EU-Russia relations: mapping our common geopolitical future

_ Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann. Paris, October 15th 2017.

A quick look at the map of Europe reminds us that a debate on relations between Russia and the European Union is not only a geopolitical necessity, but also a natural process because of their geographical proximity. Throughout history, European nations, including Russia, constantly experienced overlapping or contradictory interests. They therefore require constant dialogue to maintain stability and balance of power on the European continent.

Space (geography) and time (history) are determining factors in European geopolitics.  Identification of common interests based on the constraints of these factors is essential to map our common geopolitical future, and should prevail over political ideology.

1-Ultimate finality of EU-Russia relations

Konrad Adenauer, first German Chancellor of West-Germany, liked to recall that foreign policy objectives should prevail over domestic agendas! [i]

Despite current obstacles and ongoing crises, long term thinking is necessary, because world trends indicate a shift to more precarious international situations. The emerging multicentred world should be the main impetus. If we want a cooperation paradigm to prevail, the central question is the following: can we, in the long term, envision a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” combined with a “Security space from Vancouver to Vladivostok”? The German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently reminded Europeans about the option of an “Economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok”after full implementation of Minsk Agreements[ii]. The Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, on the other hand, previously suggested, in June 2008, a “new European security architecture”.

There are reasons to be ambitious for the future. The aim of this paper is to outline the importance of taking into account geopolitical factors in EU-Russia relations (See map 1: “Continental axis for a better European, Eurasian, and global balance of power). In a multipolar word, stability in Eurasia can only be achieved through a balance between the great powers, not by an obsession with the doctrine of an ‘enlargement of democracy’, which served as a pretext for weakening “non western actors”  and increased mutual mistrust.

Russia serves as a useful counterweight in the context of a balanced policy on a world scale. It also constitutes the energy and commercial hinterland of the EU. The possibility of a strategic partnership between the EU and Russia should therefore be preserved.

We have to acknowledge that the ideological approach of “Westernisation” of Russia is not acceptable, just as much as it is unacceptable for Russia to impose its own principles on the EU. It is probably an illusion to think that EU and Russia will be able to resolve their different disputes, using a “one by one” crisis approach on a “sectoral basis”. Linkages in negotiations (Kissinger doctrine) cannot be applied that way.

The long term objective of improving EU-Russia relations implies offering each other an acceptable place in our respective projects: Russia should be given a role in the European project, and the European project should be given a role in the Russian vision. Only then, the different ongoing crises might have a chance to be resolved in a more global deal.

Ultimately, this cooperative option would require negotiating new and sui generis structures to institutionalize this long term vision of a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” (EU membership is not an option since it is not even suggested by Russia). This would not be contrary to the basic principles of the European Union, since the EU itself is based on a sui generis process. This process allowed the EU to gain valuable experience (through both successes and failures) and to improve relations on a continental scale.

Which are the alternatives?

Weakening each other would only make both Russia and EU nations weaker towards external and stronger global actors. If these negative developments cannot be marginalized, the relation could further deteriorate to irreversible levels. The option of living side by side, with minimal interaction to accommodate our differences, on the other hand, is also an illusion because of strong interdependencies in crucial areas such as energy, commerce and security.

If no acceptable compromise on the future of EU-Russia relations can be found at EU level, we can expect individual EU member states to engage unilateral actions to improve or degrade their bilateral relations with Russia. Improving EU-Russia relations might therefore equally be necessary to contain centrifugal forces within the EU itself. A group of states within the EU could position themselves as a stimulus to improve relations with Russia. It would be beneficial however if the EU offered an added value by trying to balance all concerns, and thus avoid a more chaotic process since EU members are deeply divided on the issue (see Annex 1 “Improving EU-Russia relations to contain European Union internal fragmentation”).

The reset of EU-Russia relations should not be treated as a subsidiary matter of EU external relations, but rather as a central question concerning the future of the European project. It should be considered as an opportunity to rethink the European project, because the EU is today facing a deep crisis and incremental scepticism from citizens. It is also an occasion to push ” strategic autonomy” forward as proposed in the new EU global strategy[iii] ( (see Annex 2: ” Geopolitical diagnosis and identification of common interests).

2-The need for Geopolitical compromises

Fixing our respective borders

In 2005, former Czech president Vaclav Havel said: “Historically, Russia has spread out and contracted. Most conflicts came about from quarrels over borders and territorial conquest and losses. The day when we calmly agree where the European Union ends and the Russian Federation begins, half of the tensions between the two will disappear ” [iv]

In the recent and more ancient history of Europe, borders have always moved and the annexation/reunification of Crimea by/with Russia is only a small brick in a wide process at work since 1990 (Map 2 on border change after 1989). This question should not become an obstacle for EU-Russia relations, since this change of border can also be interpreted as a case of the UN “right of people to determine themselves”, although Western states insist on the “territorial integrity of Ukraine”.

To avoid future confrontation, clear borders and respective red lines concerning EU enlargement should be negotiated between Russia and the EU.

Membership of the Atlantic Alliance has so far filled the role of “anteroom” to the EU. The freezing of the Atlantic Alliance’s enlargement would also enable EU’s own project there to be halted. A renunciation of enlargement of the EU and the Atlantic Alliance into Russia’s ‘near abroad’ is the way to increase regional stability and improve relations with Russia. It is in the Union’s interest to reduce Russia’s perception of encirclement. [v] A buffer zone including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova gradually transitioning  into a region of cooperation between Russia and the EU is a more realistic option. It would ease suspicion and dissolve Russia’s priority to break its encirclement by the Atlantic Alliance, to prevent further EU enlargement, which in turn would contribute to the clarification of borders of the Russian federation.

Fixing EU borders is also a condition to strengthen EU identity in the eyes of external entities. It would enable a clearer identification of its foreign policy interests, preserve its cohesion and attract more support of European citizens in the context of “enlargement fatigue”. European citizens cannot identify themselves with the EU as long as EU borders are unclear. With stable frontiers, the EU would put an end to its dilution after successive enlargements. Leaving aside the Balkans, the negotiation of political alternatives to the prospect of enlargement is the best solution.

EU’s pursuit of enlargement today, is causing it to import the geopolitical fault-lines resulting from the historical frontiers which mark the Eurasian continent. This weakens EU’s coherence and identity and increases the risk of dilution.

Enlargement objectives are the result of a ‘domino effect’: it is a mean for peripheral member states to achieve a more central position (Germany, for example, a former “front state” wanted to be surrounded by allies after the Cold War). With the potential admission of Turkey, the EU would become a ‘Little-Eurasia’ and the question of admitting all southern Caucasian states would arise (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, are already members of the Council of Europe). With a potential enlargement to Ukraine (Poland and Baltic states push in this direction), the EU would find itself directly facing the identity question between Russia and Ukraine.

Learn from past mistakes and abandon divisive strategies

Both EU and Russia should learn from past mistakes.

To ease EU suspicions, “leadership” of Russia in its “near abroad’, should be given priority over the reconstruction by Russia of a “pyramidal power style” regional alliance. It should look more similar to the Franco-German leadership in the EU. Russia should also distance herself from plans to rebuild a US-Russia condominium and bypass EU member states in crisis negotiations. The return to a bipolar system in Europe is not sustainable in a context of emerging multipolarity. To get away from this trend,  EU member states should also have to be reliable partners and act in a more autonomous way (the Minsk group is the model but not the format of negotiations in Syria).

To ease Russian suspicions, acting as a more autonomous strategic actor (mentioned in the new EU global strategy) should be given priority by EU and it should distance itself from plans to position the European project as a sub-grouping of a “Greater West” led by the USA.  EU should avoid interference in Russian internal politics to promote exclusive “Euro-Atlantic” interests.  After engaging  the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in a forceful way, EU is now paying a triple price: more fragmentation of its geographical proximity in the civil war in Ukraine, more fragmentation with Russia, and finally, growing distrust from EU citizens (the negative referendum in the Netherlands regarding the free trade zone EU-Ukraine).

Double standard policies and threats are also counterproductive. The EU is sanctioning Russia for the annexation of Crimea to defend Ukraine, a non EU member state, but the EU is not sanctioning Turkey although they are occupying the territory of Cyprus, a EU member state. Instead, the EU is giving Turkey rewards such as negotiations on EU membership, visa liberalization and access to EU single market. Russia should reciprocally avoid treating EU Member States in different ways.

EU and Russia should also avoid lecturing each other on international law since it is a matter of various interpretations and changes, which depend on the shifts in the balance of power.  UN “right of people to determine themselves” was advocated by the EU for the German unification, the Czech and Slovak independence, the Yugoslavia break up, but also for Russia in the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In the case of Crimea today, on the other hand, EU is defending the UN “territorial integrity” principle whilst Russia, on the contrary, defends the “right of people to determine themselves”.

Both EU and Russia are respectively used as scapegoats for their past failures in opportunistic ways in order to revive old failed geopolitical projects. Some European Federalist militants see Russia as a perfect adversary to revive the failed “fusion of nations” doctrine at a time of growing Euroscepticism. This attitude risks to trigger political forces in Russia, which consider no other alternative but to make the EU project fail as a retaliation[vi]. As far as the “information war” is concerned, there is also a worrying tendency to neo-Macchartist attitudes in public and political debates on both sides, where diverging opinions are less and less tolerated. This should be avoided, especially in the dialogues between experts and academics.

Regarding the ideological debate on values, the dialogue is too focused on “transnational values” deriving from “universal principles”. These are mainly based on a unilateral Western interpretation (mainly Anglo-Saxon, because “gender”, “multiculturalist”, ultra-liberal ideologies are not part of the French or German historical legacy, but only recently surfaced with globalization). This approach is highly divisive as these values cannot be truly defined not between Russia and the EU nor within the EU itself (controversies with the ECHR in Poland, Hungary, France after November 2015 terrorist attacks are proliferating). In a multi-centred world, a growing resistance to any monopoly of the definition of democracy, or the “best model of civilisation” can be observed. The EU-Russia dialogue should put more focus on concrete mutual geopolitical interests on one side, but also on core common civilisational values, on the other. When we speak about “values”, the dialogue should more strongly focus on the common European civilisation features shared by EU nations as well as by Russia (values like “Laicity” deriving from Christian values). This means religious questions have to be included in the dialogue as they are playing a crucial role in identity formation since the emerging multipolar world is also characterised by a strong “conflict of civilisation” dimension.

3-“Think global geopolitics, act eurocontinental!” or mapping our spheres of engagement

According to Clausewitz’s principles, strategy consist in a set of priorities and actions articulated in time and space combined with a dialectic between two actors.

Let’s have a look at a number of geopolitical ideas combining different steps in time (short term and long term agenda), and space (identify geopolitical priorities) to focus on common EU-Russia interests.

Articulation in time

In the short term, it would be wise to find “face-saving” mechanisms. It would avoid one of the parties to be seen as a loser in the different crises. It is a necessary step to rebuild trust within the current international and bilateral institutional forums. Nor EU, nor Russia want to be perceived as backpedalling from strong positions. The elections in France, Germany and in the United States might open new avenues for negotiations, with new governments eager to overcome the current crises.

It is time to renew EU-Russia economic cooperation and abandon sanctions as Russia needs to diversify its economy when oil prices go down. Neither can afford to try to weaken each other (USA took advantage of EU sanctions to rise its own market share in Russia). The policy of sanctions did not give any results. It was bad for the economy of both partners and added political mistrust.

Regarding the “narrative war” between EU and Russia, in times of crises and uncertainties, it is easy to fall back into old “Cold War” representations (This is actually only shared by a very small number of strategists and politicians). This obsession is also a generational issue as people having experienced the Cold War have more difficulties to adopt a new way of thinking. Therefore, exchanges between young generations should become a priority, following the Franco-German youth exchange model. In the long term, negotiations on visa liberalisation would also contribute to a better mutual understanding. For the adoption of a more similar diagnosis of the global evolutions and foreign policy doctrines, the sole way is to boost the exchange between experts, academics and politicians from both sides, using a multidisciplinary approach.

To promote EU-Russia relations in a very long term perspective, it is time to insist on common European civilisational values and organic characteristics in the context of the emergence of Muslim fundamentalism, the rise of other civilizations like China and India all backed by strong demographics, and the rocketing demography in Africa.

The Western world as a “geopolitical representation” gains in importance in today’s geopolitical situation.  The definition of the “West ” needs a larger interpretation than the one used during the Cold War. In today’s geopolitical situation, it is time to recognise that the Western World consists of three pillars: USA, EU, and the Russian world, although the “Eurasianist” dimension of Russia will also stay an important feature of the Russian internal geopolitical debate. A more inclusive approach would foster dialogue instead of exclusion. It would provide more support to Russians aiming at belonging to the “Greater West””, and ease dialogue with “Eurasianists”, allowing to focus on common civilisational features.

This means there is a need for more cooperation in culture and education, as well as a need for religious dialogue between Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox churches, and other religions present in both entities.

Articulation in space

EU and Russia need to identify common geopolitical interests in order to engage in a strategic dialogue. Different scenarios can be suggested, at global, pan-European and regional levels.

At global level

As far as evolutions at a global level are concerned, it would be wise to anticipate the consequences of a potential confrontation/ condominium of USA/ China.

Together, EU and Russia could deter a worsening global scenario in case of spiralling effects of China-USA rivalry. They also have a common interest in avoiding any form of USA-China condominium. ( Map 3 “USA-CHINA-G2 scenario)

It should also be kept in mind that EU and Russia have a different geographical position. They have a different geopolitical centre of gravity and different security perceptions. EU territory lies in Europe whereas Russian territory lies in Europe and Asia. (See map 4 ” Russia, territorial contiguity with the main geopolitical crush zones”).

The EU can neither represent the whole of Europe in an exclusive way, nor can it extend itself to the Eurasian continent. A possibility would be to imagine a new netting of treaties and institutions, resembling the “Olympic circles”, which would allow to maintain stability on the whole Eurasian continent.

There is a common interest in fixing the “missing link” of European security with the negotiation of new security and economic arrangements between EU and Russia at Pan-European level and on an equal basis. OSCE is important but specific institutional arrangements might be necessary (see Map 5 “the Olympic circles of Euro-Atlantic, European and Eurasian security – the missing link of European security).

Regarding Transatlantic relations, the “EU/NATO complementarity” narrative is an obstacle to more trust because Russia sees each EU movement as an anticipation of a NATO expansion (Eastern Partnership and “Sikorski doctrine”).  EU has to recognise that it can have interests that are different from those of the USA and thus act in a more autonomous way.

It is also in the interest of both EU and Russia to avoid a worsening of the crisis around the NATO missile shield project.  Putting pressure on the US to ensure it provides proof that this system is not directed against Russia would be useful (See Map 6: “Missile shield project and the perception of encirclement of Russia and China”).

At a regional level:  pan-european level and Mediterranean/Middle East neighbourhood

EU and Russia (with Central Asian States and China) have a common interest in containing   Islamist terrorism and instability originating from the southern arc of the crisis (from North Africa till South East Asia). These threats are endangering the security of the whole Eurasian continent because EU, Russia and Central Asia are increasingly targets of acts of terrorism.

EU member states have lost leverage in Syria to US-Russian negotiations. In this case, a more autonomous EU position from the USA would, once again, improve European visibility. Regime change doctrine and plunging in “unknown territory” should be abandoned. Only a large alliance between Syrian loyal forces, Kurds, Iran, Russia, EU Member States, and the US will be able to defeat ISIS.

EU and Russia also need to overcome the Ukrainian crisis in order to focus on Islamist terrorism as a priority threat. The successful implementation of Minsk II Agreements requires more pressure on the Ukrainian government because they are blocking the federalisation process.  Ukraine should adopt neutrality status and act as a bridge of cooperation instead of acting as a frontline between the “West” and against Russia (No NATO, no EU); (Map 7, “European Union squeezed between two arcs of crisis”).

There is also a natural complementarity between EU and Russia as far as energy questions are concerned since they are neighbours: the EU needs a secure access to resources and Russia needs EU markets. It would be wise to anticipate the opening of the Maritime Northern route in the Arctic. The deepening of EU-Russia energy relations should be considered a priority in order to avoid dependence from the troubled Middle East countries (See Map 8: “The importance of Arctic space”).

