Another mini-scandal broke out in the European Union the other day. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, perhaps impressed by the recent Geneva summit between the presidents of Russia and the United States, suggested to her EU partners that they think about inviting Vladimir Putin to the upcoming Euro summit. Indeed, if none other than Joe Biden deems it appropriate to extend his already prolonged European tour for a conversation with his Russian counterpart, then EU leaders should not lag behind their ally from across the pond. President of France Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz were quick to endorse the initiative. Judging by the response of Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary for the President of Russia, the Russian leadership was rather interested in such a meeting as well.
It would normally be safe to assume that such a powerful coalition in favour of a meeting of this kind means that a summit would be organized as soon as possible, promising a productive conversation. However, Angela Merkel’s proposal—predictably—did not satisfy everyone in Europe. The first to refuse to participate in the possible summit was Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, who cited the ongoing investigation of the 2014 Malaysian Airlines plane crash in the east of Ukraine as the reason. The leaders of Lithuania and Latvia also opposed extending an invitation to Vladimir Putin to be immediately joined by the leaders of several Central European states that traditionally oppose any political dialogue with Moscow, in any forms and at any level.
Die-hard opponents of Vladimir Putin who do not tend to support seeking compromise were quick to point out that such a summit would be an unjustified gift to the Russian leader, one that he has clearly not deserved. Inviting Putin would send the “wrong signal” which could inspire Russia to carry out more “destructive acts” in Europe and around the world. There was talk of the German Chancellor making a “false start” by voicing her proposal right before discussions with other EU heads of states. Imposing new EU sanctions on Moscow was proposed as an alternative to a summit. Ultimately, Brussels failed to achieve a consensus, with the summit issue postponed until better times.
The kind of summit we do not need
To be fair, it was far from everyone in Russia who was enthusiastic about the idea of an EU summit either. Experts, analysts and politicians came out saying that inviting Putin to a summit would be like summoning an indolent student to a meeting with the school principal and teachers to be scolded for poor grades and bad behaviour. Russian “Euro-sceptics” hastened to remind people that Brussels’ long-proclaimed goal of achieving strategic autonomy from the United States has largely remained on paper; consequently, to meet indecisive, dependent and insecure European politicians would be a waste of time.
Pessimists noted once again that Russia and the European Union held 32 summits in the 20 years from 1995 to 2014, with two being held every year between 2000 and 2013. Yet, these numerous and rather officious events failed to resolve the many fundamental problems in Moscow–Brussels relations, nor to prevent the severe European security crisis in the spring and summer of 2014.
One thing is clear: neither Moscow nor Brussels needs another “ceremonial” summit. Such a summit, however, is an apparent impossibility, given the current state of affairs in Europe. Let us at least recall the dismal outcome of the visit that Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, made to Moscow in February. Hardly anyone in the European Union or Russia would wish such an outcome for another visit, this time at the highest level. Amid the current situation, even a hypothetical breakthrough in some important dimension of bilateral relations is hard to envision, be it a liberalization of the visa regime, a cessation of the EU’s sanctions pressure on Moscow, a reduction in the intensity of information warfare, some advances in bolstering security in Europe or in any other area.
No particular opportunities for moving towards a meeting of minds regarding the political dimensions of the “common neighbourhood” can be seen either. In the near future, neither the East of Ukraine, nor Belarus, nor even the South Caucasus or Moldova will become shining examples of constructive interaction between Russia and the European Union. There are even fewer reasons to hope that such a summit will produce unified approaches to a new world order or at least to building a “greater Europe.” Russia will not accept any pan-European construct with the European Union at the centre and Russia in the position of a dependent “Eurasian periphery.” Brussels, in turn, will not agree to building “Greater Europe” on two interconnected pillars, since it does not consider the Eurasian Economic Union to be its equal.
But if the meeting’s agenda boils down to the ritualized exposition of the parties’ well-known stances on, say, Ukraine or Belarus, human rights or sovereignty, there is then no need to hold a summit. Such verbal spats can continue through the efforts of eloquent diplomats, sassy journalists, or MPs looking to make a name for themselves.
Nevertheless, I would think that an EU–Russia summit would be useful for the same reason that the U.S.–Russia summit in Geneva was. Summits between adversaries are needed as much as summits between allies. When relations between neighbours turn out to be mostly those of rivalry and, especially, of confrontation, summits allow the parties to decide on their mutual “red lines” and—once these are agreed on—to reduce the risks and costs of mutual deterrence.
Where do the “red lines” lie?
Russia’s “red lines” in its relations with the West are roughly clear, and they were delineated back in Geneva. Everything that Moscow perceives as an infringement on its sovereignty will be thwarted in the most severe and unequivocal form. It is up for debate whether Vladimir Putin is correct in opposing any attempt by the West to “internationalize” human rights issues, bring up questions about the role of political opposition or an independent judiciary and claim the part of a defender of dissenters and—more broadly—Russian civil society. Yet, this is the Kremlin’s current stance which is unlikely to change in the coming years. There is no ambiguity or hypocrisy here.
The EU’s “red lines” for Moscow, on the other hand, are drawn far more vaguely. Rather, they are drawn but they are too many for a realistic strategy to stand some chance of success. Brussels speaks far too often about the “unacceptable” actions or even potentially “unacceptable” actions of Moscow, whether relating to Ukraine, Syria, Belarus, Libya, Alexey Navalny, new lists of “undesirable organizations,” Moscow’s contacts with European right-wing populists or expulsions of EU diplomats from Moscow. Ultimately, it is extremely difficult—or well short of impossible—to understand the hierarchy of Europe’s multiple grievances, claims and complaints when it comes to Moscow.
