1. Explore areas of economic cooperation which do not violate sanctions on either side. Business communities in Russia and the EU maintain an interest in economic interaction. The EU remains the most attractive partner if Russia decides to modernize and diversify its economy – which would be in both sides’ interest and could have a stabilizing effect on the whole region in economic, political and security terms. One focus of economic engagement could be on supporting small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Russia. Both sides should remain committed to the norms of the WTO in relations with each other as well as with foreign partners. They should abstain from erecting additional barriers to trade and economic cooperation outside the sanctions regimes.
  2. Create spaces for more active and multifaceted societal interaction. This includes education and research, culture, cross-border mobility, (civil) society cooperation, inter-regional cooperation etc. Such initiatives need joint coordination, financial support and, above all, favourable visa regulations to ensure mobility. With negotiations on visa freedom/liberalization suspended, Russia and the EU should each consider unilateral steps to ease access to visas for each other’s citizens
  3. Initiate expert dialogues on contested issues: Russia and the EU maintained an exceptionally dense network of institutional dialogues before 2014, including a large number of ministerial meetings and two EU-Russia summits per year. Much of this was devoid of substance long before the institutional breakdown. Hence, it would be useless to simply reactivate the previously existing formats, even if political circumstances improved. It would make sense, however, to (re)instate low-key expert dialogues (involving political institutions as well as expert communities) to discuss contested issues in the bilateral relationship. This could open spaces for experts to leave their own echo chambers, get to know their counterparts on the other side and, with time, reduce mutual prejudice and threat perceptions. One of the first topics to be tackled should be the information war which currently poisons the atmosphere in Russia-EU relations


The EU’s Russia policy is at a crossroads. A new European Commission has just taken office, and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, has declared she wants a “geopolitical commission” that takes note of the fundamental changes in the international system, thereby preserving the EU’s key interest in democracy and a rule-based, multilateral international order.

Relations with Russia remain among the EU’s biggest foreign policy challenges. The new leadership will have to decide what to do about the policy advocated by former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini since 2014, most notably her five guiding principles for EU policy toward Russia outlined in March 2016. 

Those five principles are

(1) the full implementation of the Minsk agreements aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region as the key condition for any substantial change in the EU’s stance toward Russia (including the lifting of Donbas-related sanctions);

(2) closer relations with Russia’s former Soviet neighbors, including Central Asia;

(3) strengthening EU resilience to Russian threats such as in the area of energy security;

(4) selective engagement with Russia on issues of interest to the EU;

(5) the need to engage in people-to-people contacts and support Russian civil society.

These guiding principles have earned praise for being flexible and sufficiently balanced to keep on board member states with very different positions and interests vis-à-vis Russia. They have also been fiercely criticized for a lack of policy goals and strategic vision. A discussion about their future has yet to start in Brussels. After years of geopolitical conflict and Russia demonstratively sidelining EU institutions for the sake of relations with selected EU member states, most people in the EU capital eye Moscow with suspicion. It will be the task of the new leadership to start the debate about Russia.

At the level of EU member states, on the other hand, this debate is in full swing—thanks to recent steps taken by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has demanded on various occasions that Europe clarify its relationship with Russia. In the eyes of the French president, strategic competition between the United States and Russia is pushing Russia into China’s orbit, in clear contradiction of European interests. Accordingly, Europe needs a new order of “trust and security,” preferably including Russia, if it wants to stand its ground with regard to both China and the United States. France has also been pushing for progress in the Ukraine peace negotiations and will host a Normandy Four summit in Paris on December 9, attended by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany.

Paris keeps reassuring its European partners that it does not question the fundamentals of the EU’s approach to Russia: namely that any substantial improvement of the relationship depends on tangible progress in the Donbas peace negotiations. Behind closed doors, however, French officials openly criticize the small-steps approach embodied in the five principles for not yielding any results, and argue that it needs to be replaced by a more ambitious policy.

Macron’s initiative has elicited vocal reactions from inside the EU. Critics see it as dangerously soft and compromising on Russia, and question the premises it is based upon, particularly its reserved attitude to the United States. They also reject the possibility of finding common ground with Russia because of insurmountable differences over values, democracy, European security, and many other issues. France’s bilateral overtures to Moscow have triggered concern in East-Central Europe. Macron’s vetoing of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia at the recent EU summit and his talk about NATO being brain-dead did little to soothe his skeptics. 

After five years of relative unity, the EU is once again divided over its Russia policy. On one side of the current rift are those who see Russia as a primary security threat and, therefore, advocate containment. On the other side are those who call for engagement with Russia because they consider other challenges more important. The picture is further complicated by the rise of Euroskeptic forces who do not shy away from demonstrating their sympathies for the political leadership in Moscow. To make matters worse, the Franco-German tandem has been out of step throughout this year. Macron’s leap forward was, among other things, an expression of impatience with what Paris perceives as Berlin’s incessant navel-gazing and lack of responsiveness across the board. Berlin, on the other hand, views many of the French president’s ideas—as well as his political style—with caution. 

The primary task of the new EU leadership will be to take up Macron’s initiative promptly and channel it into a debate at the European level.

Macron is right about the need to see relations with Russia in the context of a changing international system. The EU should work from this strategic perspective, which is often lacking in its debates and policies. At the same time, any reflection has to start from a sober assessment of what is and is not possible between the EU and Russia. For this, each of the five principles remains of key importance. The new EU leadership needs to initiate an internal debate at the highest level to mitigate the recent divisions and achieve a reunited position on Russia. 

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