Europe’s response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine has been to sanction and attempt to isolate Russia. This is clearly a wrong approach.

Four key issues stand out:

  1. First, in terms of international peace and security, Russia holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The veto this provides has already been used to block Western action in a number of situations, most notably in Syria, with profound if indirect effects on European order and solidarity.
  2. Second, Russia is an important global energy provider. Russia holds 6.87% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 17.4% of its proven gas reserves, and is the fourth largest carbon emitter. It is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, and the second largest producer of oil. All this makes Russia vital for the world’s energy security, and of course its efforts to tackle climate change.
  3. Third, militarily, Russia is the world’s third largest spender and second largest arms exporter. In 2014 according to SIPRI, a Swedish think tank, Russia spent US$91.7bn on defence. This accounts for 4.5% of Russia’s GDP and approximately 5.4% of global defence spending. The Kremlin’s military budget has increased by 97% since 2005 and the Russian military is being extensively modernised. Russia also, of course, has 1,780 deployed nuclear warheads out of a larger total stockpile of 7,500. While some rightly point to Russia’s growing military power with concern, it is also true that meaningful conventional and nuclear arms control, at least in the Euro-Atlantic area, is not possible without Russia.
  4. Fourth, Russia’s ambition to help establish a non-Western system of international governance is evident through its activities in the BRICS forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the establishment of the (admittedly as yet ineffective) Eurasian Economic Union. Most recently Russia secured the third most voting shares in the Chinese led Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank. A Western policy that does not engage Russia will only strengthen Moscow’s turn to these institutions and encourage its efforts to use them to provide a counterbalance to the West.

What all this shows is that on a number of critical issues in international governance, whether Europe likes it or not, cooperation with Russia is essential.

  • Russia’s importance to Europe is clear. With over 80% of Russians living in Europe, accounting for around 16% of the continent’s total population, Russia is a major European player by virtue of geography and demography alone.
  • Russia’s role in the region’s governance is strengthened by its membership of the Council of Europe and the OSCE. If Europeans want a truly pan-European security order, this is going to have to be negotiated and agreed with Russia.
  • In energy terms, in 2013 the EU depended on Russia for 39% of its gas imports and 34% of its oil. While efforts are underway to reduce this reliance, it will be a politically and economically costly process, that will take time and energy away from dealing with Europe’s many other problems. Indeed the power of Russia’s energy giants is most acutely felt in the EU’s eastern Members, where Russian gas can account for up to 100% of imports.
  • To the north, Russia has submitted a claim to over 463,000 square miles of the Arctic,and its Arctic zone is expected to contain the majority of the region’s gas and a large share of its oil. With the opening of the Northern Sea Route due to melting ice caps, the region will become one of increased economic activity and environmental concern. The Arctic has been a relatively cooperative region to date but if the European members of the Arctic Council (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) and others want it to stay that way, they are going to have to work collaboratively with Russia.
  • Europe’s future relations with Asia, a region that continues to grow in economic and political importance, must also take into consideration Russia’s position. China hopes its Silk Road Economic Belt will help develop economic relations with Eurasia. Europe has a lot to gain from this project, but the route stretches through Russia and its sphere of influence. Cooperation with Russia will make the economic development of Eurasia more achievable and more profitable to countries in Europe.
  • Cooperation with Russia over a Syrian settlement is necessary.

The question of whether to cooperate with Russia may be controversial but the seriousness of the challenges facing Europe, demonstrates that a way forward must be found. What officials across Europe, particularly those in Brussels, must ask themselves now is not should we try to cooperate with Russia but how far and on what issues?

Ignoring the potential of cooperation with Russia on critical issues facing Europe will only serve to weaken the Europeans’ own ability to tackle the most pressing challenges it faces.

Putting forward concrete proposals on the major points of friction between Brussels and Moscow appears necessary. Today, more than ever, Europe needs a genuine Russian policy, one that is neither pro- nor anti-Russia, but one that is lucid with regard to the differences and disputes with Moscow and based on the clear identification of compatible interests and structural disagreements with Russia. In other words, the European Union must have the courage and take the time to draft an official geopolitical doctrine that sets out the ambivalent place of the other power on the continent. Europe and Russia alike must accept the new realities on the continent: the expansion of international terrorism, the rise in asymmetric warfare, increase in migration, etc. 

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