by Giles Merritt*
Major news stories sometimes go unreported, and such was the case in Paris a fortnight ago. Like the Sherlock Holmes story featuring a dog that didn’t bark, an absence of media coverage marked the failure to take place on schedule of long-awaited peace talks between Ukraine and Russia.
Politicians and diplomats nevertheless hope that a breakthrough is still on the cards. If the ‘Normandy formula’ four-power talks that also involve France and Germany can overcome the deadlocks that still lie in the way, elections in the contested Donbas region of eastern Ukraine will remain an attainable goal.
An end to more than five years of war between Ukrainian army units and pro-Russian separatists would be the most immediate achievement. Its further significance would be the promise of a new win-win era of cooperation between the European Union and the Kremlin.
Europe’s relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is fraught with mistrust, yet the stand-off is to the advantage of neither. The EU is still alarmingly vulnerable to its reliance on Russia for 40% of its natural gas imports and 30% of its oil. As to Russia, the sanctions imposed by the EU in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 are sapping the country’s industries and its economic health. Russia’s GDP growth rate slowed last year to barely 1%.
Europe cannot turn its back on a neighbour whose territory stretches around the world, and that can destabilise regions vital to the EU’s security
The case for burying the hatchet is overwhelming. Ever since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian and European analysts have shared a common geopolitical assessment. They agree that the two blocs need to cooperate with each other in the face of globalisation and rising pressures from Asia.
In mid-2012, one of Russia’s rising stars contributed a revealing article to Friends of Europe’s policy journal Europe’s World. Alexey Gromyko of Moscow’s Institute of Europe, and scion of a famous diplomatic family, wrote, “The EU and Russia are very different in many ways, but they face quite similar strategic problems and it is doubtful that either can solve them independently.”
Gromyko concluded: “Let’s stop deceiving ourselves – unless they can create comprehensive new strategic links, Russia and the EU will be doomed to slide into irrelevance … European civilisation from Lisbon to Vladivostok may find itself no more than a fading power that is dwarfed politically, economically and militarily by other more far-sighted global players.”
When we met recently in Brussels, Dr Gromyko struck me as considerably less upbeat nowadays on closer Russia-EU links. President Putin’s provocative style, and the way EU and NATO policymakers have reverted to Cold War attitudes, have done much damage. All the more reason to stop the rot. Europe cannot turn its back on a neighbour whose territory stretches around the world, and that can destabilise regions vital to the EU’s security.
Foreign adventures in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ have done much to maintain Vladimir Putin’s popularity, but appeals to nationalism and Russia’s greatness seem threatened by domestic economic woes
Russia has even more to lose. Demographic projections paint a nightmare picture. The present Russian population of 147m is to shrink by mid-century to around 130m, and that assumes Moscow can fix two major problems. A quarter of Russian men die before reaching 55, often of drink, whereas the EU average is 7%. And opinion pollsters report that 44% of Russia’s 15-to-29-year-olds would like to emigrate, up from 14% five years ago.
Average disposable incomes in Russia are about 11% lower than in 2014, and the drying up of foreign investment during that time has severely hit industrial modernisation plans. Even its defence industry is in trouble. Once looked to as a rich foreign currency source, its formerly top-selling SU-57 multi-role fighter is becoming obsolete and the aerospace sector’s sales plummeted by 48% at the start of this year.
Foreign adventures in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ have done much to maintain Vladimir Putin’s popularity, but appeals to nationalism and Russia’s greatness seem threatened by domestic economic woes. This summer, Putin hurriedly softened pension reforms aimed at making Russians work longer, although even then his support ratings fell by 20%.
It remains to be seen how the incoming EU leadership responds to French president Emmanuel Macron’s call for a more constructive relationship with Russia. And it’s anyone’s guess whether the flashpoint of eastern Ukraine can be defused. But it’s very clear that the two sides have much to gain, and little or nothing to lose, from working towards a new partnership.
*Founder and Chairman, Friends of Europe
**first published in: www.friendsofeurope.org