When a formula is used too often and clearly to excess, it inevitably becomes devoid of meaning—if the European Union finds almost every domestic or international step (or potential step) the Kremlin makes to be unacceptable, then “red lines” merge into a single crimson field that has nothing to do with real politics. If the European Union thinks the Russian leadership should be prohibited from any and every action, this means that it is, in fact, free to do anything it pleases.
Obviously, the EU leadership cordially dislikes many of Moscow’s foreign policy steps, and they are not thrilled about the current dynamic of Russia’s domestic developments either. However, the EU is incapable of forcing the Russian leadership to make a U-turn in a particular area. Times when Russia was willing to be a diligent and obedient student of the European Union are long gone and are unlikely to return. Therefore, we need to look for partial agreements—clearly far from ideal and compromise-based by default—in those areas that are vital for the European Union. That is, “red lines” should not be mere tropes of political rhetoric but reflections of the European Union’s real priorities.
Incidentally, unlike the EU leaders, President Joe Biden of the United States set very specific and unequivocal “red lines.” The Geneva summit confirmed what was unacceptable for him—foreign cyberattacks on critical U.S. infrastructure and cyber-meddling in U.S. domestic politics. This is why Biden did what Trump did not dare do. He namely increased the level of bilateral interaction between Moscow and Washington on cyber security issues. If the aborted EU–Russia summit resulted in a single decision—such as a substantive dialogue on the broad range of cyber threats issues and ways to reduce them—it would ultimately justify all the efforts that would have gone into preparing and holding the summit.
It seems obvious that priority pockets of cooperation can only be singled out once the parties have drawn their “red lines.” Top-level dialogue is indispensable here. Fortunately or unfortunately, following a long stagnation in the relations, the only possible way to change the currently entrenched trend of keeping the negative status quo is with a summit.
Only a clear political signal from the top, expressed in no uncertain terms, can inspire to action the vast armies of officials, diplomats, experts and business leaders on both sides who are not always ready to “jump the gun.” If the Russian and EU leaders achieved a fundamental agreement to work together on the issues of “green energy,” 5G or international migrations, these decisions would greenlight the work of the relevant agencies, ministries, corporations, public organizations, professional communities and educational institutions that are already primed for action.
To the global community, an EU–Russia summit would herald that Brussels and Moscow do not intend to watch with indifference as a new global bipolarity is emerging. On the contrary, they are firmly determined to prevent it from taking ground while remaining fully independent and active global actors.
Alternatives will always be there
There is still hope that an EU–Russia summit can still take place before Angela Merkel leaves the European political scene—specifically, before Germany’s parliamentary elections on September 26, 2021. Not only because her departure will mark a pause in Germany’s foreign policy (even if this pause will not necessarily be a long one) but because the current Chancellor of Germany has poured much effort and energy into stabilizing Moscow–Brussels relations. She did not totally succeed, and not all her ideas invited definitive agreement, but it would be fair to let this truly outstanding European politician complete her part on the European scene.
As someone who has some idea of how the bureaucracy in Brussels works and what the current balance of political power within the European Union is, I must admit that Angela Merkel’s chances of having her final political “special” with Vladimir Putin making an appearance are slim. Those who are against the dialogue can rejoice. Once again, they have defeated Europe’s political heavyweights and imposed their position on the European Union. Apparently, the relations between Moscow and Brussels have been paused yet again, and it remains to be seen how long this situation will last.
There are only two conclusions that Russia can draw following the refusal of the European Union to hold a joint summit. First, it appears that important issues of European security need to be discussed with the United States rather than Europe. Moscow’s main task is to come to agreement with Washington, and it will make every effort to do so over the next few months. It is then up to Washington to ensure that the (Central) European capitals support the agreements achieved, using any means it deems fit.
Second, if it is well-nigh impossible to come to agreement with Brussels, then Russia should, as before, prioritize bilateral relations with Berlin, Paris, Rome and other European capitals interested in fostering cooperation. Let these capitals enforce the decisions they and Moscow need from Brussels in areas beyond their national jurisdictions. And relations with the European Union as such will develop in the same way they have developed over the last seven years—that is, they will not develop at all.
Certainly, the EU’s refusal to hold a summit further bolsters those forces in Moscow that have long been promoting the idea of the “civilizational incompatibility” of Russia and Europe, calling for a speedier “pivot to the Orient” while adding every-so-often suggestions that Russia withdraw from the pan-European organizations of which it is still a member. As far as these are concerned, the very idea of a Russia–Europe summit today seems useless to them at best and harmful at worst, since it draws attention away from the far more important objectives of Russia’s foreign policy on the vast expanses of the Eurasian continent.
Naturally, few in Brussels would welcome such developments, as they hardly meet the long-term interests of Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius and Prague. The European stage is thus likely to treat us to more new covers of old songs. Russia will again be repeatedly accused of unjustified “Americentrism,” the desire to undermine “European unity,” overestimating the prospects of Russia–China cooperation and underestimating the European Union’s role in the world today. They will say that a conversation with Russia does not need to be launched at the top level, as it would be better to discuss many issues as a matter of routine interactions—only when there are prospects of earnest cooperation can the idea of a summit be brought up again. Maybe in a year, or two… or five.
However, such reproaches and reasoning do not appear overly convincing given the EU’s pointed refusal to have a direct and frank top-level dialogue with Moscow. As the French classic Jean-Baptiste Molière said on a different occasion, “You wanted it, George Dandin!”