The two powers now have to take responsibility and help resolve Ukraine’s crisis at the annual summit in Brussels.

The EU-Russia summit in Brussels will attempt to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Source: AFP/East News

On the 28th of January, the European Union (EU) and Russia will meet at the annual summit in Brussels.  Until recently, hopes were high that a variety of issues could be discussed, and that issues such as a visa-free regime could be hammered out.  Instead, the summit has been shortened considerably; it will be just one day, and will involve only the respective presidents.  What a few months ago was seen as a chance to further broaden cooperation between the EU and Russia is now seen as a last attempt to salvage a relationship that has rapidly deteriorated.  There are so many issues of contention that what was once considered to be a budding partnership must now be reevaluated.

2013 was a year full of foreign policy successes for Russia.  Russia served as an important intermediary by proposing a solution to impending conflict between the United States and Syria over chemical weapons as well as helping Iran to agree to limit its nuclear program.  Further, Russia achieved even more foreign policy success by convincing Ukraine not to sign an agreement with the EU, but rather to maintain closer relations with Russia and the Customs Union.

Ukraine as a source of political confrontation

Russia’s foreign policy successes have come at a high price.  While Russia has resolved many disputes and mediated conflicts, they have done so at the expense of the West.  This is especially true in the conflict with the EU over Ukraine, where Russia felt its interests threatened by European influence spreading into the “near abroad.”  Russia used a carrot-and-stick approach to convince Ukraine not to sign an association agreement with the EU, and the Ukrainian government agreed to work more closely with Russia and the Customs Union instead.

It is partially due to this great power tug-of-war that Ukraine now finds itself on the brink of a civil war.  Ukraine was between both great powers and was compelled to agree to cooperate with Russia.  In turn, opposition parties used the government’s decision to begin protesting, which has in turn led to violence that threatens to break Ukraine into two parts:  Western Ukraine, which leans toward Europe, and Eastern Ukraine, which leans toward Russia.  The EU’s target of gaining influence in the former Soviet Union (FSU) has indirectly led to the instability in Ukraine.

Both the EU’s incursion into the Russian sphere of influence and Russia’s response to the EU’s pursuit of the former Soviet republics has led to a zero-sum game between both great powers. Russia is fighting to keep out European influence, and the EU is fighting to gain a foothold in the FSU.  While Russia’s foreign policy has often been pragmatic in dealing with the West, Russia has now become more assertive in its foreign policy.  It feels as though it has earned the right to help make foreign policy decisions at the global level, and wants to be consulted about global foreign policy issues.

Russia and the EU as equals in the global arena

While Russia has increased in relevance in the global diplomatic arena, neither the US nor the EU wants to diminish its own importance on the world stage.  They would rather have Russia as a partner when necessary, but not have to consult with Russia on all matters of global foreign policy.  This approach is seen by Russia as Western arrogance, and it is actively trying to challenge those approaches.  Yet challenging these approaches only increases the hostility between the EU and Russia.

While current relations between the EU and Russia are sour, they have cooperated well in the past.  The EU is Russia’s biggest trading partner, and Russia is the EU’s third largest trading partner.  They have cooperated on issues ranging from security to trade.  Yet instead of continuing business as usual, the two sides must retreat to determine and define business as usual. They must work to build up trust again before working together on issues of mutual cooperation.

This summit meeting is more important now than it was before the agenda was changed.  This is the time for the leaders to get together and air their differences.  The EU is certainly unhappy with Russia’s assertiveness, and wants the ability to complain to President Vladimir Putin directly.  In turn, the Russians want to reiterate that they do not want the EU to expand its influence to the East.  There could be shades of Yalta, as spheres of influence will be discussed.  This is a chance to reconceptualize cooperation without getting caught up in the details.  As cooperation between the two powers is extremely important, this summit takes on even more importance than it had prior to the shortening of the agenda.

However, external events may end up hijacking the chance for the leaders to reconnect and reset their relations.  With the events in Ukraine quickly hurtling out of control, the majority of their meeting is likely to focus on how to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.  It is in neither power’s interest for Ukraine to devolve in chaos and civil war.  Therefore, both Russia and the EU will need to quickly move from trying to mend fences in their own relationship to trying to resolve the escalating tensions in Ukraine.  They must get beyond a discussion of spheres of influence and try to determine what compromises can be reached between the government and the leaders of the opposition.  It is likely that there will be a joint offer from the EU and Russia to mediate a settlement for the two sides.  In other words, Russia and the EU will have to put aside their relationship problems quickly at this summit to better help resolve the crisis in Ukraine.  Despite former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for the United States to help mediate a solution in Ukraine, this summit is likely to yield a joint effort between Russia and the EU to resolve this conflict without involving the United States.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.