Other areas of potential cooperation to prevent looming crises that are also worth of consideration:

-prepare consultations on the Libyan question because of a likely raise of ISIS and new military operations

-anticipate a potential crisis in Cyprus as the reunification process is very fragile and external powers might try to instrumentalise the question to foster their own agenda leading to further destabilisation

– reengage the Balkans to overcome the risk of new growing EU-Russia divergence

– renew military cooperation between EU and Russia in EU operations in Africa (like, for example, the transport with helicopters)

Annex 1

Improving EU-Russia relations to contain the internal fragmentation

of the European Union

One pivotal difficulty in EU-Russia relations is the diverging geopolitical vision of EU member states. This makes EU a more unpredictable partner for Russia. If the EU cannot define its own interests, suspicion about hidden objectives and alignment with extra-European  power objectives will hinder mutual trust during negotiations.

Faced with an enduring crisis, bilateral relations between EU member states and Russia might be used as a leverage to shift the relative geopolitical power rank within EU. This challenge has to be addressed in order to contain the growing multipolarisation within the EU itself.

Let’s focus on France and Germany since the Franco-German relations are the “motor” of the European project. If the two countries are unable to find common ground, there is no progress for EU. The challenge is to overcome the new geopolitical rivalry between France and Germany since unification and EU enlargement to the East. The French perception of a shift of the geopolitical centre of gravity towards the East in favour of Germany resulted in compensation measures taken by France regarding enlargement and neighbourhood priorities. Within an enlarged EU, different geopolitical priorities and security perceptions make it difficult to define EU interests, and therefore predictability. (See Map 9 on Germany-France perception of security according to their respective White books).

Better EU-Russia “Entente”, has to be worked on in a way that simultaneously rebuilds trust between France and Germany. Both should agree on a new reset with Russia in a way that France will become less suspicious of a German-Russian alliance and Germany will be less suspicious of the building of traditional rear alliances to weaken its European dominance at the geopolitical centre of Europe. If those rivalries within the EU are ignored, EU- Russia relations might be instrumentalised to modify the balance of power within the EU. (See map 10: “Franco-German Great Game after German unification”).

Brexit a risk or opportunity?

The Brexit has the effect of provoking disagreements within the EU, in particular between France and Germany, because their diverging views on the finality of EU were masked by the debates prior to the vote.

The Brexit will have irreversible consequences on the balance of power within the EU. The balancing role of the United Kingdom traditionally used by France in relations with Germany will be diminished after the Brexit.

In the French Gaullist doctrine, Russia is a factor of equilibrium in Europe and this role is likely to be reinforced after Brexit. Europe will find itself in a geopolitical situation similar to the period when de Gaulle was president of France: UK was not part of the European economic community and the Cold War context was causing deep European tensions. Today, Brexit is also concomitant of a “new Cold War” context. The situation today, will reinforce the shift of balance of power within the EU. It will reinforce the centrality of Germany and this, in turn, will raise France’s desire to consider new options to slow down what the French perceive as the emergence of a “German EU”. It will reinforce French politicians, influenced by the Gaullist doctrine, in their convictions to promote a better relation with Russia, in order to re-establish a better geopolitical balance in Europe, in the context of presidential elections.

The situation might offer new opportunities for France and Russia to renew and improve relations.  Therefore, Brexit can be seen as an opportunity for continental EU member states to push for the “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” scenario in the longer term.

There is also a possible more dangerous scenario. As a result of Brexit, the UK will not be able to be USA’s closest ally within the EU anymore. The reinforcement of NATO to rally Europeans behind an exclusive “Euro-Atlanticist” vision might be a likely option. The tool to push for this option is to make Russia a clear adversary. This dangerous scenario should be avoided because it will fragment Europe between the EU and Russia even more.

The survival of the EU is at stake which makes EU members more introverted. Brexit might be as important as the fall of the Berlin Wall but this time leading to regression of EU.

Brexit should be used as an opportunity to reform the European project and to make it closer to the citizens:

– it would mean less integration,  and a reformed project closer to an alliance of Nations

– the reinforcement of the option of a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” benefiting all European nations, including Russia. This scenario might become a reality when governments of EU member states start distancing themselves from the current “state of denial” regarding BREXIT and its consequences.

Annex 2  

Geopolitical diagnosis and identification of common interests  

Today, the danger lies in the spreading of a spiralling crisis under the “sleepwalker” syndrome[vii], leading to confrontation caused by the absence of geopolitical knowledge.

EU-Russia relations cannot be separated from global geopolitical trends. A more common diagnosis of the world evolution is required, in order to guide political decisions of both partners, to overcome their differences, identify common interests, and adopt common strategies.

Let’s advance a few hypotheses: .

The geopolitical diagnosis:

Control of territory is a factor of power. It is a constant in international relations. Many analyses concentrate on the distinction between the actors in a conflict, classifying them as democratic or non-democratic states, whereas the legal point of view considers the respect or otherwise of international law. These approaches are often coloured by ideology and mask the real issues.

An analysis of the conflict from a geopolitical angle is more revealing.

The trend to a multipolar world signifies a redistribution of power between states in the form of a geographic dispersion accompanied by an ‘unfreezing’ of the existing order. A trend is growing of rivalries between states for the control of territories[viii] useful for their political and economic power, their security value and the significance of their identities. The geographical definition of the areas of influence of the various competing powers, the resolution of boundary disputes between states, and the changes consequent on their disintegration, are all decided by adjustment between the contradictory geopolitical designs of the various actors. The new balances are achieved, either by conflict, that is, by warlike means, or in peaceful ways by negotiation.

