Russia poses a multifaceted problem to Europe. Its policies clash with Europe’s goals, visions, and values in multiple areas: from Europe’s eastern neighbourhood to the Middle East; from global great-power relationships to domestic arrangements. However, all these clashes share a common thread – they are all rooted in a normative disagreement over the rules and taboos of the international order. Russia’s view of what constitutes appropriate domestic and international conduct for states diverges drastically from that of Europe.

To be effective, the EU needs a common Russia strategy that reflects not just Europe, but also Russia. The current approach fails to address the more complicated questions at the core of a true Russia strategy:

  1. What does the EU want to achieve with Russia?
  2. What can it achieve?
  3. How can Russia fit into the liberal world order that the EU seeks to promote?
  4. How can the EU influence Moscow?

Answering these questions is difficult and risks dividing Europe on Russia. An effective Russia strategy needs to accommodate an agreement on concrete policies. The EU needs to strategize, not just sermonize.

In addition, there is also confusion about methods – such as dialogue with Russia – and the division of work between member states and EU institutions.

To prevail member states need to think harder about how to integrate the EU – its member states and EU institutions – into diplomacy with Russia. Member states should try to bring more of the concerted power of EU institutions to bear in the EU’s Russia policy; they should aim to coordinate among themselves in ways that give smaller countries a role in policy and empower EU institutions to be meaningful interlocutors with Moscow. The EU needs to devise a new model for dialogue with Moscow – one that can support the policy that needs to emerge from member states’  assessment of Russia. The EU and its member states need an approach to Russia that translates into real policy. The EU should try to foster a deeper and more nuanced common understanding of Russia’s trajectory, political processes, policymaking habits, ambitions, and constraints. This understanding should then form the basis of a joint Russia policy that involves member states large and small, north and south, and that is represented in EU institutions. This would present Russia with a solid normative front that both sticks to the moral high ground and is politically viable.

Member states are unsure what they want to talk to Russia about, or what talking can achieve in principle. Around half of EU members still hope that engagement can influence Russia’s political trajectory, while the rest view it as a risk-reduction measure. With such divisions, the EU cannot meaningfully defend its interests vis-à-vis Russia. It needs to do better; and the way is obvious: when the EU devises a joint policy on Russia that goes beyond declarations of values, dialogue will stop being a surrogate for policy and find its natural place as a tool of policy. Both the EU and Russia still lack an effective strategy for their future relationship.

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