How cooperative security can strengthen Europe’s strategic autonomy

By Zachary Paikin

Last month featured two high-profile attempts – one by the United States and the other by the European Union – at recalibrating Russia-West relations.

From today’s vantage point, President Joe Biden’s meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin appears to have been a success. By contrast, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s proposal to restore high-level EU-Russia dialogue failed to achieve liftoff. In the context of an increasingly interconnected Eurasian security system, the plateauing of relations between Brussels and Moscow at a sub-optimal level does not bode well for the strategic autonomy of the EU.

The US-Russia summit in Geneva was notable for its targeted agenda, aimed at launching a bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue and clarifying rules of the road for cybersecurity. A more extensive rapprochement, such as a “non-interference” pact between the two countries, does not currently appear to be on the table. Nor is a grand bargain that turns Russia against China possible for now given, among other factors, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the low level of trust between Moscow and Washington. A more straightforward dynamic of deterrence in place of a high-temperature “active pressure campaign” is likely the most that can be achieved.

Unlike the narrowly focused American initiative, the Merkel-Macron proposal was reportedly aimed at kickstarting EU-Russia dialogue on a whole gamut of issues including “the environment, the Arctic, cross-border co-operation, health, space, the fight against terrorism and foreign policy areas including Syria and Iran”. This is perhaps inevitable: Due to geographic proximity and the deeper integration of their economies, there are more issues on which the EU would clearly benefit from cooperation with Russia, whereas the US-Russia great power relationship is by nature more adversarial.

Against this backdrop, intra-EU divisions on Russia were once again laid bare. The European Council’s conclusions unambiguously state that the EU expects the Russian leadership to “demonstrate a more constructive engagement and political commitment and stop actions against the EU and its Member States” as a precondition for any change to the status quo.

The Biden administration’s outreach to Russia is not geared toward de-escalating today’s great power conflict. When paired with its pledge to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and revive the Iran nuclear deal, calls to stabilize the US-Russia relationship are aimed at creating space for Washington to pivot toward confronting an increasingly assertive China. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has asserted that the US-China relationship will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be”, signaling a preference for confrontation over cooperation.

As such, Washington may be prepared to temper its post-Cold War vision of a US-centred global liberal hegemony, but it is not yet willing to abandon its position as the leading power in the world’s key geo-strategic regions. In other words, the US may have conceded the limits of spreading liberal values in an increasingly multipolar world, but it does not plan to compromise on the presumed rules that underpin the global and European security systems. This guarantees the continuation of a normative rivalry between Moscow and Washington, which over recent years has driven change in the international order away from liberal uniformity toward polycentrism.

This dual condition of order transition and static great power relations calls for a robust and autonomous European foreign policy. Yet it remains unclear what sort of benefits a truly common foreign policy could offer member states that could encourage them to compromise on their perceived vital interests. The EU’s approach to relations with Russia therefore continues to be rooted in the lowest common denominator, with the effect of solidifying the Russia-West normative divide. Moreover, due to its own internal rules-based framework, EU foreign policy is inevitably tinted with normative premises, prolonging the current state of relations between Brussels and Moscow.

With the issue of Russia’s non-membership in the Western normative orbit now decided, NATO members have begun instead to press their claims against Beijing. At the same time, the EU is attempting to strike a balance between economic integration and political rivalry in its relations with China as a means of buttressing the long-term foundations of European autonomy. NATO’s growing Sino-centrism provides Washington with a reason to remain invested in European security, buying Europe time to build up its capacities as a strategic actor. This approach allows EU member states to avoid making substantive decisions about the nature of their collective relationship with Russia for the time being.

Yet given the pace of change in today’s world, there is no guarantee that this strategy will prove successful. Recent years have witnessed rapid shifts in relations between key powers, with pan-European order moving from visions of Brussels-centrism to effective multipolarity and China transforming from potential “responsible stakeholder” to “rival power”. The continued deterioration of Sino-American relations over the coming decade could force a still-dependent EU to choose sides.

Getting its China strategy right remains an important imperative for Brussels, but one cannot escape the dilemmas of regional security in Europe by turning one’s attention toward the global great power arena. The persistence of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership illustrates the interconnected nature of the global and Euro-Atlantic security systems. Russia’s declared “pivot to the east”, whatever its shortcomings, has only rendered questions of European security more complex.

A complete EU-Russia reset remains a remote prospect, but there is no substitute for a more inclusive and cooperative approach to security issues in the Euro-Atlantic region, even if small steps are all that remain palatable for now. There may be little incentive to compromise when the winners and losers of today’s order transition have yet to be determined. But the alternative risks potentially irreversible damage to both European security and strategic autonomy.

Dr. Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is a Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels. He is a member of two FES ROCPE projects: the “Fresh Look at Eastern European Trends” young expert network (FLEET) and the Cooperative Security Initiative, launched in partnership with GLOBSEC with the support of the OSCE.

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