Some EU countries want to “re-start” relations with Russia but a lot will depend on talks being held on Jan. 15 in Kazakhstan, where the presidents of Ukraine and Russia are to meet, says leading Greek foreign policy expert.

Incoming European Council President Donald Tusk, left, holds a bell given to him by outgoing European Council President Herman Van Rompuy during a handover ceremony for the European Council Presidency at the EU Council building in Brussels on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. Photo: AP

The European Parliament (EP) will discuss the Ukrainian conflict on Jan. 13. It is expected that a resolution will be adopted based on the results of the discussion by Jan. 15. Some EU countries believe that further escalation in EU-Russia ties would be counter-productive, however, it remains to be seen to what extent the EP’s resolution is going to be moderate towards Moscow.

Meanwhile, on the very same day (Jan. 15), a summit of French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders – the so-called Normandy format – is scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. Although so far there were no indications of a possible breakthrough in Astana, some European foreign policy experts have been signaling the willingness of EU policymakers to mend relations with Moscow.

Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, and the German center-left Social Democratic Party (one of the two major political parties in Germany), have already said they want to re-engage with Russia. French leader Francois Hollande has echoed the same policy stance recently.

Thanos DokosOn the eve of the crucial talks on Ukraine, Thanos Dokos, General Director of Greece’s leading think tank, Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), took some questions from Russia Direct on the prospects for improved EU-Russia relations.

Russia Direct: In the context of the Ukrainian crisis, EU-Russia relations have reached their lowest level since the end of the Cold War. In your opinion, how much time will it take Europe and Moscow to move the relationship beyond political and economic confrontation?

Thanos Dokos: There are no signs of an improvement. Although major European countries would like to see a “re-start” of relations with Moscow, and Russia is paying a heavy price for its policies in Ukraine (also as a result of the dramatic fall of oil prices), there are no tangible changes in EU-Russia relations. This could change, of course, at any moment if there is sufficient political will.

RD: There are clear signs of “sanctions fatigue” on the part of some EU countries, namely Austria, Hungary and Italy. What are your expectations regarding the possible lifting of sanctions against Russia by EU ministers in March 2015?

T.D.: A number of European countries are unhappy about the current state of political and economic affairs with Russia. Therefore, additional sanctions are not terribly likely (although not impossible if there is continued instability and fighting in Ukraine). Lifting the sanctions, however, would be very difficult for the EU if there were no concrete progress in managing the Ukraine crisis.

RD: The Kremlin belives that the U.S. is trying its utmost to ignite long-term trade, economic and political confrontation between the EU and Russia. Do you believe that it is in the EU's (which is Russia's largest trading partner) interests to go ahead with full-scale trade war with Moscow?

T.D.: The answer is categorically “no.” Given, however, the energy [inter]dependence between the two sides and the converging long-term geostrategic interests of the EU and [a ‘satisfied’ and integrated] Russia (for example, managing the challenges of Islamic extremism and of rapidly increasing Chinese power), there are many good reasons to avoid further escalation of the crisis.

Of course, accidents and miscalculations constitute an integral part of international politics, as demonstrated by the explosive outbreak of the First World War exactly one hundred years ago.

RD: Would you agree with the assertion that a major confrontation between Russia and the West would benefit no one but China?

T.D.: Yes, one of the results of the Ukraine crisis has been forced to push Russia deeper into China’s embrace through an energy deal that will eventually make Moscow the junior partner in that relationship.

RD: Ukraine recently repealed its non-bloc nation status and formally opened doors for membership in NATO. Do you foresee circumstances under which such membership may be granted to Kiev?

T.D.: I think it is very unlikely that Ukraine would be offered NATO membership.

RD: Conflict in Ukraine underscored the lack of an effective security mechanism in Europe. From the Russian standpoint, NATO expansion to the east is a major challenge. Do you believe that Moscow, Brussels and Washington should re-negotiate the “rules of behavior” and perhaps discuss new conflict resolution institutions that possibly could accommodate everyone?

T.D.: Yes, there is urgent need for consultations regarding conventional ballistic missiles (CBM), arms control and other related issues. (Russia’s former President and now Prime Minister Dmitry) Medvedev’s proposal for a new Security Architecture in Europe could be used as a basis for such consultations. However, a certain de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis would be a prerequisite for such a dialogue.

RD: What adjustments should the EU consider to its Eastern Partnership policy in light of the Ukrainian conflict? Does this policy really prove its effectiveness in terms of promoting EU's foreign policy goals?

T.D.: The EU’s Eastern Partnership has not been a very successful policy so far. There is an obvious need for an evaluation and assessment process that would probably lead to policy recommendations.

RD: The EU is proactively looking for the diversification of its energy imports and trying to elaborate unified policy vis-à-vis energy producers. In this conjunction, what is your thinking on the so-called Energy Union initiative that has been launched by the new European Commission?

T.D.: Irrespective of the current state of affairs between the EU and Russia, it is important for a large consumer such as the EU to diversify its energy imports, as this would be beneficial in terms of prices as well as energy security. In this context the Energy Union initiative would be beneficial for the EU.

RD: Being a Greek foreign policy expert, do you think that Greece and, more broadly Europe, will benefit from the construction of an international gas hub on the Greek-Turkish boarder (an idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin presented during his recent visit to Ankara last December)?

T.D.: It is an interesting idea but President Putin did not provide sufficient information to assess the potential benefits of the proposed gas hub.

RD: Finally, what are your expectations regarding the outcome from the current political crisis in Greece? Do you believe that, should the leftist Syriza win the Jan. 25 snap election, discussions on the so-called Greece withdrawal from the eurozone, or “Grexit” will be revived? Does it really have potential for wider Eurozone destabilization?

T.D.: Both Syriza and Greece’s European partners are strongly opposed to a “Grexit.” All sides will try to avoid such an outcome. It is theoretically possible that an “accident” could take place in the negotiations between Greece and the Troika [the triumvirate between the EU, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank that was created to deal with bailout loans within the Eurozone and monitor the progress of those who are in danger of default – Editor's note] and fail to produce any results since the gap between the positions of the two sides is wide. Such a probability would, however, be very low.