At this year’s European Forum Alpbach in the Austrian Alps, European diplomats and experts debated how Russia would impact the EU's new Global Strategy.

A visitor passes by a wax figure of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a Serbian wax museum. Photo: AP

At the recent European Forum Alpbach in the mountains of western Austria, the topic of Russia continued to be a divisive question among top diplomats and experts. While there were no senior representatives from Russia at the forum, Russia’s presence was nonetheless very significant.

For example, Russia featured prominently in discussions of how to implement the EU’s recently adopted Global Strategy. In addition, Russia was a topic of debate on one of the highest-profile panels, where several foreign ministers discussed the position of Ukraine and Belarus as countries “stuck in between” the EU and Russia.

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Several prominent Russian academics, such as Vladimir Mau, rector of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), also participated in the event. Moreover, a group of Russian students and young professionals a fraction of the 800 youth attendees from about 60 countries spoke up at the forum.

Perceptions of Russia across Europe

The Austrian Foreign Ministry, in coordination with the European Forum Alpbach, organized the two-day retreat for senior European diplomats and intellectuals to discuss the Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy for the European Union. This Global Strategy is a document that was presented by the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, in late June, just over a week before Brexit, the UK exit from the European Union.

When the strategy was discussed at an open plenary session on the first day of the political symposium, one of the speakers, Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria compared the complicated drafting process with “cooking a dinner with your wife, your ex-wife and mother-in-law.” According to Krastev, Russia policy turned out to be one of the most divisive problems in the process of elaborating the strategy.

There are very different threat perceptions among the member states. Russia means one thing in the Baltics and it means a totally different thing in places like Italy, which is preoccupied by itself, or places like Bulgaria, where the historical view of Russia is pretty different,” Krastev said.

On the one hand, it is history and geography that are dividing European attitudes to Russia as well as the fact that Russia policy has become part of domestic politics in most European countries.

“The far left and far right take Russia as a symbol [of their politics],” he argues. “We should also admit that Russia discovered the charm of democracy, so they are actively participating in the political life of some of the member states we cannot blame them for that, this is part of the story of our organization,” Krastev added.

Resilience, challenge and pragmatism

The EU’s Russia policy was formulated in the Global Strategy around three rather vague words: resilience, challenge and pragmatism. Resilience means the EU’s ability to preserve its identity in the increasingly globalized world, where its values are challenged from the outside, including by Russia. Challenge refers to the potential threat coming from Russia. And, pragmatism means that the EU may not like Russian policy vis-à-vis Ukraine, but cannot change it, and should thus carry out a “selective engagement” of Russia.

Angus Lapsley, the permanent representative of the UK to the EU’s Political and Security Committee, presented a realistic view of the Russia-EU relationship.

“Russia is moving away from us. I don’t think it is our fault. It is driven by the internal Russian context, but it is moving away from us in terms of its economics, politics and values. And it is more and more willing to challenge our values everything from the European Union to LGBT rights,” Lapsley said.

At the same time, he added that Europe has "to be respectful of Russia. It matters economically, it matters in terms of energy. But I think we can be more confident in dealing with Russia. Economically we are leaving Russia far, far behind, and that was happening even before sanctions.”

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Searching for the golden mean in Europe’s approach to Russia

The crisis in Ukraine and its consequences for the countries of the Eastern Partnership were discussed during the session called “Stuck in the Middle: Eastern European States and their Relations with the EU and Russia.”

The session was very representative, featuring Austria’s Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs, Sebastian Kurz; the Minister for Foreign and European Affairs of Slovakia, Miroslav Lajcak; the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and the Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus, Alena Kupchyna [The session took place under Chatham House rules, meaning that neither the identity nor affiliation of any of the participants can be revealed Editor’s note].

Opening the panel, one of the ministers stressed that, “We can only have peace with Russia and not against Russia, and that the countries that are stuck in the middle can develop and prosper only if they are not left with the decision of either the EU or Russia, but rather, have relations with both the EU and Russia.” The question, however, remains, how to achieve that goal.

Another minister criticized the EU’s failure to handle the issue of the Eastern Partnership when it refused to discuss it with Russia. The main argument centered on the fact that Russia cannot be ignored when the EU approaches the countries of special importance to Moscow. This is why Russia itself decided to talk to the EU’s Eastern Partners without the EU. Hence, it left Brussels unable to react when the rules of the game changed.

The minister further concluded that the EU cannot change Russia’s attitude to the former Soviet countries, which it sees as its immediate neighborhood and thus has “a stronger say” in their future. Yet, the ultimate decision of these countries on their political and economic orientation should be their sovereign decision and they can turn in any direction in favor of the EU or in favor of Russia, and they should not be mutually exclusive.

Quite expectedly, an opposing view was presented, pointing at Russia’s desire to “destroy Ukraine” as it presents a “fundamental challenge for Russia as a role model Slavic country.” This is why, according to one of the EU ministers, the Kremlin is waging a hybrid war against Ukraine as well as against the EU, “trying to change the political landscape, trying to support the leftists and the rightists” in Europe.

Such an approach ultimately concludes that it is dangerous to be a bridge between the European Union and Russia, arguing that it is better to be a sort of “flexible hub.”

In this regard, the example of Belarus is quite distinct as it tries to balance its interests between various powers and develop normal relations with both the EU and Russia. In fact, Belarus is the only country of the Eastern Partnership without a conflict.

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Closing the discussion, one of the ministers called for an increased dialogue with Russia as the only constructive means to increase understanding and overcome the current crisis in relations. He suggests that instead of the policy of isolating Russia, the EU should engage it in critical dialogue, cooperate whenever possible, be critical or even introduce sanctions whenever necessary, but be realistic and have a dialogue.

“Russia is a reality. You may like it or you may not, but you cannot ignore the reality. Pretending we can isolate Russia may end up that we are isolating ourselves from Russia,” the minister resumed.

The President of the Alpbach Forum, Franz Fischler, highlighted in the interview to Russia Direct that the overall topic of next year’s forum is going to be “Confrontation and Cooperation” which would require a much stronger Russia presence at the forum.