Are EU-Russia relations trapped in a never-ending cycle of contradiction?
Published: Mar 21, 2024 07:43 PM
Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

On Monday, Vladimir Putin once again won Russia's presidential election, sparking a new emotional wave in Europe amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

For a long time, how to deal with Russia has been a contentious issue within the EU. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in February 2022, relations between Europe and Russia have reached a freezing point. Europe has generally taken a strong stance in support of Ukraine, vehemently opposing Russia's policies. Mainstream European elites insist that Russia must fail and Ukraine cannot lose, leading to a stark black-or-white confrontation.

From a security perspective, Russia is a neighbor that the EU cannot move away from. A balanced, effective, and sustainable European security mechanism would benefit both the EU and Russia. However, the prevailing voice in Europe is not one of willingness to coexist with Russia in the European security framework, but rather a desire to defeat Russia. The European media and think tanks are considering a post-Putin-era Russia as a potential option. 

However, with Putin's reelection as the president of Russia, this option has become unrealistic. Europe can only hope for a Russia that is defeated. Regardless of whether Donald Trump is elected or not in the 2024 US presidential election, European assistance to Ukraine will face a new fate, as Europe needs to boost its own development, and consider more on how to maintain strategic autonomy. 

On March 18, European Council President Charles Michel stated that Europe needs to "take responsibility for its own security and not rely heavily on the support of countries such as the US." However, given that "geopolitical Europe" is a long-term goal that cannot be achieved in the short term, Europe will continue to maintain and even strengthen its existing military alliance with the US. As long as Europe relies heavily on the US, the idea of "peaceful coexistence" with Russia will remain a fantasy.

From an economic perspective, Russia and the EU are highly interdependent. A cooperative and win-win economic and trade relationship would benefit both the EU and Russia. However, the current approach in Europe is to sever ties with Russia, cut off energy dependence on Russia and impose multiple rounds of severe sanctions on the country.

The "freeze" in EU-Russia economic and trade relations has caused great harm to Europe. The continent is suffering from high inflation, sluggish economic growth and soaring costs of living. The economic pressures have been transmitted to the societal level in Europe, where protests, especially by farmers, continue to erupt. Michel claimed on Monday that Europe must strengthen its defense capabilities and shift to a "war economy" mode in the face of the threat posed by Russia. "If we want peace, we must prepare for war," he said. However, Putin's election victory means that it will be increasingly difficult for Europe to defeat Russia in a war of attrition. The prolongation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict will lead to a "lose-lose" situation for all parties involved, further exacerbating division and confrontation.

From a holistic perspective, EU-Russia relations are a complex game with a multi-level, multi-dimensional and multi-aspect framework. This game includes ideological confrontation as well as geopolitical and geo-economic conflicts. In future interactions with Russia, Europe must consider both short-term goals and expected future costs. It also has to consider factors such as power and prestige, the instability of the US and the individual opinions of each member state within the EU.

At present, the most urgent task for Europe is how to deal with its relations with Russia in the post-Ukraine-conflict era, and this needs to be achieved through peaceful means and diplomacy. If Europe-Russia relations are approached with a zero-sum mentality, in which only one side can survive, then both sides will be drawn into a never-ending cycle of contradiction.

It is difficult to defeat a Russia that has a stable government, especially since the country possesses highly modernized conventional armed forces and nuclear weapons. It will also be difficult for a united Europe to give up its stance. But if Europe is preparing for a war to achieve peace, then the cost of achieving such a peace will be too high. The concern is that in the coming years of Putin's presidency, the distrust between Europe and Russia will continue to grow, and the road back to peace will become even more rugged.

The author is a research fellow with the Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn