_ Stanislav Tkachenko, doctor of Economics, Professor at the St. Petersburg State University. Saint Petersburg, June 24th 2016.
Today lifting of sanctions against Russia, introduced by the European Union in 2014, is not only the issue of current politics, but also a strategic problem. The future of Europe will largely depend on how this problem will be solved. While predicting Europe’s future one should pay attention both to speeches of politicians and diplomats and signals exchange between European capitals and Moscow. The aim of this exchange is to renounce the confrontation and to show determination to mend relations between two major European policy actors – Russia and the EU.
The so-called “non-system” emerged in Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s a system of international relations, which rests on unseen rules of the game and balancing on the brink of war for the sake of one-sided advantage. It’s now obvious that it has resulted in crisis on the continent and should be replaced with something safer. The current dialogue between the EU and Russia is about that particular issue. At SPIEF’16 we had an opportunity to witness the sides interacting, exchanging signals, formulating their interests and showing readiness to make concessions for the sake of future agreement.
SPIEF’16 has demonstrated that the European Union is a single option, inevitable and vital partner of Russia. Russia’s Turn to the East, announced three years ago, looks good on the screen, but it’s still far from being accomplished. It even doesn’t have clearly set goals. Moreover, it looks like Russian diplomats would like to use possible rapprochement with China to soften European stand on sanctions and resume cooperation with Brussels on a wide range of political and economic issues. Vladimir Putin’s initiative to create Eurasian Economic Partnership with the participation of China, India, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and some other European states, introduced on June 17, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, should be perceived just as some kind of blackmailing.
It’s hard to believe that whole project will be carried out, nevertheless, it looks threatening to European countries. The matter is that Europe is skeptical about the US project of creating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that is rival to Russia’s one. At least, French president Francois Hollande officially admitted it. The danger facing the EU is that it will stay out of the bipolar international trade system centered at Washington and Beijing, which will emerge if the World Trade Organization, now in decline, collapses. Moscow is making it clear to Brussels that it’s better to Western Europe to be an equal partner to Russia and the Eurasion Economic Union in a trade and investment alliance than a junior partner in a “partnership” with weakening but still belligerent United States. At the same time Russia itself doesn’t want to become Beijing’s junior partner in a free-trade zone, which China is so eager to establish. That is why, Russia’s moves towards the European Union meet its long-term interests.
In general, the mood of EU member states leaders’ speeches in Saint Petersburg was close to that of their Russian counterparts: let’s leave the door open for possible cooperation. When, as a result of implementation of “Minsk II” (February 2015), conversations about “Russian aggression” in Donbass fall, it will be high time for Brussels to open dialogue with Moscow. It’s necessary to take into account changes to the outside environment of bilateral relations while analyzing the softening of the European Union’s stand on Russia. In autumn 2016 new president will come to power in the USA. After that, Brussels and Moscow will get an opportunity to work out a mid-term strategy of their relations with America, taking into account new leader’s personality and views. Then, in 2017, people in France and Germany may not support their leaders as it often seems that they care more about American interests than their own. In case they are reelected, they may change their attitude to Russia and return to cooperation, typical of the European Union Three (Russia, Germany, France) relations, especially in 1998-2004.
It’s becoming obvious that American-Chinese conflict is unavoidable. And Russia wants to stay on the sidelines. The more military and economic power it will have, the more chances it will have to succeed in this. In this case neither Washington nor Beijing will be have an opportunity to give Moscow ultimatum to take their side and to join the ranks of their “soldiers”. The EU is pursuing the same goal – not to let Washington involve it in a deadly conflict with China for maintaining the US world hegemony that is now slipping away.