In a multicentric world, the doctrine of balance of forces is one way to make an adjustment of the geopolitical ambitions of the various actors, oscillating between rivalry and cooperation. A negotiated balance of power is a prerequisite for the implementation of cooperation regimes intended at overcoming differences of values and visions. Since the civilisational factor is, in the current world, emerging as an important factor and vector of both cooperation and rivalry for the future, the identification of common civilisational values and visions is an important component.

Identifying contradictory or overlapping geopolitical representations

The main contradiction between the European Union nations and Russia, but also between EU nations themselves, lies in the different “geopolitical representations” of the world according to their geographical position and historical experience.

The way, in which, each nation perceives its role at European and global scales tend to run parallel. These diverging perceptions are based on facts like geography, causing different geographical priorities, but also on the different perception of their interests derived from historical experience and reciprocal misconceptions. Therefore, geography and history are the main factors to understand a crisis.

The “geopolitical representations” of nations and states have to be highlighted in their diversity and contradictions. “Geopolitical representations”[ix] are more or less precise or vague perceptions mixing reality (geography) and subjectivity (ideology, historical and civilisational representations). These representations can be put on a map and, as an implicit or explicit model of reference, they participate in the strategies of the actors (when facing a crisis or reaching a geopolitical objective).

How can these different views become less confrontational? The various Transatlantic, Mediterranean/African and Eurasian geopolitical orientations are the source of centrifugal forces between Russia and EU member states. The geopolitical method can help;  the step of “mapping” overlapping, antagonistic or similar geopolitical projects is essential to reveal both obstacles and common objectives.

After a clinical geopolitical diagnosis, it would be possible to proceed to the identification of common interests in an innovative way.

Rediscover the relevance of territorial mastery, geopolitical strategy and balance of power doctrine for the EU in the 21 st century

In the twenty-first century, in order to navigate in a world in a state of flux, a geopolitical strategy that is conceived as a spatio-temporal whole and is functioning as a means of balancing others’ power, is required. This is because the mastery of territory and time in the service of a political objective is a decisive advantage and a central element of sovereignty. The mastery depends on the capacity of appreciation of others’ space and time constraints.

There can be no success or results in multilateral forum negotiations without prior “negotiated multipolarity”, which means an “agreed balance of power”. Balance doctrine also means the recognition of other alliances (European Union recognising the value of the Eurasian project as a stabilising factor)

Is it enough for the European Union (EU) to adopt the position of ‘empire of standards’, in anticipation of a potentially growing weight of the legal factor[x] in international relations, in the face of geopolitical doctrines of other political entities? Certainly not!

Questions of territory, geographical priorities and frontiers do not prominently feature in European negotiations, as they are sensitive and generate conflict. Various obstacles to a European geopolitical approach persist:

. territorial blindness resulting from the almost overwhelming importance accorded to the legal, economic[xi] and political aspects of analyses, which makes it difficult to consider questions of territory and sovereignty ;

. an asymmetric perception of threats to and interests of the member states as a function of their geographic position and history ;

. a world-view inherited from the Cold War, and a lack of thought and public debate at the politico-strategic level. In order to play a role on the international scene the EU must reposition itself with respect to the outside world.

A better appreciation of geopolitical issues would be doubly useful for the EU in its analysis and comprehension of the territorial issues which concern it in the twenty first century, but also for the development of a power strategy based on the control of territory and subordinated to the objective of a ‘political Europe’[xii]. The EU would be involved in the world balance and obtain the status of an autonomous geopolitical actor.

The consequence for EU defining its own geopolitical doctrine

The European project needs to be adapted according to the changing geopolitical environment. After the Brexit and its consequences, the EU should focus more on “Realpolitik” principles since it will be less and less in a position to impose its paradigm based on the “interdependence theory” and the exportation of its own norms. The European project should rather be understood as a wide European security architecture, such as the “Westphalian peace” or “Congress of Vienna”.

To be a serious political player in a rapidly changing world, the European Union needs to devise a geopolitical strategy based on its territorial interests. This means defining its boundaries, geographical priorities and alliances, promoting its civilisational characteristics, both organic and ideological (values), that will prevail within these boundaries, to have more weight in the world order.

The transformation of the EU into a more autonomous geopolitical actor involves its insertion into the system of world balance. Its vision must correspond to its geographical extent and be clearly identifiable by other geopolitical centres. This necessity for more autonomy is recognized in the new EU global strategy.    The European project could also be revived as a more “political” project [xiii]   of continental scale in two directions:

A geopolitical strategy should follow from EU’s geographical characteristics.

1- First, a better balance :

According to its geographical position, the EU should maintain a geopolitical balance between the Euro-Atlantic, the Eurasian, the Euro-Mediterranean and African and the Euro-Arctic geopolitical spaces. This means, that it is necessary for the EU to have more balance between USA and Russia. In a similar way, Russia also has to balance its own relations according to its different geographies between Eurasian-European and Atlantic, Eurasian-Arctic, Eurasian-Eastern Asian, and Eurasian-Mediterranean and African spaces (see map Russia).

2- The promotion of a pan-European civilisational model

If both EU and Russia approach the today highly divisive question of values, the focus should be on what they have in common. The common characteristics of the European civilisation should be examined and promoted, at a time of the clear emergence of a violent political Islam, carrying rival representations. Russia and EU nations have a clear common interest to contain and fight radical and political Islam on external theatres (Middle East, South West Asia and Africa) and internal theatres (terrorism, Islamist proselytism, demography).

Annexes – Maps – «Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit» (“In the Space We Can Read the Time”) Friedrich Ratzel

Although reality will always be more disorganised and precarious, it is useful to focus on schematic scenarios when focusing on the main geopolitical options. This map illustrates two big options for EU member states:

2)Integration of the EU into the “Greater Western World” in line with a “Unipolar vision” The risk of a steady slide towards an exclusive alignment of EU defence and security interests with NATO, as well as a Transatlantic market absorbing the single European market leading to a centre-periphery relationship with the United States.

2) EU and Russia agree to build a European project of continental scale (“Lisbon to Vladivostok” within a “Security space from Vancouver to Vladivostok”).  The negotiation of a new Eurasian security architecture (as part of the vision from “Lisbon to Vladivostok“) preserving Russia’s security interests would facilitate the stabilisation of EU’s continental hinterland. It would also be an opportunity for EU to become a centre of equilibrium alongside Russia as a useful counter-weight to other global powers. It is a necessary step to create a better balance within the Atlantic Alliance in order to focus on European interests and build a “security space from Vancouver to Vladivostok”

This option would offer :

–  a better balance within EU member states,

– a better balance for EU between Euro-Atlantic (USA) and Euro-Asiatic (Russia) geopolitical spaces

–  a focus on the doctrine of “Balance of Power” instead of “Westernisation doctrine”

Since 1989, more than 15 000 km of new borders, have been erected. In European history, borders were always changing and there is no exception to that since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1990, the German unification process was the first move towards a huge transformation of European and Eurasian political geography. The German unification, in legal terms, was an annexation of German territory of the former DDR into the Western Germany (BRD) legal framework and constitution.  After German unification, USSR dissolved itself in 199,  provoking the biggest border change that has ever occurred in Europe and Eurasia. The domino effect of geopolitical reconfiguration after the fall of the post 1945 order provoked both the peaceful break up of Czechoslovakia and the violent decomposition of Yugoslavia. It should be noted that both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were created by Allies after the First World War to contain German power in Europe. After the German revival as a united nation, these multinational state constructs disappeared as a geopolitical backlash of the new post Cold war order. The period from 1990 to 2008 is characterised by the constant extension of Euro-Atlantic structures, NATO and EU into former Warsaw Pact member space and former Soviet Union space.  The Russia-Georgia war, in 2008, can be qualified as the “first war of the multipolar world”. This new period until today, is characterised by the geopolitical reconfiguration of the former soviet space, with the breakup of States like Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, and a new Russian “unification”.

Only the regression and expansion of national territories according to the geopolitical angle are taken into account here. Interpretation of events in terms of international law is not debated (It is subject to very deep disagreements between EU member states and Russia, but also within EU member states themselves).

In long term historical perspectives, the “post Cold War” era, starting from 1990 until today is characterised by the national re-emergence and unification of both Germany and Russia, shifted in time. The consequence is a geopolitical backlash provoking fragmentation of neighbouring states, putting a halt to Euro-Atlanticist exclusive dominance of the Eurasian space and leading to the multipolarisation of Europe.

The unification/ annexation of Crimea with/ by Russia, is only one step in these long term geopolitical processes. We can expect more geopolitical rearrangement or decomposition of states, national territories, and international alliances as it was always the case in European history.  In the medium and longer term, Brexit might be the start of a new phase, provoking a geopolitical backlash in other states, asking for referendums on EU membership, with the perspective of new exits from the EU, as well as new state break-ups (Scotland, Northern Ireland.. ), and a possibility of new border change.

As far as the evolution at a global level is concerned, it would be interesting to anticipate the consequences of a potential confrontation/ condominium of USA/ China.

The emergence of a “multipolar world” (which should not be confused with an ideal balance of equal poles) has become a sort of ideal representation, illustrating various poles of power of different size and weight, balancing each other (like the “Concert of Nations” model after the Vienna Congress in 1815). Multipolarity is mainly defined against “Unipolarity”: the “Greater West” (led by the USA) will not be able to impose this scenario (wishful thinking of the 90’s) as China and Russia will not accept it.
The alternatives are
1) A more bipolar world (sort of G2 to manage USA-China confrontation).
This situation already is “multipolar” as the “unipolar” option is impossible (although still defended by some ideologues). We cannot compare it to the “Cold war bipolar model” because the USA and the Soviet Union competed with two “universal models”. In a “G2”, the USA, as leader of the “Greater West”, pretends to universality, but the Chinese world is too different as a civilization to be able to achieve something similar to “Cold War bipolarity”. This means that USA and China might not be able to divide the world in two separate alliances because the world has become more fluid than during Cold War, and the different power centres will stay asymmetric.
But the likely scenario of G2 (scenario 1 on the map), could then be defined as “asymmetric bi-multipolar world”.

The central question is what will Europeans do if faced with this scenario? Will they be divided on the issue or will they try to adopt a shared position?  What will be Russia’s long term posture? Will Russia try to get closer to China or rather try to balance between the West and China?

The most suitable scenario for EU “strategic autonomy” (scenario 1) is a “moderation” role of EU and Russia to avoid a global US/China confrontation . This would avoid being drawn into the confrontation and having to choose a camp as well as the US/China G2 sidelining EU and Russia in global affairs.

2) More confrontation between the West and China

What will be the position of Russia in the case of EU alignment with the USA (scenario 2 and the trend today) to confront China? As it is difficult to imagine Russia aligning itself with the West, nor privileging an exclusive and strong China-Russia alliance in the future, the most likely option is that of Russia balancing between different powers. This option implies that Russia-EU relations will stay difficult.
“Multipolarity” and “G2” are convenient representations to think about global strategy, as we do here, but it is important to bear in mind that they are “ideal representations” and the reality will be more chaotic and precarious.

