Can we expect an improvement in European-Russian relations any time soon? That question is frequently asked in capitals across Europe. In the foreseeable future only limited improvement is possible, but the good news is that it can happen on Europe’s terms.

One must first understand the nature of the problem before looking at the prospects for improvement, and that is no easy task. Russia’s policies clash with Europe’s goals, visions and values in multiple areas: from the common neighbourhood to the Middle East and from global great-power relationships to domestic arrangements. The multifaceted challenge can be confusing.

But upon closer examination, all these clashes have a common denominator: they are rooted in normative disagreements. Russia’s view of the rules that should guide both the domestic and international conduct of States diverges drastically from that of Europe. It is a clash between national sovereignty and shared sovereignty, between the primacy of liberal values and the prerogative of State power.

The current rulers of the Kremlin want Russia to be a great power in a world that is organised in state-centric ways. They want to be able to control nearly everything inside Russia, from economic and political activity to media content to historical memory. (Russian “sovereign democracy”: being “sovereign” means that no one from below or outside can dictate terms to you.) Moscow aspires to an international system that is organised in the same state-centric way, where a State’s authority is respected and democratic credentials are not questioned. It also wants a great-power prerogative of having sphere of “privileged interests” in its neighbourhood.

Many in Moscow view the main obstacle preventing Russia from achieving this vision of the world order to be the US’s (receding, but still visible) hegemonic ambitions. But this not entirely true. The US may be the chief hard-power upholder of what is called the post-Cold War liberal order, but Europe is its embodiment. The EU was born out of the idea that cooperation, shared sovereignty, representative democracy and observance of human rights is the path to peace and prosperity. These values form its DNA.

Thus even if the US could agree with Russia (“make a deal”, as President Trump has repeatedly suggested), that option is not available to Europe. The EU has come together around certain values, and any attempt to cut great-power deals in breach of these values would result in disaster: maybe not a disintegration of the EU, but certainly its total impotence to be a meaningful foreign policy actor. The EU is thus condemned to a normative rivalry with Russia. These two powers compete for the right to be a norm-setter in the world in general, and, more pressingly, in Europe in particular.

The normative contest cannot be resolved quickly. Europe cannot accept Russia’s normative worldview, and Russia does not accept Europe’s. Right now, Russia views Western norms as not just detrimental to Russian interests, but as simply not viable. The current international turbulence and domestic upheavals in the West are viewed as evidence that the liberal order is doomed. And Moscow will not accept international norms that it considers unworkable from the powers that it views as waning.

This means that for Europe, the path to winning the normative contest will not go so much through countering Russia (although at times that will be necessary) as through re-invigorating the Western model by addressing domestic weaknesses and correcting flawed international practices. If Europe wants to be taken seriously as an international norm-setter, it needs to show that its norms are viable, both in domestic as well as international practices. President Putin does not bow to pressure, but he respects reality. If/when Europe’s norm-setting power becomes an undisputed reality, Russia will accept it as something to recon with. But getting there will take time. Hence, quick and dramatic improvement in relations between Europe and Russia is not possible.

But some limited improvement might indeed prove feasible much sooner. Underneath Moscow’s fundamental and unchanging normative disagreement with the West, there are always fluctuations, reassessments of circumstances that sometimes can result in significant policy shifts. As noted by the Russian analyst Andrei Kortunov, “the fundamental problem of the Russian foreign policy is not about how to cope with the external reality, but rather how to define it”.[1] Every now and then, Moscow misinterprets actors in international politics or gets some conceptual frameworks wrong, and then corrections are made.

The events of the last three years have shattered quite a few foreign policy assumptions in Moscow. The Russian leadership did not expect the West to introduce strong sanctions after Crimea and to stick with them for years. Then, it expected China to compensate for lost Western investments, which has not happened. It expected Hillary Clinton to win the US elections and become a tough anti-Russian president. Then it expected Donald Trump to become a soft Russia-friendly president. It expected the EU to collapse under the weight of its own in internal contradictions in the wake of Brexit. It expected Ukraine to collapse under the weight of its unreformed economy, corruption and unruly political passions. It expected the settlement in Syria to be a lot easier.

Alas, the world turned out to be more unpredictable and complicated than many in Moscow thought. As a result, the Kremlin is now engaged in a lively foreign policy debate on the meaning of Donald Trump, the fate of the European Union, what to expect from China and next steps in Syria and Donbas.

The consensus seems to be that the primitively anti-Western rhetoric and tactics that centre on disruption no longer work in a world where Donald Trump is the disruptor in-chief. As relations with the US will likely remain deadlocked for quite some time to come (given how much of a partisan political issue Russia has become in America), the one remaining opening will be in Europe. The EU has made implementation of the Minsk agreements a clear condition for progress in relations, and the Minsk agreements are also clearly linked to the bulk of the European sanctions. These sanctions would indeed be lifted if Russia left Donbas, and in the months leading up to the presidential elections in Russia, an influential constituency in Moscow was advocating for Russia to do exactly that.

The assassination attempt of Sergey Skripal and his daughter, the Western reaction to it and the new US sanctions have thrown the Russian debate back a few steps. But the important lesson for Europe is that by sticking to its principles, devising policy and having strategic patience, it is possible to influence policy in Moscow and make Russia accept Europe’s normative views.

There has been much debate in Europe on whether or not the sanctions are working. Indeed, they have not worked quickly, or in a linear way. Anyone who was expecting immediate results has been disappointed. In 2014, the sanctions did not succeeded in convincing political and business elites to put pressure on the Kremlin: by late that year, being sanctioned by the West was almost a badge of honour in Moscow. By 2017, however, after some twists and turns and reassessments, and in a less tense political climate, a prominent group of technocrats started speaking up in favour of improving relations with the West. “If we want our economy to grow, and grow smartly, then we need to improve relations with the West, and for that, also Russia has to take steps”, proclaimed the former Russian finance minister, Alexei Kudrin.

For Europe, Russia’s departure from Donbas would be a small policy triumph that would open up way for some improvement in relations. But it would only represent one small battle in a larger normative contest. Much remains to be done – both domestically in Europe, as well as vis-à-vis Russia.

[1]  Andrey Kortunov, “Seven Phantoms of the Russia’s Policy Toward the European Union”, Russian Council, 6 April 2016, available at


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