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Commentary | 1 September 2021

With Russian–American detente moving forward, is there a place for Europe?

Image of Igor Istomin

Igor Istomin |Associate Professor at the Department of Applied International Political Analysis, MGIMO University

EU Europe Russia Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

The contentious nature of the relationship between Russia and the West has become an accepted reality on both sides. However, there is more than one way to compete, and various modes of tension produce different levels of risk. The Geneva summit signalled Moscow and Washington’s interest in managing their disagreements. Meanwhile, the relationship between Russia and the EU is in freefall, lacking similar recognition of the value of negotiated restraint. The similarity between Washington and Brussel’s strategies towards Russia lead to an obvious question: can Europe draw anything from the Geneva playbook?

The new Geneva spirit

The Geneva summit between Putin and Biden did not bring a sudden transformation in Russian – American relations. In fact, the announcement of the new US sanctions only days later reaffirmed their confrontational character. Even the low-hanging fruit of restoring diplomatic presence failed to materialise as Moscow implemented its previously announced ban on local staff in the US mission. At the same time, Washington delayed the processing of visas for Russian diplomats, threatening to expel Embassy personnel whose authorisations were expiring.

But these demonstrative jabs and the lack of immediate deliverables after the summit will not prevent the stride towards a tacit detente. Although their relations will remain tenuous for the foreseeable future, Moscow and Washington have been active in looking for ways to prevent unintended escalation and tame the most provocative activities. While these elements of moderation do not bridge fundamental differences, they do lead to greater predictability and even address some disagreements.

For Moscow, stability in confrontation with the West relies upon two conditions: guarantees of credible and affordable military deterrence on the one hand, and assurances against subversion of the political regime in Moscow on the other. The launch of Russian–American talks on strategic stability and cybersecurity addresses the first concern. Moscow long strived for such discussions, but Trump’s domestic weaknesses and Republican scepticism towards international treaties prevented them from occurring under the previous administration. With Biden, Russia finds a credible – albeit tough – interlocutor on arms control.

Meanwhile, Biden’s restraint in sanctioning Russian businesses partly defused concerns regarding American attempts to affect domestic politics in Moscow. Leaked warnings by US officials on the potential dangers ‘after Putin’ also seem helpful in addressing Russia’s sensitivities. The real test for a tacit understanding between Moscow and Washington will come with the Russian parliamentary elections in September. Although Russia repeatedly warned against foreign meddling, Western criticism of their results looks inevitable. It is clear that Moscow will carefully assess if statements and actions of the Biden administration go beyond routine rhetoric. The outcome of this interaction will largely determine the future of the emerging detente.

The European empty chair?

Historically, settlements between Moscow and Washington advanced along with initiatives by European states who were promoting their own agenda towards their Eastern neighbour. For example, the early 1970s witnessed not only Soviet-American strategic limitations but also commercial contracts between Moscow and European partners. The notorious Ukrainian pipeline system traces its origins to these deals. The European contribution was also crucial for the incorporation of human rights protections in the Helsinki Final Act.

Today, Europe remains a passive observer of the Russian–American detente but has failed to launch a similar process of its own. This was illustrated by the French-German proposal of a separate Russia–EU summit being met with criticism from the other Member States. The newly initiated review of EU policy towards Moscow proceeds from the belligerent language of pushing back and containing, while the engagement component remains unspecified.

Additionally, recent encounters have not prepared a fertile ground for positive engagement. Russia–EU relations dived with the arguments over the fate of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and Borrell’s controversial visit to Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even considered halting the dialogue with Brussels entirely. Such announcements indicate emerging convictions in Moscow that the very composition of EU institutions is detrimental to meaningful diplomacy, with claims of European solidarity serving as a block to serious dialogue.

Moreover, Moscow had few incentives to soften its stance on European engagement en route to the Geneva summit. Uncompromising posture towards the EU as part of the ‘collective West’ provided leverage in advance of the bargain with the US, as it helped to signal Russian resolve. But as detente with Washington gathers pace, a parallel engagement on the European track becomes strategically more attractive to Moscow. This opening does not promise a return to the amicable days of the ‘Partnership for Modernization’ but might ensure better management of this tenuous relationship.

Prospects for dialogue through gritted teeth

There is little prospect for Russia to abandon its long-held stance on Donbas, Belarus, or NATO. Nor is it reasonable to expect internal transformations which would bring Moscow in line with the Western liberal model. In fact, keeping domestic politics off the table is a precondition for constructive engagement from the Russian perspective, given the toxicity of this matter. Despite these limitations, Russia and the EU would benefit from safeguards against further tensions. The recently discovered depth of their disagreements makes such limitations ever more necessary to avoid unintended crises. The two sides should not treat the current ‘stability in confrontation’ as a given.

In this regard, the idea to designate a pair of political heavyweights as credible liaisons for confidential talks between Russia and the EU appears timely and promising. To perform their mission, such representatives should balance hard talk with a commitment to compromise. On previous occasions, EU representatives engaging with Russia appeared vulnerable to internal critics and unable to support words with deeds. The Geneva summit demonstrated that Moscow is ready to engage interlocutors known for their tough standing when they negotiate with a pragmatic attitude. The question is whether the EU can find a reasonable hardliner similar to Joe Biden.

The pace of military brinkmanship furthers the need for escalation control. The recent incident with the British warship near Crimea, or disputes over alleged violations of Denmark’s airspace, demonstrate the limits of the existing channels of communication. Experts developed a menu of solutions, but they have not found their way into the official agenda yet. Given the decay of confidence-building in Europe (with the termination of the INF Treaty, crisis of the Open Skies regime and lack of progress on the Vienna document), it would be reasonable to supplement the Russian–American discussions on strategic stability with similar professional dialogue on regional stability.

Unlike talks on strategic capabilities, dialogue on regional stability cannot proceed between Moscow and Washington bilaterally. It requires participation and perhaps even sponsorship from Europe. Igor Istomin

Unlike talks on strategic capabilities, dialogue on regional stability cannot proceed between Moscow and Washington bilaterally. It requires participation and perhaps even sponsorship from Europe. Preceding initiatives, like the OSCE-based ‘structured dialogue,’ did not address the most pressing issues and relied on suboptimal venues. A new attempt should cover the whole range of military concerns, including the tenacious menace of intermediate missiles. There is more promise in a dialogue on regional stability within the Russia–NATO context than in OSCE, which became an unworkable setting.

Finally, European engagement with Moscow would benefit from a positive agenda, even if limited. The Russian–American detente sets an example, incorporating discussions on climate change in parallel to discussions on traditional arms control. The EU have hope for a similar discussion on the environment with Russia, yet this discussion could be a potential minefield given the harmful effect of the European carbon tariffs on Russian industries. Moscow and Brussels can find more reciprocal benefits in discussion topics such as mutual recognition of vaccines against COVID-19. This measure would contribute to restoring people-to-people contact, incorporated in the EU guiding principles on dealing with Russia. Without it, Russian and European businesses and civil societies will face impediments comparable to the infamous visa barrier, if not greater.

Russia and Europe have grown increasingly complacent regarding the dire state of their relations. There is frustration in Brussels towards Moscow and vice versa. However, in international politics, adversarial relations demand careful management. Washington recognised this need, engaging despite fundamental differences with Moscow. Russia and the EU own the record for mishandled strategic partnerships, they will suffer more if they fail to charter a safe way to compete.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr, МИД России