Russia’s geographical position puts its territory in contact with many zones in crisis.

One of the reasons why Russia insists on remaining a powerful geopolitical pole, is to secure its own safety in a challenging geopolitical environment.

From this perspective, Eastern Europe, Arctic space, Caucasus and Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Asia are key regions to cement Russia’s security aspirations. Its access to the Mediterranean and Arctic Seas, the Atlantic, as well as Indian and Pacific Oceans also remains a Russian priority.

For these geographical reasons, Russia will always exercise a determining influence beyond its borders. It holds one of the keys to security on the European continent.

The negotiation of a new Eurasian security architecture preserving Russia’s security interests would facilitate the stabilisation of EU’s continental hinterland. In the European area, no conflict can be resolved without the support of Russia.

This map illustrates the need for a new European security treaty, in the context of an emerging global and European Multipolarity.

There is a missing link in the European security architecture that needs to be fixed in order to avoid a further fragmentation of the European continent between Euro-Atlantic and Euro-Asian alliances. We also have to assume that an enlargement of Euro-Atlantic institutions (NATO-EU-OSCE) to the whole of the Eurasian continent is impossible. Firstly, EU and NATO Member states disagree on further enlargement. Secondly, it would be impossible for these Euro-Atlantic institutions to manage the geopolitical diversity of the Eurasian continent. The solution to fixing the missing link in the European security architecture is based on the “geographical tightening” principle in the context of NATO’s and EU’s overstretched capacities. Geographical proximity would be a central criterion to build regional alliances in order to foster stability and prevent further Eurasian fragmentation.

A new “security space” from Lisbon to Vladivostok would be the inner circle of the security space from Vancouver to Vladivostok. In this configuration, we would find the EU as a pivot/political centre and Russia as a neighbouring pivot/political centre at the crossroad of overlapping security spaces from Vancouver to Vladivostok (NATO and OSCE, USA-EU-Russia), Lisbon to Vladivostok (UE-Russia), St Petersburg to Peking (OCS) and Minsk-Duchanbe(OTSC). Stabilisation policies and “non-aggression agreements would need to be negotiated between these geopolitical spaces. This netting of institutions resembles “Olympic circles”. The described configuration would be adapted to the emerging multipolar world to maintain a balance between the different states, alliances and political and security institutions. This architecture is aimed at promoting synergies between interleaved organisations like NATO, EU, OSCE, OCS, OTSC and should lead to more stability.

The map illustrates the localisation of the potential and already operational infrastructures of the NATO Missile Shield.

The brown belt indicates the presence of American and NATO military bases and the Missile shield infrastructure as a continuous spatial zone. The yellow arrows indicate the dynamic of America’s support of its allies, and the Russian and Chinese perception of encirclement, that is caused by it. The official reason for setting up this defence system was, that it served to protect the US and Europe from Iran. The real objectives of this missile shield are fuelling deep mistrust in Russia but also in Europe, since a deal was signed between Iran, USA, Russia and EU but the project was not stopped as Romania recently announced the activation of a Missile shield base.

The project makes Europe a zone of geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the USA, once again. It is in the interest of EU member states and Russia to deal with this new disagreement in order to ease the tensions, since the European territory will be the most at risk in case of an new US-Russia rivalry. This issue is preventing negotiations on disarmament and EU member states see their sovereignty and margin of manoeuvre reduced as they will have no real impact on decisions regarding the use of the system because the NATO missile shield is directly linked to the American missile shield.

Spatial analysis provides an added value in helping to understand the geopolitical processes at work and the security perceptions.

The European Union Member States are increasingly squeezed between these two arcs of crisis on their southern and eastern range and it is in their security’s interest to overcome this situation of encirclement. In order to understand the current geopolitical situation, the southern and eastern geopolitical theatres cannot be separated. The two arcs of crisis overlap in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Middle East around the Black Sea, turning into the new pivot of geopolitical tensions in the world.

The support of Western countries during the Arab revolutions (southern arc of crisis) aggravated the domino effect and destabilisations along this arc of crisis. It reinforced Russia’s, Central Asia states’ and China’s perception, that these actions will destabilise their strategic zones of interests in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East (overlapping zone).

This geopolitical dynamic is a factor that explains why Syria is a red line. Avoiding entering Russia’s priority zone of interest will prevent further chaos.

In the eastern arc of crisis, NATO extension support by Western countries, and EU-Eastern Partnership (EaP), collide with the revival of Russia as an autonomous geopolitical actor, trying to prevent the destabilisation of the Russian world, leading to strongly diverging views on Ukraine. The dynamics along the two different arcs of crisis collide in a zone that spreads from Mediterranean eastern shores to Central Asia. The more Western countries support regime changes, the more Russia will react to the perceived threat of destabilisation which, in turn, will provoke neighbouring countries to perceive Russia as a new security threat as well, leading to a more politically fragmented Eurasian continent.

The challenge for both EU and Russia is to stop these dynamics of rising rivalry and to identify common interests.

The Eurasian continent is facing mutual threats from the southern arc of crisis with the destabilising actions of jihadist forces. Europeans, however, lose their time on the Ukraine crisis. The threat of escalation in this area also depends on the actions of European states, which should not cross their neighbours red lines (like in the Ukraine). Since it is not in the interest of EU member states to have more fragmented geopolitical space on the eastern flank, the Eurasian nations, EU member states, Eastern European states, Russia, Central Asian States, and possibly also China should cooperate to a greater extent in order to face mutual threats originating from the Southern arc of crisis.

