried to find a way to rectify our troubled relations. Alas, we did not succeed. Our best intentions and patience seem to have been mistakenly perceived as a sign of weakness and only encouraged our partners to take further destructive steps.
Of course, it would be wrong to idealise the model of relations we had prior to 2014. It required adaptation, but was fairly advanced and ambitious. It was based on declared common understanding by both sides of the fundamental task they are facing – to overcome Cold War legacy of the and complete the job of reuniting the European continent from Lisbon to Vladivostok without dividing lines. Russia was ready to go as far as the EU would be willing to. Together we were constructing four common spaces, negotiating a New Basic Agreement (NBA), suggesting the creation of a Russia-EU Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and other mutually beneficial models for uniting efforts in crisis management. We signed a Roadmap on Energy Cooperation until 2050.
We were not the only ones to benefit from all of that. The EU too would have gained a lot from rapprochement with Russia. Acquiring privileged access to Russian and other EAEU countries’ markets. Increasing its resources, scientific and technological capacities. Gaining access to the Asia-Pacific frontier. The establishment of four common spaces would have resolved in principle the problem of geopolitical competition in the “common neighbourhood”. There would have been no artificially imposed dilemma of being either with the EU, or with Russia. Finally, the "strategic autonomy" and a greater global role for the EU would have become a reality rather than a figure of speech and a vague goal for the future.
All these projects were left unimplemented due to EU's unwillingness to cooperate on an equal footing that would not require Russia to unconditionally copy-paste EU standards and values and automatically implement decisions taken in Brussels.
Incidentally, two factors have largely kept our relations with the EU from totally collapse. First, our trade and economic ties, their volume and significance for both sides. Practically all major companies that had once invested in the Russian economy chose to stay in our market. Some actually even ramped up their investments. The EU is still our largest trading partner today, despite bilateral trade slumping for a number of reasons by almost half from its 2012-2013 peak. The business community pragmatism remains an important cushioning factor holding back the most radical initiatives of politicians.
The second factor involves realising that there is no alternative to cooperation with Russia in addressing most pressing issues on the global agenda and resolving regional conflicts. Hence, logically, our constructive interaction on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran's nuclear programme, revitalisation of the Quartet of international mediators for the Middle East peace process and on a number of other issues.
Of course, we look at Russia-EU relations with eyes wide open and do not expect Brussels to suddenly come to its senses and sit down tomorrow at the negotiating table with us as equals, leaving mentorship and prejudice aside. Definitely not. The normalisation process will require strong political will, but will progress in "small steps". There is no question today of a return to strategic partnership. We should start by interacting in areas of overlapping interests. They include healthcare, science and education, energy and climate, digitalisation of economies, combating terrorism, organised crime and drug threats, conflict resolution.
Furthermore, one should not forget that since 2014 the world has changed; as has, in many ways, the EU. Russia and the EAEU have not stood idle either, and today Eurasian integration is an objective reality that even the most prejudiced advocates of EU exceptionalism cannot ignore.
Therefore, the architecture of our relations will require not just a brush-up, nor even a restoration to bring it back to its original form, but comprehensive modernisation aimed at bringing it in line with requirements of the new multipolar world. And here it is important to keep in mind that the longer this architecture remains in decay, covered by cracks, moss and rust, the more concerted effort it will take to clear away the rubble.
In order to embark on difficult joint work, it is important to dispel the very common and harmful myth that Russia allegedly does not want to engage in dialogue with the EU and seeks to weaken and split it in order to build relations with individual Member States. First, as I mentioned earlier, it is the EU, not us, that is methodically destroying all venues and channels of communication. We are ready to resume a proper political dialogue at all levels. Second, Russia wants to see an EU strong, independent and sovereign in its internal and foreign policies. Because a weak and fragmented Old World would be subject to external control, and we will certainly not be the ones who exercise it. Third, it is true that we actively engage in bilateral relations with many of our friends and partners in Europe, including EU Member States. That is normal practice in international relations. I can assure you that the US or other non-EU countries also work as actively with European capitals as they do with EU Brussels. Everyone does. Besides, we are encouraged to do so by EU Member States themselves, as they often are noticeably more willing to cooperate on a wide range of issues bilaterally rather than at the EU level.
At the same time, in Brussels, constructively or at least pragmatically-minded members of the EU family are caught in the grip of European solidarity. Solidarity is actually a very good thing, except when the development of healthy relations between an integration of 27 Member States and its largest neighbour becomes completely paralysed by the inadequate position of a Russophobic minority, who always has somebody poisoned, something exploding in warehouses, or someone gravely scared by something.
We look at the European Union without any illusions. We realise that Brussels is our key partner for the long term. Although it is going through a difficult phase in its development, the European integration project is by no means breathing its last. Were that the case, there would not be countries queuing up to join, hoping to solve all sorts of their problems with Brussels' help.
Some of my interlocutors like to repeat that Russia has already figured out what it does not want in its relations with Europe, but allegedly does not know what it wants. That is not true. We firmly know what we want in relations with the EU – equal and mutually beneficial cooperation, without grand slogans and double standards. We are open to interaction based on consideration for and balance of mutual interests.
I feel it is Brussels that needs to seriously consider what it wants from relations with Russia. I find it hard to believe that people with common sense and knowledge of Europe's tragic history can deliberately aim at confrontation with Russia in their geopolitical planning and hope to build a sustainable European or Euro-Atlantic security system leaving our country beyond its perimeter. Similarly, anybody who deals with Moscow should understand that we are not going to yield or submit to somebody’s will. Attempts to coerce us to do so have proven to be futile and are likely to have serious consequences for their initiators. We are, of course, open to incorporating good practices from others, but by our own choice, at our own will and without blind imitation.
Over the past 70 years the EU has evolved impressively from a sectoral coal and steel association to deep and multidimensional integration with a solid supranational framework. However, the days when the EU was seen from the outside as a "shining castle on top of the hill" are also gone. Today everyone realises that the EU is a successful, albeit imperfect, mechanism of “polishing” differences and developing a common line for 27 European states under an ideological banner of shared values. The banner, however, has also worn out and no longer looks as tempting as in the "good old days".
One can only hope that the "strategic review" of relations with Russia, launched in the EU, will provide an impetus to their normalisation. For this to happen, Brussels should stop perceiving Russia as an outsider, enemy or threat, and then make a decisive choice in favour of constructive, professional and pragmatic engagement, abandoning sanctions, aggressive rhetoric, baseless accusations and media campaigns.
I am convinced that fundamental interests of Russia and the EU are not only compatible, but also interdependent. In future, joining forces and making the best use of the complementarity of our economies, societies and cultures is the best – and perhaps the only – way for both Russia, the EU and its Member States to maintain the role of Europe (Russia being of course part of Europe) as one of the poles of a multipolar world.
I recall a statement made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2017 that we (EU and Russia) "share the same landmass". We are indeed neighbours, but I believe we have much more in common than just a “piece of land” called Europe. We are parts of the same cultural and historical community, two pillars of a single Eurasian civilisation, and we are jointly responsible for its fate.