I: Remapping security political environments

1 Russia and the European Union

Russia and the European Union: Different dimensions of security and cooperation

Vladimir Kolosov and Alexander Sebentsov


The historically changing understandings of national security by ruling elites and in public opinion are derived from the collective historical experience, political culture, identity, and interpretation of a country’s place and mission in the world. Understandings of national security are also conditioned by international economic and cultural ties, and numerous subjective factors. Thanks largely to the Copenhagen School’s work, in the last thirty to forty years the idea of national security has become considerably more complex and inclusive (Buzan, Waever, and de Wilde, 1998), comprising both military aspects and closely interrelated economic, social, cultural, and environmental issues. This mindset is reflected in the latest version of the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation (The Strategy of National Security of the Russian Federation, 2015), which states that “national security includes the country’s defence and all types of security provided for by the Constitution of the Russian Federation and the legislation of the Russian Federation, primarily state, public, informational, environmental, economic, transport, energy security, and personal security”.

As in many other countries the modern understanding of national security in Russia has deep historical roots: the opposition of Orthodoxy to the “Latin heresy” and its dangerous influence on Moscow state’s subjects; the confrontation between the “only socialist state in the world” (the USSR before the Second World War) and the hostile West and then between the “socialist camp” and the capitalist world, the “only true ideology of Marxism-Leninism” facing the “corrupting” influence of western ideology and culture. Naturally, the geopolitical codes of confrontation with Russia are also deeply rooted in the West (Kazharski and do Nascimento Tabosa, 2018). The gradual aggravation of relations between Russia and the West, Russia and the European Union (EU), and their collapse as a result of the political crisis in Ukraine allowed the Russian side to easily mobilise familiar stereotypes and historical narratives.

Recourse to an “ontological” approach to security has thus become more frequent. Here, security becomes a matter of responding to emergencies and challenges requiring immediate action - a total mobilisation of human and material resources to counter external forces that threaten national identity, and to preserve identity and sovereignty, interpreted as the people’s ability to independently decide its own destiny and survive in a hostile environment (Makarychev, 2018). External circumstances are treated in political discourse as exceptional, which justifies the adoption of extraordinary measures. The ontological approach to security is a well-known way of strengthening the legitimacy of a political regime, as was clearly manifested in the case of Russia during the 2014 Ukraine crisis. The current version of The Strategy of National Security of the Russian Federation (2015), adopted after the crisis began, emphasises:

Civil society is consolidating around common values that form the foundation of statehood, such as Russia’s freedom and independence, humanism, international peace and harmony, the unity of cultures of the multinational people of the Russian Federation, respect for family and faith traditions, and patriotism.

Increasing global instability and disagreements between the leading actors on the international political scene, combined with EU sanctions against Russia, have strengthened realist approaches to world politics with regard to the USSR/Russia - the conviction that force and deterrence remain the most crucial factors. In assigning an important role to human rights and the free circulation of ideas, the liberal approach, which underlies the EU’s foreign policy strategy and is associated with the delegation of competences to supranational institutions and the priority of international norms, has created even more distrust in Russia. It has been viewed as a mere cover for the implementation of the selfish interests of the EU and the collective West. The Strategy of National Security of the Russian Federation (2015) emphasises that the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the reinforcement of its military infrastructure near Russian borders pose a threat to Russia, and that the migration crisis has revealed the failure of the regional security system, which was based on the North Atlantic Alliance and the EU. However, in stressing that international instability contributes to the rising role of states that “are increasingly taking responsibility for affairs in their regions”, the Strategy’s authors note that “regional and sub-regional economic agreements are becoming one of the most important means of protection against crisis phenomena”.

This chapter’s objective is twofold: first, to show how the Russian elite’s understandings of national security affected relations between Russia and the EU, contributing to their sharp deterioration after 2014; second, to consider ways to break the deadlock in interaction with the EU through the maintenance and development of regional institutions.

Three main threats to Russia’s national security and its relations with the EU

Ivan Timofeev (2020), programme director of the prestigious International Valdai Club, identifies three main threats to Russian national security. The first is the fear of conflict with the outside world and the perception of vulnerability to the potential aggression of foreign states or their unions. This recalls the prominent early twentieth-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev’s (1959) expression of self-perception as a besieged fortress. Indeed, there have been many periods in Russian history when the country faced real military threats from different directions - for example, the Teutonic knights or later Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian state to the north and the west, and the Ottoman Empire to the south in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, or from Germany and its allies to the west and Japan to the east before the Second World War. The second threat comes from possible internal disorder and disagreements among the elite. The third fundamental threat arises from the backwardness of Russia’s economy, governance, and political institutions. While these problems are not exclusive to Russia, they have a hypertrophied character because of Russia’s size (and borders with sixteen countries), and the diversity and complexity of its society. Obviously, all three threats are closely interrelated, though their relationship changes. It is impossible to counteract external threats if the economy and political institutions cannot cope with contemporary challenges. Modernisation attempts may give rise to internal turmoil, for example.

After the collapse of the USSR internal disorder provoked a risk of further disintegration within Russia. This temporarily became the top security priority, overshadowing any potential external threat. Closing their eyes to the war in Chechnya, the problems in the implementation of democratic norms, and other issues, the EU and the collective West believed that Russia could return to Europe. In the dominant political discourse the EU attitude was represented as exemplifying how Russia should pursue its relations with the post-Soviet states and old European democracies - for example, in social organisation (Kolosov et ah, 2018). Russia hoped for EU assistance in modernising its economy and countering the threat of backwardness. The EU in turn hoped for a long-term partnership with a Russia that was adopting European norms and values, and becoming a “normal” European country, without formally joining the Union. This perception was summarised by Romano Prodi, former President of the European Commission, in his maxim “everything but institutions” (2002). This entailed economic, political, and legal rapprochement with the EU, the mutual opening of markets, and compliance with EU legal norms. In an obvious desire to modernise Russia on its own terms the EU projected its values, norms, and rules, actively promoting its material interests in the expectation that Russia would accept the Brussels-prescribed rules of the game. In relations with

Russia, as with other post-socialist countries, the EU adopted the tactics of conditionality: making cooperation dependent on the fulfilment of a number of changing conditions.

Yet in Russia the situation’s gradual normalisation transformed relations with the EU and more general perceptions of Europe. Both sides were clearly disappointed with the developments. Discussion of relations between Russia and the EU has almost always been linked with debates on interaction with the United States and NATO, and the idea that EU membership was open only to NATO members. The problem of EU enlargement to the East was therefore interpreted as an expansion of NATO, almost unanimously perceived as an unacceptable threat to Russian national security. In the eyes of Russia’s leadership and public opinion NATO’s action in Kosovo without UN approval confirmed their worst fears. They were interpreted as a crude flouting of Russia’s national interests and an attempt to sever Russia from Europe. The NATO accession of the states of Central and Eastern Europe was considered a major geopolitical and military challenge, prompting Russian fears of encirclement and again becoming a “besieged fortress”. In the 2003-2004 debates about the conditions of EU enlargement Moscow blamed Brussels for a lack of consultation and ignoring its vital interests and security needs. Moreover, the changing terms of Russia’s trade with the new EU members led to significant economic losses. The inclusion of neighbouring countries in the Schengen Area, which followed their accession to the EU, provoked a strong negative reaction in Moscow, because both the Soviet Union and Russia had had visa-free regimes with all the new EU members except the Baltic States for decades.

Another issue was the transformation of the Kaliningrad region into an exclave surrounded by EU countries, which generated communications problems with the rest of the country. Russian suggestions for special concessions for Kaliningrad were disregarded by the EU. This was interpreted in Moscow as a disregard for Russia’s sovereignty. In general, EU enlargement was considered fundamentally a geopolitical project that did not depend on the genuine readiness of new members. Simultaneously, and soon after the EU enlargement to the East, relations between Russia and the EU underwent a new test: the “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine. The Russian leadership considered them the peaceful overthrow of legitimate leaders, inspired or at least supported by the United States and the collective West using their soft power, and especially by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) funded by western foundations and special services. From Moscow’s perspective the result of the colour revolutions was a split of post-Soviet countries from Russia and their inclusion in the western (European) sphere of influence under the pretext of the replacement of local authoritarian regimes by “democratic” and “liberal” governments, and assistance to realise the right to self-determination. Moscow insisted on its privileged relations and specific interests in the post-Soviet space, based on its long coexistence with the newly independent countries and its leading economic role. This was viewed in Europe as a neo-imperialist policy, threatening the free democratic choice of political orientation in neighbouring states. The struggle for influence in post-Soviet countries became the strongest irritant in relations between Russia and the EU, which were quickly transformed into a zero-sum game.

For the Kremlin all this pointed to a second fundamental threat to national security - the weakening of internal stability and internal disorders provoked by the interference of outside forces. The Russian authorities increasingly perceived the EU as an “orange” challenge. Political discourse in both Russia and the EU had radically changed: basic notions like “democracy”, “human rights”, “liberalism”, “justice”, “transparency”, “security”, and so on have increasingly acquired different and even opposing meanings. The understanding of sovereignty is especially important. Moscow interprets sovereignty in the traditional Westphalian sense, emphasising the principles of state equality and non-interference in internal affairs,1 also suggesting an enhanced role of the state in creating domestic order and consolidating its return to the realms of the social life it had abandoned in the 1990s. Maintaining political stability for the sake of economic development and increased wellbeing became the key idea of Vladimir Putin’s political programmes. In the mid-2000s it was supplemented by the concept of “sovereign democracy”, or a kind of democratic regime created by an independent state developing its own political institutions matching national history, traditions, and needs. “Sovereign democracy” was opposed to the “managed democracy” that was based on the institutions and norms imposed by the West during “democratisation” or “Europeanisation”, and was externally manipulated. What was officially called “democracy” in Russia was therefore understood in Europe as “a return to authoritarianism”.

Such discourse was less a reflection of the prevailing practice of relations than an attempt to shape it (Makarychev, 2007; Medvedev, 2008). It was increasingly used as a tool to construct identities: sculpting the representations of friends and partners, enemies and rivals, and dominant threats and how to oppose them. The constriction of “others”, often using Soviet stereotypes still vivid in the Russian mass consciousness, served to shape Russian political identity. These developments were only partly counterbalanced by the 2005 creation of four “common spaces” of Russia and the EU: a Common Economic Space; a Common Space of Freedom, Security and Justice; a Common Space of External Security; and a Common Space of Research and Education, including cultural elements. The agreement on common spaces was considered a basis for strategic partnership that should lead to an economic rapprochement and deeper cooperation in the struggle against organised crime, terrorism, illegal migration, and the abolition of the visa regime through the implementation of a single roadmap that included about four hundred points. It soon became clear that most of the points formulated in the agreement were in general terms and difficult to implement. However, in 2007 Russia and the EU reached an agreement which allowed the 2009 signing of a package of documents concerning the co-funding and implementation of five cross-border cooperation programmes. They were based on new principles, including the integration of various domestic and international funding sources, and equal participation in the development and adoption of the projects (Sebentsov, 2020). On the European side these programmes were based on the recently established European Instrument of Neighbourhood and Partnership. This approach had proved its efficiency and is still used, despite the important geopolitical shifts.

Vladimir Putin’s 2007 Munich speech became a harbinger of a new phase in Russian politics. He stressed that cooperation between Russia and the West must be based on equality, and he condemned attempts to create a unipolar world dominated by the US as the only superpower. He also condemned the enlargement of NATO and the installation of American missiles in Central Europe, stating that a reorganisation of the post-Soviet space could not be achieved without Russia. The eastern partnership promoted by the EU was therefore interpreted as a new attempt to draw post-Soviet countries away from Russia, challenging its interests in the region. Moscow refused to join this project, because it did not wish to be treated like its smaller neighbours.

The EU was consistently denounced in Russian political discourse for applying double standards. From the perspective of Russian officials one of the most spectacular examples of EU hypocrisy was the recognition of Kosovo, while it refused to accept the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Another example was the frequent accusation that the Kremlin regularly exploited economic interdependencies to force its neighbours to align with its geopolitical interests, while the EU would not open its own markets to these countries. The EU side has long viewed Russia as a “bad pupil” in the European classroom. The EU was disappointed by the restoration of a semiauthoritarian bureaucratic state in Russia and the diminished prospects for its Europeanisation. After Putin resumed the presidency in 2012 Russia acquired a distinctly negative image of an authoritarian kleptocratic state pursuing its political opponents, unable to build a modern economy, and dependent on natural resources (Trenin, 2019). The growing tension in relations between Russia and the EU were explained less by conflicts of interest than the deepening divergences in fundamental values that formed the basis of geostrategy and security perceptions. Zizek (2007: 192) describes this attitude as a “Eurocentric practice of imposing one’s hegemony through an exclusive discursive strategy of depreciating the Other”.

The 2014 geopolitical crisis caused by the events in Ukraine, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the war in the Donbass led to a sharp new deterioration in relations between Russia and the EU. Russia’s actions were seen in Europe as a challenge to the basic principles of international law, and following the United States, the EU attempted to contain Moscow through sanctions affecting key sectors of the Russian economy. The new neighbouring EU members considered the events in Ukraine a direct threat to their security, and sought to strengthen military cooperation with NATO and the United States. The combination of the Ukraine crisis, western sanctions, and the decline of the rouble and oil and gas prices considerably damaged the implementation of Moscow’s plans to reintegrate at least part of the post-Soviet space and strengthen the newly created Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Neither Belarus nor Kazakhstan recognised the annexation of Crimea. The events in Ukraine impelled them to look for political and economic alternatives to Russia’s domination. This in turn enhanced Moscow’s self-perception as a “besieged fortress”.

At the same time the EU gradually lost the popular appeal it had enjoyed in Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s. The experience of China and other countries showed that democracy was unnecessary for technological and economic success. Moreover, Russian public opinion did not accept contemporary liberal European views of national sovereignty, the role of the state, the Church, and NGOs in society, family, multiculturalism, sexual minorities, and gay marriage. The state media inspired the idea that the EU and Western Europe as a whole had betrayed their own traditional values, while Russia acted as their main defender. They transformed the very term “liberal” into an invective label. In the mirror of state propaganda “liberals” inspired and funded from abroad (i.e. from the West) undermined political stability. The most important acquis of its current leadership and the main condition of social progress were embodied by those who dreamed of a “colour” revolution in Russia itself and the threat of internal disorder generated by outside interference. The old European democracies were portrayed as having lost stability and attractiveness, affected as they were by the obvious decline of traditional parties, political turmoil, and the increasing influence of new populist and radical movements. The problems of the EU leading countries were widely covered on Russian state TV’ and in other media.

Following the logic of the zero-sum game on both the Russian and European sides the discourse of mutual alienation has been continuously updated: the doping scandal and the non-admission of the Russian team to the Olympic Games and the celebration of Victory Day are examples where this has been applied. The Russian side is especially sensitive to the attempts of EU countries to downplay the role of the Soviet Union and assign equal responsibility for unleashing the Second World War to the Hitler and Stalin regimes (Strokovskaia, 2015). In 2009 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) adopted a resolution stating that the Soviet Union shared responsibility with the Hitler regime for initiating the Second World War (Seniavskiy and Seniavskaia, 2009). The resolution also called for 23 August (the anniversary of the 1939 non-aggression pact between the USSR and Germany) to be made a memorial day for all victims of Stalinism and Nazism. On 19 September 2019 the European Parliament (2019) adopted a further resolution on the importance of the European historical memory for Europe’s future. This resolution interpreted the Second World War as the result of the “notorious Nazi' Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression pact of 23 August 1939, also called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and its secret protocols, which allowed two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest to divide Europe into two zones of influence”. Moscow responded that the non-aggression pact was preceded by the Munich Agreement of 1938 on the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by Hitler and the leaders of Great Britain, France, and fascist Italy, supported by the United States, and the annexation of Austria in March 1938.

This clash of views of recent history generated a vigorous reaction in Russian public opinion. For many generations victory has enjoyed great symbolic value as part of national identity. Russian citizens traditionally see the Second World War as the major event in which the country can take pride. According to annual Levada Center opinion polls Russians see victory in the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia, as far surpassing the significance of other events in national history. The Levada Center’s surveys show that the number who share this opinion has not changed over the last twenty years, amounting to between 82 and 85 per cent.2 For Russian citizens a new interpretation of these results reflects attempts to transfer Russia from the status of victor to that of an aggressor state.

There are several fundamental reasons for the growing divergence in interpretations and social representations. The results of the Second World War agreed at the summits in Yalta and Potsdam matched the balance of the Allies’ forces. It radically changed in the late 1980s and the 1990s. The Yalta-Potsdam system of international relations, frozen during the Cold War, was set in motion. The liberation of the states of Eastern and Central Europe from the Soviet Union’s orbit allowed a reinterpretation of recent history, reshaping or recreating national identity in representing their countries as the innocent victims of two dictatorships - Nazi and Soviet. The “lacrimogenous” concept of national history assisted the “return to Europe”, gained the support of old/new western allies, and afforded access to western organisations, including the EU, radically transforming the approach to national security. This view of the history of the Second World War became an important element of identity building based on an active politics of memory. From Russia’s perspective double standards were again being applied: in blaming Russia as the heir of the Soviet Union for signing the non-aggression pact with Hitler, the West silently ignored the participation of many countries in agreements or involvement in negotiations with the Nazi regime, especially the Munich Agreement, the benefits that several countries obtained from its conclusion, especially in territorial acquisitions, and their pro-German orientation. In criticising the Yalta-Potsdam system, they ignored the fact that the USSR’s western allies were also its architects.

Despite all their obvious differences, the ideas of “sovereignty” and “Europeanisation” share the same roots: they represent two different reactions to globalisation, and two different ways of managing uncertainty and global risks. According to Sergei Medvedev (2008) the EU sought to minimise the risks and uncertainty in its vicinity, including Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries, in transforming their political regimes and projecting its norms and procedures, while Russia focused on the exclusion of external risks in insisting on its sovereignty, increasing its self-sufficiency, and banning the activity of “foreign agents” to eliminate the participation of western countries in shaping civil society.

The EU as an international actor: Russian perspectives

The deterioration of relations with the EU has contributed to the growth of Russian scepticism concerning the former’s prospects as an international actor. By the beginning of the 2000s opinion had already formed concerning the EU’s limited ability to formulate and consistently advance pan-European interests, especially in matters of foreign and security policy. The nature of these restrictions was initially explained by the concept of “Euro-Atlantic unity”, which was interpreted in Russia primarily as the “dependence” of the EU on US and NATO foreign policy (Arbatova, 2019). Such dependence meant the rejection of the principle of “indivisible security” and the emergence of new dividing lines, “different levels of security” in the common area of the neighbourhood. It was also symptomatic that the EU did not negotiate European security within its own defence structure - the Western European Union (Borko, Zagorski, and Karaganov, 1991; Danilov and de Spiegeleire, 1998).

However, by the end of the 2000s, most experts connected the “lack of actorness” with the specific nature of the EU, which, unlike the traditional “great powers”, had no “national interests” (Busygina, 2013). Its attempts to formulate “collective interests” in complex foreign policy issues did not usually produce the desired result. The creation of the first EU foreign policy strategy on Russia (Common Strategy of the European Union on Russia, 4 June 1999) illustrates this. At the time of its adoption there was an EU consensus on the importance of relations with Russia, but member countries could not agree on the priorities of relations with it. The document therefore fixed only the most general objectives of cooperation and was the result of a mechanical “merger of conflicting national interests and intergovernmental agreements” (Busygina and Deryagina, 2007: 10).

After the EU’s “big bang expansion” in 2004 the problem of developing “collective interests” escalated even further. If in the early 2000s expansion was perceived as the most successful manifestation of EU foreign policy (Borko and Butorina, 2001), by the end of the first decade of the new century it was perceived as a major strategic mistake that undermined its viability, and internal and external unity (Tevdoy-Burmuli, 2013; Arbatova, 2019). This opinion was justified, first, by the fact that countries that differed greatly from Western European states, with a specific historical experience of relations with Russia, had joined the EU. Their frequent claims became an obstacle to resolving even purely practical issues between Brussels and Moscow, impeding “pragmatic cooperation”. The fundamental basis of these claims was the widespread perception of Russia in Central and Eastern Europe as a fundamentally “other” country from which it was necessary to be separated (Tevdoy-Burmuli, 2013).

The accession of Central and Eastern European countries to the EU shook the balance between the champions of “Atlanticism” and “Europeanism” in the EU (Arbatova, 2009). The Central and East European countries were important from a geostrategic perspective, helping to simultaneously contain Russia and the EU, and promote foreign policy initiatives in other areas. This was most pronounced in 2003 against the background of sharp disagreements about the situation in Iraq. Some of the largest EU countries shared Russia’s position on the US invasion of Iraq, which greatly irritated the then Secretary of State for Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. In a famous interview he noted that only the countries of “old Europe”, which was losing its significance, disagreed with America, while the new transatlantic cooperation partners from the former socialist camp supported it. From the perspective of the “New Europe” concept the countries of Central Europe, especially Poland and the Baltic States, were associated with the new cordon sanitaire that isolated Russia from the common European home (Danilov, 2004). The Eastern Partnership, promoted by Poland and supported by the EU, was therefore interpreted in Russia as an attempt to expand the belt of “limitrophe states” and violate the conceptual foundations of Russia’s security.

EU unity and its normative leadership in relations with Russia were undermined by the value conflicts between old and new Europe. The basis of these conflicts was, on the one hand, the immaturity of democratic regimes in these countries, and a weak culture of consensus and tolerance, and, on the other, the inability of the EU to effectively respond to new members’ infringement of its own standards. Violations of the rights of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic States, secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prisons in Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, and undemocratic reforms in Poland and Hungary, coupled with the weak reaction of Brussels, again confirmed Europeans’ “value relativism” and “double standards” (Bordachev, 2017) in the eyes of Russian politicians.

Based on this argument, some Russian experts and practitioners in the field of international relations believed that the EU’s apparent fragmentation made it possible to exploit the disagreements between its countries. It seemed that success could be achieved by building strong neighbourly relations with the “good” countries of old Europe, possibly bypassing EU institutions and ignoring the hostile attacks of the “bad” countries of new Europe. However, it quickly became clear in practice that the countries of old Europe saw integration, which entailed compromise with the countries of new Europe, as a higher priority than compromise with Russia. The strategy thus revealed its limited effectiveness (Busygina, 2013).

A series of crises (economic 2008, debt 2009, migration 2015) showed that “systemic faults” divided the EU not only into old and new Europe, but into north and south, the core and the periphery, countries inside and outside the euro area, and debtor and creditor countries (Kaveshnikov, 2017). Brexit clearly demonstrated the likelihood of the disintegration scenario and the fragility of the ideas about the “inevitability” of European integration. The departure of one of the largest European states from the EU institutions qualitatively changed the balance of power within the EU and led to a revision of the entire regulatory framework of trade relations with Russia. It reduced the predictability of the EU as a foreign policy actor. The EU’s actorness in the perception of the Russian leadership and public opinion decreased further because of its quasi-automatic solidarity with the United States in the main political issues, especially in its support for President Trump’s argument about the need to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (Trenin, 2019).

The regional dimension of Russia-EU relations

It is clear that even in the medium-term relations between Russia and the EU will not return to the level that prevailed in the early 2000s. There is no prospect of resolving the situation in the Donbass or the Crimea problem, which Russia considers closed. Opinion polls reinforce this: they reveal that a convincing majority of the peninsula’s inhabitants consider themselves citizens of Russia (O’Loughlin, Toal, and Bakke, 2020). Against this background the regional organisations in which Russia and the EU participate, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC), the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS), the Arctic Council, the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM), and the Northern Dimension (ND) acquire special importance. The experience of recent years reveals they have suffered less from the international situation’s general deterioration. The region is the most suitable level at which to harmonise interests in adverse and constantly changing conditions. It is easier to negotiate general rules of action and the regulation of certain processes at this level.

The principles of “new regionalism”, based on a combination of constructivist and functional understandings of the regionalisation process, are embodied in the activities of international organisations in Northwestern Europe. In this approach cross-border regions are formed both spontaneously (“from below”) on the basis of the strengthening of trade, production, migration, and other interactions between neighbouring territories and their sociocultural community, and “from above”, as a result of states’ actions. In the absence of a functional basis a region can be fully formed by interested states, and public and other actors. “Regions, like identities, are not set once and for all: they are constructed and changed”, writes Professor L. Fawcett of Oxford University (Fawcett, 2005: 26). Regionalisation is therefore a flexible process, the content and interpretation of which is constantly changing. The new regionalism does not require the symmetry of the state system, territorial organisation, and competences of regions and municipalities on different sides of borders.

New regionalism is not necessarily based on previously developed norms. It enables the combining of western (European) and non-western models of regional cooperation (Mikhailenko, 2014). Its “dimension” (in Bjorn Hettne’s term) is not only economic, but cultural, environmental, and social; the “measurement” of regional security is important. The main principle of new regionalism is that it is relatively depoliticised. Moreover, the state is not always directly involved or does not determine regionalisation processes.

Another important principle of the “new regionalism” is multilevel governance, which implies the transfer of all possible powers from the central authorities to the subnational and supranational levels. It is assumed that this principle’s application significantly expands the circle of participants in cooperation, including international financial organisations and partnerships, government agencies, regional administrations and municipalities, business, NGOs, ethnic communities, and so on. Moreover, the agenda is distributed to the created system of actors in such a way that each of its elements corresponds to the competence of institutions of one level or another. Furthermore, if each of the actors implements a relatively narrow set of functions, they can together develop sufficient interaction to smooth disagreements between countries, while maintaining the spirit of cooperation even in a situation of political confrontation (Kondratieva, 2014). The inability to agree on any one issue does not become an obstacle to decisions on other agenda items distributed among many actors, thereby achieving the relative autonomy of the regional organisation from “high politics” (Busygina and Filippov, 2009). Regional organisations, with the participation of Russia and the EU, are based on a combination of “hard” and “soft” regionalism. However their activities are framed by inter-state agreements and institutions, contributing to the consolidation of regional communities, the creation or strengthening of their identity, and specific common interests. In this sense the territory of these organisations’ activities represents cross-border regions. They partly overlap, and the competences of regional institutions intersect widely.

Although EU sanctions did not stop people-to-people contact or cross- border and regional cooperation, they were affected by the deterioration in relations, especially in the years immediately after the 2014 crisis. In Russia there is a myth that the EU is divided into “bad” (most “new” members) and “good” (France, Italy, Finland, Germany) countries, and a clear distinction is made between their policies. Yet in reality the EU countries coordinate their Russia policy through a special committee on Russia and Eastern Europe. However, the Baltic States adopt a tougher position, often blocking decisions. For example, since 2013, the Baltic States have blocked the ND Ministerial Meeting, despite its importance for defining this regional organisation’s future agenda. In the same way a high-level meeting of the GBSS was postponed several times until foreign ministers gathered in 2017 in Reykjavik on the occasion of the organisation’s twenty-fifth anniversary (Sweden also held a ministerial summit as the concluding event of its chairmanship). Previously, the CBSS had held biennial meetings of heads of government, alternating with ministerial meetings, but the last such meeting took place in 2012. Cooperation is therefore led by senior officials, whose competences are limited to current issues.

In the Russian side’s opinion an important problem in the activity of the CBSS is the lack of a common prospective vision: the EU Baltic Strategy was adopted without consultation with Russia. In 2013, a special commission, headed by the Russian Minister of Regional Development and the European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, was created to coordinate the strategies of both sides, but its work has been frozen since 2014. Restrictions were also imposed on Russia by international financial institutions. Thus, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which manages the ND Environmental Partnership Fund, continues to support only old projects. Poland insisted that only EU money could be spent on its territory within the framework of the ND. Following difficult negotiations the participants decided that Russian funding would only be directed to projects on Russian territory.

However, since late 2018, there has been much positive news, and there have been many signs of improvement. Russian foreign ministry experts say the best example of successful and depoliticised cooperation between Russia and the EU on the regional level is the BEAC. Senior officials appointed by national foreign ministries have met with each other since its formation and have been able to find mutually beneficial compromises, unless cold winds blow in from the capitals.5 In May 2018 the Barents Regional Council (BRC), comprising officials from fourteen countries, issued a joint statement emphasising the need to make the Barents region a visa-free area for its residents (Barents Regional Council, 2018). The authorities of the border Norwegian county of Finnmark (now Troms og Finnmark) are known for their firm intention to maintain close contact with their Russian partners. In September 2018 the deputies of the Finnmark County Council adopted a statement in favour of closer cooperation with Russia and a visa-free regime (Staalesen, 2018). On the Russian side the Murmansk Oblast takes the lead in regional cooperation with the Nordic countries within the framework of the BEAC. In 2015, soon after the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the two regions signed a declaration on cross-border cooperation.4 The number of visas issued by the consulates general in Murmansk (Russia) and Kirkenes (Norway) between 2010 and 2019 and local cross-border traffic remained stable (except for 2014). Given the transformations in European politics, this declaration affords a stark contrast with the ineffective decades-long discussion between Russia and the EU about visa abolition, which ceased in 2014.

Within the framework of BEAC cooperation considerable attention is paid to the protection of the environment. One of the main achievements has been the elimination of twelve out of forty-two environmental hotspots in Northwest Russia, and this work continues.5 It has been decided that the BEAC should sponsor the Barents’ Indigenous People’s Summit (its second meeting was held in May 2019 in Sweden), as well as a youth forum at national, regional, and municipal levels. The Russian foreign ministry is satisfied with the participation of Russian regions in the activity of the BEAC, their understanding of the cooperation’s priorities, and their feedback.6

The activity of the CBSS, has de facto become one of the main contact platforms between Russia and the EU. It includes three levels: inter-state; regional (Baltic Sea States Subregional Cooperation and the Baltic Commission of the Forum of the European Sea Coast Regions); and municipal (the Union of the Baltic Cities). The main fields of CBSS activity are sustainable development, marine economics, higher education, research and innovation, the employment and labour market, youth policy, the fight against human trafficking, child protection, and civil security. On the Russian side the city of St Petersburg (which has the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation) and the Kaliningrad Oblast participate in the largest number of projects implemented within the framework of the CBSS.

Despite the interruption to the summits of the CBSS between 2012 and 2017, “small format” political dialogue continued. Eventually, a regular ministerial session of the CBSS was held in Jurmala (Latvia) on 3 June 2019. The participants expressed their support for project-oriented activity, including within the framework of the CBSS Project Financing Fund. Its mandate was extended for the next three-year period (2020-2022). They also agreed on CBSS reform, adopting a roadmap. Its objective was to give the CBSS more flexibility and improve the Council’s interaction with other multilateral formats for cooperation in the region. The participants called for the resumption of regular heads of government meetings. The Russian delegation emphasised the need for work on a new joint strategic document for the Baltic region.

The ND, which has existed for more than two decades, was adopted as an innovative format of cooperation - the embodiment of European “new regionalism”. This initiative occupies a special place among regional cooperation programmes between Russia and the EU countries. It includes four partnerships: the environment; healthcare and social welfare; transport and logistics; and culture. However, institution building and the use of advanced European experience has not led to a breakthrough. The problem has been the duplication of cooperation formats in Northern Europe (the CBSS, the BEAC, the Arctic Council, the Nordic Council of Ministers) (Kolosov and Sebentsov, 2019). According to the original plan the ND was to create added value within these formats. Yet the ND to some extent competed with them, becoming a kind of “umbrella under which projects already implemented within other formats were artificially inserted” (Aalto, Blakkisrud, and Smith, 2009). The ND was considered an alternative channel of communication with the EU and was intended to create the necessary basis for full-scale cooperation. This perception led to excessive expectations of the project and disappointment with the modest results. After 2006 it seemed that the ND had found an identity and clear objectives. As a regional embodiment of the four common spaces between Russia and the EU, the ND was intended to promote cooperation in the immediate neighbourhood. However, the crisis in EU-Russia relations has not only buried the idea of four common spaces but has frozen cooperation in the ND’s highest governing bodies. National and supranational actors therefore suffer from strategic uncertainty, and the programme is becoming a set of weakly connected institutions (Kolosov and Sebentsov, 2019).

Nevertheless, at their Brussels meeting in March 2019, the ND’s senior officials agreed the preparation of a ministerial summit - the first after a long break. In late 2018 the Assembly of Donors decided to resume the activities of the Environmental Partnership in Russia, thus far only through the Northern Environment Finance Corporation (NEFCO), in the hope that other international financial institutions would join it. The results of cooperation within this partnership’s framework are most visible in Russia. They comprise the construction and reconstruction of treatment facilities in the largest cities of the northwest - St Petersburg, Syktyvkar, Murmansk, Vologda, Novgorod, and Kaliningrad - and in initiatives like the flood protection complex in St Petersburg. The Health and Social Welfare Partnership is the most stable: until 2020 it was implementing the strategy that was approved at the 2015 ministerial meeting. In late 2020 the draft of a new strategy has been worked out but not officially adopted. The importance of cooperation in this field has increased because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation in the Transport and Logistics Partnership is more complicated because of conflicting interests, but it is preparing its roadmap for the coming years. In May 2018 an agreement on the establishment of the Culture Partnership was signed in Riga. Both this partnership’s forum and the business forum are held in St Petersburg.

In the second half of 2018 the legal basis for cross-border cooperation between Russia and six EU countries (Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, as well as Norway) was finalised. Russia participates in the Interreg Baltic Sea Region, which is со-funded with the European Commission, and enjoys observer status in the similar Interreg Northern Periphery and Arctic programme. Previously approved projects are being implemented. Russia and the EU are drafting seven new cross-border cooperation programmes for 2021-2027, despite the crisis in their relations.'


The Covid-19 crisis apparently justifies the principles of Russia’s foreign policy in recent years, for the following reasons: the priority of state sovereignty over any international organisations and agreements; the need to rely only on the state’s own resources (Realpolitik) and the critical role of its social stability; the decline of liberalism; and the irrelevance of the contrast between democracy and authoritarianism. Many scholars and journalists in Russia find convincing evidence of deglobalisation in the development of the pandemic: the crisis of closely integrated branches of the economy like civil aviation and tourism; the vulnerability and fracturing of global value- added chains; and re-bordering. Meanwhile, other authors demonstrate that the pandemic has again revealed the close interrelation and interdependence between the world’s regions and countries. It is impossible to fight pandemics without international cooperation. Israel’s aid to Palestine and neighbouring Arabic countries, and Russia’s to Italy at the pandemic’s peak afford good examples of such interdependence.

A sharp confrontation with the EU and the continuation of the zero-sum game is detrimental to both sides. Even staunch supporters of the “eastward pivot” and the all-round strengthening of relations with China emphasise that Russia and the EU remain neighbours. They must abandon attempts to transform each other in accordance with their norms and ideas, creating new grounds for partnership. There is another important reason to bring the confrontation between Russia and the EU to an end. The trade wars between the United States and China and the 2020 pandemic have shown that the world is increasingly polarised, and that the rivalry between these two superpowers will determine the pattern of international relations and the global balance. Russia has no prospect of improving relations with the United States in the foreseeable future. It would like to maintain good neighbourly relations and cooperation with China, but certainly does not wish to become part of its sphere of interest. Dmitri Trenin, a leading Russian foreign policy expert, notes that national security remains a high priority for both Moscow and Beijing. He argues that in such conditions Russia should develop good relations with other important international actors like the EU, India, and Japan (Trenin, 2020).

Russian experts believe that the new reality can benefit the EU and even lead to an improvement in its relations with Russia. In the new conditions stability rather than endless development and expansion may become the EU’s most important value. It is thus assumed that the collapse of the concept of “inevitable integration” will ensure the rejection of “integration messianism” and the mitigation of the value rhetoric that so poisons cooperation with Russia. A significant slowdown in the processes of Europeanisation will also make the EU more pragmatic in both internal and external cooperation (Kaveshnikov, 2017).

Brexit has also decreased the influence of Atlanticism in the EU and is opening the way to “strategic autonomy” from the United States and NATO. Strategic autonomy is simultaneously interpreted as an expansion of the EU’s military capabilities and as a catalyst for Europe to form common foreign policy goals based on its own pragmatic interest. This vision of European prospects is already largely reflected in the EU Global Strategy. The new strategy focuses on “common interests and principles”, as well as security for citizens and EU states. The traditional rhetoric about the promotion of democracy and the formation of a coherent European Neighbourhood has been abandoned. “Sustainability” and “principled pragmatism” in relations with third countries are to the fore (Arbatova, 2017).

However, the general consensus in forecasting Russia-EU relations, presented in the Valdai Discussion Club’s report on the discussion of a wide group of Russian experts, remains negative. It states that in the medium term Russia and the EU will increasingly diverge, following the logic of the sanctions. The mutual alienation that arose as a result of the diplomatic and military-political crisis around Ukraine has emerged as an independent factor in the development of bilateral relations with the EU. Moreover, Russia feels itself less at the periphery of Europe and more an independent centre of power in Eurasia. At the same time Russia interprets Eurasianism as enabling unity with Europe on a new more equal basis. Interaction with the EU has thus become one of the priorities of the Eurasian Economic Union’s (EAEU) Eurasian Economic Commission, and the leading intellectual and research centres of the EAEU are studying the areas of possible cooperation.

Despite a noticeable cooling of relations with the EU as a whole, active cooperation continues at the level of regional and border institutions. Its local success against the background of global failures is explained by its depoliticisation, focus on solving specific regional issues, and equal conditions for goalsetting and decision making. The implementation of cross- border cooperation programmes (2014-2020) therefore continues. In Russia their experience is considered a model for other sections of its borders. The programmes for 2021-2027 are being prepared. Russia is also expanding its participation in cooperation projects in the Baltic and Barents regions. Numerous and often overlapping institutions of cooperation (BEAC, CBSS, NCM, AC, ND) create a safety net that does not allow inter-state relations to fall below a critical level, simultaneously serving as a platform for informal dialogue and a possible pillar for future political rapprochement.


The research is completed as part of the state assignment (theme “Problems and Prospects of Territorial Development of Russia in the Conditions of its Unevenness and Global Instability” № 0148-2019-0008). Field studies, including interviews in Saint-Petersburg, Leningrad region and Moscow were completed with support of Kone Foundation Project “Northern Dimensions of European Union Actorness. - The Case of Finland and Russia”.


  • 1 Surkov, V., “Nasha rossiiskaia model’ demokratii nazyvaetsia ‘suverennoi demokratiei’” [Our Russian model of democracy is called “sovereign democracy”]. Briefing, 28 June 2006. Accessed 20 April 2020. https://web.archive. org/web/20080430012854/http://www.edinros.ru/news.html?id=l 14108.
  • 2 “Natsionalnaia gordost’ i identichnost’” [National pride and identity]. Accessed 20 April 2020. https://www.levada.ru/2019/01/17/natsionalnaya-identichnost-i-gordost.
  • 3 Interview with the Deputy Head of the Second European Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, S. Petrovich, 29 April 2019.
  • 4 “Murmanskaia oblast’ i Norvegia budut razvivat’ proekty sotrudnichestva” [Murmansk region and Norway to develop cooperation projects], RIA Novosti, 17 November 2015. Accessed 23 March 2020. https://ria.ru/20151117/1322796938. html.
  • 5 Speech by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia A.V. Grushko at the X Forum of the Northern Dimension, St Petersburg, 4 April 2019. Accessed 20 April 2020. https://www.mid.rU/web/guest/foreign_policy/ecology/-/asset_publisher /9jm0ASADm3qm/content/id/3602731.
  • 6 Interview with the Deputy Head of the Second European Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, S. Petrovich, 29 April 2019.
  • 7 Russia, EU drafting 7 cross-border cooperation programs for 2021-2027. 20 January 2020. https://tass.eom/politics/l 113495.


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2 Neighbourhood and the West

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