Russia’s “return” to the MENA region did not go unnoticed in Brussels. EU-Russia relations, currently at a historic low mainly due to the conflict in Ukraine, found in the MENA region new sources of disagreement as well as potential avenues for cooperation. This situation is likely to remain unchanged in 2020 as elements of friction – especially in Syria – will persist, while some developments may make Russia and the EU converge on a number of issues.
When analyzing Russia’s MENA role and actions, the EU’s focus on Syria is inevitable. Not only is the conflict the most severe humanitarian crisis in the region today and the one impacting the regional equilibria the most, but it also bears direct consequences and negative spillovers for the EU – especially in terms of refugee inflow. In one of the last statements as the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini reiterated last November the EU’s strong condemnation of Russia’s military operations and support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. She defined attacks on civilians by government forces and their Russian allies "unacceptable" and “deplorable”. She also consistently stressed that the EU will only unlock its funds for the reconstruction of Syria once a “comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition is firmly underway”.
While condemning Russia’s military support for Assad, the EU also acknowledges Russia’s prominence in putting an end to the Syrian war through the Astana Format. Furthermore, Brussels has stated its willingness to work more closely with Moscow to achieve a political solution to crises such as the ones in Libya and Yemen –– if only because the EU recognizes its role to be, often, very limited. In this regard, it will be interesting to see how the new EU commission will behave with regard to Russia in the MENA region. On the one hand, the EU’s stance in Syria is unlikely to change with the new EU foreign policy representative. Josep Borrell is not known to be soft on Russia. Last May, when he was acting Spanish Foreign Minister, he referred to Russia as an "old enemy" that “has returned as a threat”, prompting the Russian Foreign Ministry to summon the Spanish ambassador to Moscow Fernando Valderrama Pareja. Today, he advocates maintaining EU sanctions towards Russia and reaffirms the EU’s commitment to strengthening human rights, including in Syria.
On the other hand, Ursula Von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission since 1 December, has declared she envisages leading “a geopolitical commission”, able to provide the EU with the foreign policy tools to match its status as the world’s biggest trading bloc and boost its resilience. While this strategy suggests that the EU should respond more assertively to aggressive powers such as Russia, it also entails a greater degree of pragmatism, which can give ampler room for manoeuvre in seeking cooperation with Russia in the MENA region and beyond. Saving the Iran nuclear deal, a priority both for Russia and the EU, is an example of issues where Moscow and Brussels may find new synergies and develop joint actions. So far, Russia has been moderately supportive of INSTEX, the EU’s mechanism of financial settlements to facilitate trade with Iran, bypassing US sanctions.
For the EU, a pragmatic dialogue with Russia appears to be necessary due to Moscow’s key role in many crises. The new “geopolitical Commission” may try to engage more with Russia, especially in case the situation on the ground in Syria and other MENA countries gets worse. Yet two obstacles will continue to hinder cooperation. First, Russia will keep being a highly divisive issue for the EU: member states are divided when it comes to dealing with Russia; at the institutional level, individual officials are inevitably influenced by their personal and national backgrounds regarding Russia. These divergences will probably worsen as construction of the Nord Stream 2 comes to an end and Russia is increasingly accused of meddling in elections across the EU. Second, Russia’s reputation as a reliable partner in the MENA region is, in the eyes of Brussels, inevitably tainted by Moscow’s action in its neighbourhood, especially in Ukraine. The recent Paris Summit, championed by France and Germany, as well as the exchange of prisoners last September, raises hopes of achieving progress in the full implementation of the ceasefire agreement in eastern Ukraine. This could create opportunities for the European Union to revamp its role in the peace process, including – as Andrey Kortunov argues, in post-conflict reconstruction programmes in the Donbass. That is why a distension of relations with Russia in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood will facilitate cooperation with Moscow in the EU’s southern neighbourhood, too.