China still believes that Europe can be relatively independent from the US as a participant in the global economy and politics. At least, this is evidenced by the extremely friendly tone of Chinese diplomacy with regard to the activities of the European Union and the relations of the Celestial Empire itself with the Old Continent.
In Russia, where the experience of interacting with our neighbours in the West is different, and the accumulated mutual grievances had led to the actual freezing of any dialogue a year before the start of the military-political crisis around Ukraine, a much more sceptical point of view dominates. Therefore, observers in Moscow look with irony at Beijing’s efforts to maintain a dialogue with the Europeans, which it is making despite periodic attacks against it from the leading nations of Europe. But isn’t our attitude simply a projection of our own experience and delusions? It is very likely that in order to better understand future interaction with Europe, Russia also needs to alter its perspective somewhat.
For more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russia’s policy towards the European Union proceeded from the possibility that in the new conditions, this association of states would be able to restore the positions lost by its leading participants as a result of two world wars. Russia thought that in the new state of international politics, with no clear dividing lines and no decisive role of the brute force factor, Europe would be able to gradually free itself of complete control by the United States. Moreover, such confidence was supported in every possible way by the actions of the Europeans themselves — even in those cases where it was Russia that suffered the greatest material or reputational damage.
The apotheosis of such expectations was the “rebellion” of the leading continental powers of the EU — Germany and France — against the intention of the United States and a group of their minor allies to invade Iraq in 2003. At the time, continental diplomacy (like Russia, which shared its perspective) suffered a humiliating defeat, being unable to oppose anything to the brute force of the United States, which disregarded any existing norms of international law or customs. However, the fact itself was important for Moscow — “old Europe”, in relying on its economic capabilities and the institutions of the European Union, showed that it was not always ready to unquestioningly obey any whim of its American patrons. It is no coincidence that it was after the events of 2003 that the last turbulent stage of attempts to achieve a qualitative breakthrough in relations between Russia and the EU began: an initiative was put forward to build “four common spaces”, negotiations were launched on the mutual abolition of visas, and cooperation between Russia and Germany in the energy field sharply intensified.
It seems that Russia’s behaviour was, first of all, connected with its own ideas and plans regarding its future in international politics. Moscow, of course, did not seriously consider the possibility of joining the European project as a junior partner, despite the promise of access to the EU market and the benefits associated with this. To the extent that Russian policy was driven by long-term considerations, the calculation was made to maintain a position among the leading world powers precisely “hand in hand” with the gradually strengthening European Union. Moreover, the trend towards strengthening the role of Russia’s traditional partners in Berlin, Paris and Rome was quite obvious. The creation of a single European currency practically placed the entire continent under German control, and France acted here as a political leader, always ready to assume the functions of a herald of a united Europe, independent of its North American patrons. In the case of a linear development of international politics west of Russia’s borders, Moscow could in theory finally achieve its important historical task — to become part of the European balance of power and thereby increase its own significance on a global scale.
This, however, did not happen. The entry into the European Union of a significant group of American client states in Eastern Europe, several successive crises, as well as the exit of Britain destroyed all the achievements of the German-French alliance in the decade and a half after the Cold War. The general economic crisis, which became almost continuous after 2008, forced Berlin and Paris to engage in “putting out fires” rather than building an independent centre in international politics. Moreover, at the same time, the United States and its closest allies consistently worked to ensure that the dilemmas of European security were resolved in the simplest way — through a conflict with Russia and recreating a semblance of a Cold War situation. Leadership roles were played by Britain and Poland, which had communicated their loyalties during the invasion of Iraq. Ukraine was used as a “ram” where the failure of building statehood already by the mid-2000s and the numerous mistakes of Russian policy had created ideal conditions for turning this territory into a real battlefield.
Now we are living in a new international reality. It is impossible yet to say with certainty how devastating the consequences of the military-political clash around Ukraine will be for other European states. But even in the event that the conflict remains within the framework of continuing diplomatic interaction and the parties manage to avoid the most dangerous forms of escalation, thoughts regarding the independence of Western Europe have departed for good. This, apparently, upsets a significant number of representatives of the German and French elites, who blame Russia for the troubles that have come. An almost complete break in longstanding cooperation between Russia and the leading industrial countries of the EU in the energy sector has occurred: now most of the gas they buy is of American origin. The European consumer pays for the difference in prices, which can be seen from the scale of inflation in almost all EU countries.
In the space between Russia and its traditional Western European partners, the formation of a “cordon sanitaire” is rapidly taking place, which includes a significant belt of countries stretching from Finland to Bulgaria. These states, amid fundamental changes in the world economy, are being thrust back to their own peripheral position during the interbellum period a century ago. In the future, one can expect a reduction in their role in international trade and the movement of goods between Europe and Asia: already now, transit through Eastern Europe is declining and may disappear within a few years. Russia will gradually shift its economic interests to the South and East, bypassing its problematic neighbours along the western perimeter.
The future of European integration will be no less difficult. The strengthening of economic ties between Western Europe and the United States will force the EU market to be more open to American competitors, and the general crisis of the “welfare state” will make the labour market more flexible. Under such conditions, the methods of administrative management of the economy at the level of a significant group of states will turn out to be less effective, which raises the question of meaning of the activities of the EU institutions in Brussels. Already now, a significant part of the activities of the European Commission has been subordinated to the fight against Russia, and not integration between the EU countries. This means that this association will soon face serious challenges to its existence. For the external partners and neighbours of the EU, the task of understanding how they will work with a Europe that would replace the relatively stable and predictable model of the European Union is becoming more and more urgent.
Now the formation of a relatively holistic and balanced approach to what constitutes Europe in the system of Russian foreign policy interests is hampered by the fact that almost all EU countries are participating in the economic war of the West against Russia, and are also actively helping the Kiev authorities with weapons. However, if we take into account a longer-term perspective, we might need to take a closer look at the peculiarities of the Chinese view of Europe — which, due to objective reasons, is devoid of illusions that it can have independent significance and be useful in this sense. It is very likely that here we have something to learn from our Chinese friends.
From our partner RIAC