In recent months relations between Russia and the European Union reached their lowest point since the end of the USSR. This fact, as clear as it is problematic, formed the departure point for the workshop titled “European-Russian Dialogue. From Damage Limitation to Renewed Engagement” held on October 13 in Rome in the context of events being held during the Italian semester of presidency of the European Union. Promoted by ISPI and by one of Russia’s main research institutes, the RIAC (Russian International Affairs Council), this meeting was attended by representatives of the most important European and Russian think tanks. The two main topics of the meeting – security and political relations; economic and energy relations – were dealt with from very different perspectives to respond to the crucial demands of current Russian-European relations: how to recoup reciprocal trust largely compromised by the Ukraine crisis? How to definitively overcome the legacy of the Cold War and jointly rebuild a security architecture that reduces crisis risks to a minimum? What is the future of economic relations, in particular in the energy sphere, between Russia and the European Union in the light of sanctions? How, in this context of growing economic rupture, can there be cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union?
During the meeting the discussion was essentially open and the problems dealt with explicitly, without hiding the often great differences between respective opinions. The Russian side expressed the conviction that the Ukraine crisis should not be considered either casual or unexpected but seen as the outcome of many unresolved issues in relations between the European Union and Russia. In particular, Russia has always considered the eastward enlargement of the European Union and NATO to be unjustified and aggressive in its regard. Among the Russian representatives, even those known for their liberal and pro-Western positions complained about the difficulty in getting treated as an equal partner in relations with the European Union and the West in general. More generally, the Russian side observed that, despite the considerable increase in political and economic cooperation in recent decades, an in-depth and long-lasting dialogue about common security has been lacking. Even the Russia-NATO partnership proved ineffective and points of dissent were already clearly evident during the colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine (2003-2004) and the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008. The proposal coming from the Russian side was basically that of restarting dialogue at the highest level between the European Union and Russia in order to work out a strategic project of common security and, at the same time, proceed in the direction of a common economic area.
Compared to the substantial, if not total, compactness of the Russian position, the European interlocutors predictably showed more plurality of approach. In the first place there was complaint about the regression in reciprocal comprehension in recent months, also due to the previous lack of clarity about conflict issues, in particular the enlargement of NATO and the European Union and the differing concepts of civil society. The Ukraine crisis – which broke out in a country internally divided but easily manipulated from outside – was therefore a litmus test of this latent dissent. However, Russia’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis appears not only unacceptable but also incomprehensible to Europeans precisely in the light of the different historical-cultural, juridic and strategic perceptions of the situation in post-Soviet countries existing in Brussels and Moscow. Nevertheless, during the workshop the attitude towards relations with Russia was largely based on traditional national orientations. Representatives from Great Britain and the countries of central-Eastern Europe amply demonstrated, in fact, how much past history (perhaps the Great Game more than the Cold War for the former, and inclusion in the Tsarist and Soviet orbit for the latter) weighs even on contemporary politics, at times taking an aggressively anti-Russian stance rather out of tune with attempts at a new, pragmatic dialogue with Moscow based on an essential community of economic and strategic interests being upheld by other European representatives.
If the policy session revealed both the difficulties hindering a return to dialogue with Moscow and the different European stances on the issue, the economic session instead showed a basic uniformity of views about the need to return as soon as possible to full cooperation because the current situation – including the sanctions, which are not a solution but part of the problem and proving counterproductive in both the political and economic spheres – is damaging Russia as much as the European Union. And while the Russians admitted that their economy’s structural difficulties have been aggravated by the sanctions, to the point of seeing the country on the verge of recession, many European Union countries are also finding themselves in a highly problematic situation and are interested in a rapid normalization of relations with Moscow. In particular, the question was raised about the need for integration between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, which from the Russian perspective does not have hegemonic ambitions but is based on the economic interests of the countries in the post-Soviet area. On the whole it can be stated that the workshop revealed the conviction that economics might succeed where politics are essentially failing, in other words in a rapprochement between the European Union and Russia, which have need of one another. On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary to put an end to the long series of errors committed in the past year by all political actors, whether internal or external to the crisis in Ukraine. No one gains by this crisis, neither the European Union nor Russia, cooperation with which is seriously threatened; nor even Ukraine, amputated of significant parts of its territory and prey to an economic crisis for which no cure is seen; nor even the United States, which is creating the political terrain for a strategic rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing, certainly not to be hoped for from the standpoint of its long-term national interests.