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EU and Russia: Worlds Apart?


The long history of relations between Russia and Europe is a complex one, having undergone vacillating shifts between periods of attraction and cooperation at times, and intense competition and mistrust at others (Giusti and Penkova 2012, Light and Allison 2006). Against this broad historical backdrop of ‘schizophrenic’ foreign policy relations, I argue that the nature of the current EU-Russia relationship continues to be characterized by a high degree of ambivalence, leading some observers to describe the relationship as a dysfunctional one. One interesting point can be made about how their identities and opposing worldviews have contributed to this ambivalence. I suggest that strong neorealist strands persist in the EU-Russia energy relationship, despite efforts especially on the part of the EU to increase neoliberal institutional density.

Misperceptions between both actors occur in their interactions, rooted in their identities and opposing worldviews. The EU, being a market liberal actor pursues a ‘post-modern’ approach to ensuring energy security. However, Russia maintains a traditional ‘modern’, geopolitical approach to the question of energy. Therefore, both actors have difficulty comprehending each other.

In an analysis of national identities, Robert Cooper (2003) proposed a division of the world into the pre-modern, the modern and the post-modern worlds. The ‘modern world’ continues to operate in neorealist Hobbesian terms, where power and the ability to defend national interests is defined in terms of force and force projection capability. Peace is maintained through balance-of-power systems and stability provided by hegemonic power. The ‘modern’ world is also characterized by Westphalian sovereignty and the separation of foreign and domestic affairs. By contrast, a ‘post-modern’ world has emerged as a new model of managing world affairs, which moves beyond power and instead emphasizes international law, cooperation and negotiation. The ‘post-modern’ world is characterized by overlapping domestic and foreign policy spheres, where the distinction is not as sharp.

Given the increasing relevance of energy security on the EU agenda, the EU institutions and member state governments have attempted to further engage Russia in securing energy supply, namely through ‘integrationist’ and ‘liberalization’ strategies. The EU’s principal strategy has been to seek greater cooperation with Russia through neoliberal institutionalism and frameworks for multilateral governance of the energy relationship. The updated Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), for example, attempts to establish “on the basis of common values and shared interests four common spaces (Giusti and Penkova 2012, 120).” According to the neofunctionalist approach, cooperation can result in spillover effects, either in deepening cooperation within a policy and widening cooperation across interrelated policies, strengthening the approach as a result (Giusti and Penkova 2012). Another strategy pursued by the EU has been to demand greater liberalization of the Russian energy industry. The EU has critiqued the monopolistic character of the Russian gas industry for being incompatible with the EU’s liberal market strategy (Kuzemko 2014).

A key source of reciprocal misperception, however, is the refusal of Russia to play by the rules set by the European Union, which represents a fundamental difference in the value systems of both actors. