A decade after Vladimir Putin’s famous proclamation of Russia’s European choice, Moscow has decoupled itself from Europe. It sees itself as an independent player and now interprets the notion of a great power both as a freedom from foreign influence at home and a freedom to act according to its own wishes on the international scene. Both freedoms are relative, of course. In the foreseeable future, Russia—like the United States, the European Union, China, India, and Japan—will be focused on its domestic agenda, giving foreign affairs only as much time as is required by necessity and the realities of the globalized world.
Europe, however, remains Russia’s close neighbor and its main trading partner. What happens there matters more to Russians than events in many other regions. The euro crisis has led to a reassessment in Russia of the EU’s experience, and of its very model, which many had seen as highly attractive. Those Russians who genuinely believed in the European choice for their country were upset by what they saw, while those who always wanted Russia to pursue its own way rejoiced and drew strength from Europe’s perceived failure. In the meantime, more pragmatic people began to weigh the economic consequences of Europe’s troubles on Russia’s budget revenues.
In early 2013, Russian EU watchers agree that the crisis in Europe is bottoming out. They also agree that the recovery will probably take a lot of time, perhaps as long as 2020. However, the danger of Europe breaking up looks remote now. A British exit, if it indeed happens, will help consolidate the rest, rather than undermine their unity. Yet Russians do not expect Europe to become a federal union, or even a true financial one. Even if Europe’s nations have to share more power, which in practical terms will mean that they have to accept Germany’s leadership of the continent, they will likely reject a German financial diktat which would be the clear consequence of a financial union.
Russians, of course, do not mind the Germans leading the EU. Moscow has had a long relationship with Berlin, and it generally feels more comfortable when dealing with bigger countries than either smaller ones or sui generis supranational partners like the present European Union. Frequent charges notwithstanding, the Russians did not pursue a “divide and rule” policy toward the EU out of a desire to weaken the Union per se. In reality, they used their very different relationships to the Union’s many member states to promote their specific interests and to neutralize Russia skeptics. Yet, Berlin—along with Paris, Rome, Madrid—have always been Moscow’s favorites.
Even if the EU achieves the reforms it is forced into by the crisis, Russians do not expect Europe to emerge as a strategic player beyond issues of economic policy. They have closely observed Europeans’ performance in the Libyan and Malian crises as well as in the two wars led by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. They see the Europeans —particularly the French— as capable of dealing with small and medium scale emergencies largely on their own, but they detect no appetite in the EU for a European army. They conclude that, in strategic terms, Europe will elect to remain a non-player. Its main strategic role will be to constitute a collection of U.S. allies organized within NATO.
Thus, the Russians are somewhat amused to see Europe fretting so much about the U.S. pivot to Asia. Certainly, they note, Americans are not leaving Europe in the lurch: the old threat is gone. Clearly, transatlantic relations at all levels are closer than any other kind of similar relations in the modern world. And there is no doubt whatsoever that Washington will keep NATO as its key strategic asset as the 21st century unfolds: the collective West will need all of its resources to compete with the new arrivals on the world scene. Yet, the European sense of psychological dependence on the United States is striking.
Given this assessment, Moscow will maintain a largely transactional attitude toward Europe. It will seek to secure its share of Europe’s energy market, even as Gazprom, at the Kremlin’s prodding, will seek to diversify to the Asia-Pacific region. It will press for visa-free access for its citizens to the Schengen countries, even as it imposes restrictions on its own officials over bank accounts and assets in Europe. Finally, it will compete with the EU over the future economic and political orientation of Eastern European countries like Ukraine and Moldova.
Europe will continue to be too absorbed in its own affairs to pay much attention to Russia. Even so, it will influence not only Russian thinking, but also Russian policies. The pace and strength of Europe’s economic recovery will affect the domestic debate in Russia. More European business exposure to Russia will aid modernization of Russian society, not just its economy. Of course, Europe would make Russians feel much more European if it became more open and welcoming to Russian travelers. By contrast, there is a question of whether parliaments in Europe should follow the example of the U.S. Congress and pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act, instituting open lists of Russian officials subjected to sanctions for human rights violations. If any European legislature decides to go for that, it would be a very risky gamble, to say the least.