Kremlin knows that common interests encourage Russian-EU cooperation better than all-too-common “European values”. At SPIEF’16 Vladimir Putin, Valentina Matvienko, Igor Shuvalov, Sergey Lavrov and other Russian leaders explained in details what Russian interests now look like. European representatives listened to them and nodded in approval. Today there are no reasons for a fundamental conflict between Russia and Europe like the Cold War. There is only unresolved problem of building new European security architecture, taking into account the status of the Russian Federation that changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Historians know that in the past Russian and European politicians solved even more serious problems, so, the task of finding place for Russia in European mosaic is a solvable task. Both sides should better understand each other. For this very reason at SPIEF’16 Vladimir Putin introduced an initiative to launch “expert dialogue” and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov supported “Russia-EU ties inventory”. And then it will become obvious that current conflict over Ukrainian revolution followed by the civil war is a factor artificially brought into European politics, which shouldn’t influence relations between Russia and Europe.
SPIEF’16 speeches of the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Renzi and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy should be interpreted this way. Recognition of Russia’s continued importance for stability in Europe and on its periphery, its positive role in solving such vexed problems as transnational terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, global warming and peaceful disengagement from Syria determines stance of Brussels and the heads of leading EU member states. It can be described with the use of Latin phrase “primum nоn nocere” or “do no harm”. The message of all EU leaders’ SPIEF’16 speeches is that they shouldn’t rock the boat, but look around and build new Europe step by step. This is exactly the aim of Russia, set by Vladimir Putin when he returned to Kremlin in 2012. So, Russian diplomacy may consider SPIEF’16 to be one of its achievements even today. Our country is now trying to replace a variety of ad hoc agreements with its European neighbors with a continuous structure respected by all sides. It may take form of the European Security Treaty, the project of which has been gathering dust since 2009 or the form of a new Russia-EU treaty, which has been negotiated for two decades already. In the context of the current explosive atmosphere content is more important than form. Russia-EU discussion about their relations’ fundamentals was given a new momentum in Saint Petersburg.
By no means all Russian policy makers realize how dangerous sanctions are to country’s future. Many of them draw consolation from the fact that the USA hasn’t managed to “tear Russian economy apart” as Barack Obama promised in January 2015. Economy contraction and fall of living standards have been stopped, we’re witnessing fist signs of growth. And still European sanctions are dangerous because they’re stealing Russian economy’ future as they make Russian government act like fire department. They distract country’s policy makers from focusing on key issues: economy modernization, reforming state corporations, privatization of swollen public sector, creating conditions for friendly business-climate and combatting corruption. Russian Government and Parliament make some efforts to tackle these problems, but it’s not enough. Inaction is justified by the war against sanctions, public opinion readily believe it. This results in national economy stagnation. It isn’t shrinking, but at the same time it isn’t growing! Other negative consequences are capital and brain drain, increasing protection of foreign trade and excessively increasing defense spending.
Conclusion is that at this precise point in time Kremlin is within an inch of making an important decision: Russia should resume a difficult but inevitable dialogue with the EU. We’ve proved that we may survive without Europe. But the quality of this life is unacceptably low. This was a keynote of many Russian policy makers’ speeches in Saint Petersburg. There’s rising hope that in two years to come we will build new united Europe from French Brest to Russian Vladivostok. European and Russian parts of this new building will be connected by a wide corridor, but not divided by a barricade built by Washington’s Eastern European assistants of American bricks. Statements of Vladimir Putin about Europe at SPIEF’16 were unprecedentedly conciliatory. It’s for the first time in 10 years. Even his remarks on American policy in Europe were non-contentious. For the first time in many years he said that he perceived the United States as the only superpower. The following statement made by Vladimir Putin at the meeting with the heads of the leading news agencies from all over the world may be called one of the most important: “Regardless of any pre-election rhetoric, we will judge not by words but by deeds of the newly elected head of the American state, and will certainly be seeking ways to normalize relations, our cooperation in the sphere of economy, international security”. It seems to me that this was said first of all to Europeans and the message was that the degree of Russian-American confrontation was decreasing and this would eliminate the major obstacle to reestablishing trust of the sides to continue the dialogue.