Russia holds one of the keys to security on the European continent and will remain a major energy supplier for the EU, whatever form diversification may take. An energy -, industrial- and political alliance with Russia, is in the interest of the EU, in order to extend its hinterland towards ‘Euro-Siberia’.

The negotiation of a new Eurasian security architecture preserving Russia’s security interests would facilitate the stabilisation of EU’s continental hinterland. It would be a favourable opportunity for the EU to become the centre of equilibrium alongside with Russia which would constitute a valuable counter-weight to other global powers. It would also offer the chance to rebalance the Atlantic Alliance and put greater emphasis on European interests.

The geopolitics of energy and trade flows

As an indispensable node of worldwide energy, commercial, financial and demographic networks, the EU could take over, develop and direct the trade flows necessary for its energy security and its economic expansion. The active consolidation of its position as a major crossroads for world trade is slowing down. Its central position in the world is gradually lost in favour of Asia. The reaffirmation of its European economic model would avoid the steady slide towards a transatlantic market absorbing the unique European market and into a centre-peripheral relationship with the United States.

In the setting of a policy of diversification, and security for energy and commercial trade routes, the opening of a Eurasian and an Arctic route would offer an alternative to the Cape and Suez Canal routes. At the same time, the transit routes coming from Russia need to be reinforced. The links with Siberia, Central Asia and the Far East would be improved by these two new corridors. The system would consist of a network of continental and maritime lines crossing the heart of the Eurasian continent and two sea routes around the Eurasian continent by the South (the Cape and Suez) and by the North (the North-West Passage and the North) through the Arctic Ocean.

The comparison of the German white papers on security policy and the future of the Bundeswehr (2006 and 2016) and the French white paper on defence and national security (2008 and 2013), is useful in order to examine the differences in security perceptions between the two countries.

In the 2008 French white book, an arc of crisis (From Morocco to Afghanistan) is identified and reveals the French security perception as well as France’s main priorities concerning military interventions. In the new German white book (2016), Russia has been identified as a challenge to European security order.

The French and German security perceptions do not entirely overlap. When one observes the situation in relation with the different geopolitical priorities of France and Germany, it becomes clear that Germany as the “central power” of the EU is more preoccupied by destabilisations on the Eurasian continent and in the Balkans, whilst France is more preoccupied by crises in North Africa and in the Middle East.

Although the big patterns of security perceptions are different,  Germany and France agree on certain political policies like Iran (priority was given to negotiations on the nuclear question) and Russia (priority was given to diplomacy regarding the Ukraine crisis, Russia is considered as  a central partner but sanctions were decided at EU level after annexation of Crimea).

At a global level, France and Germany, just as other EU member states, worry about the shifting centre of geopolitical gravity towards Asia.

This map illustrates the new Franco-German rivalry deriving from the objective of both nations to position themselves at the geopolitical centre of the European Union for security (surrounded by allies) and power. After German unification, Germany’s priority to enlarge the European Union provoked French governments to develop strategies of compensation to counterbalance Germany. The changing geopolitical priorities of Germany and France throughout time are illustrated on the map. After the German unification, the priority in 1995 was to expand towards Austria and Nordic countries. France and Spain then proposed the Barcelona process towards the Mediterranean to rebalance the geopolitical priorities of the EU. Germany’s next priority was to enlarge the EU to Central and Eastern Europe, while France rebalanced the process with an acceleration of enlargement towards Romania and Bulgaria. In 2007, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP+), Russia and Central Asia were determined as the priorities of German EU presidency. In 2008, The French government proposed the Mediterranean Union project to re-orientate the EU towards the South. As a reaction, the Eastern Partnership was proposed by EU member states from Central and Eastern European EU member states.  When Arab revolutions erupted in 2010, France proposed to re-launch the Union for Mediterranean/ Barcelona process.

The dynamics of rivalry between France and Germany (and between North-East and South–West EU) over the geopolitical orientation of the European project are a central factor in the EU Neighbourhood policy divided between the Eastern Partnership and the Union for the Mediterranean.




[iii]             “Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe , A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign And Security Policy”, June 2018


[v]             These ideas about borders were  published in   “Europe as a political force : cards on the table”  15 April 2010, Pierre-Emmanuel THOMANN, Revue Défense Nationale (main French defence magazine) and also on this website :

[vi]            This scenario  was already partially  identified in the Forward Studies Unit of the European Commission.

[vii]         “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914”, Christopher Clark, Harper,  2012

[viii]           Territorial rivalries on the ground, air space, maritime space, cyberspace and competition for the control and influence of populations

[ix]          Geopolitical representations determine strategies: the perception of each actor/nation of its geographical environment and understanding of history and the impact on the State strategy: ex. France as a Mediterranean and African power and its military interventions; Germany as a “Central European power” and its strategy of avoiding new dividing line in Europe, or Germany as civilian or economic power and its strategy of economic interdependence

[x]          International rules are understood as a legal dogma when in reality it is only a question of changing interpretation through time and space according to the current balance of power.

[xi]             The doctrine of economic interdependence can lead to geopolitical blindness as in the case of Ukraine where free trade zone negotiations led to a geopolitical crisis.

[xii]         EU is not a Nation but an alliance of Nations, when Russia is a Nation: there is a necessity for more clarification on the finalities of the European project between member states.

[xiii]           ‘Political Europe’ should remain EU’s aim. The definition used here is an alliance of European states, seeking to acquire autonomy of thought, decision and action at international level in order to ensure their security, defend their strategic and vital interests, and promote conditions for the flourishing of their common civilization. It does not, therefore, tend towards the ‘fusion’ of the member states and remains a collective instrument of political sovereignty.


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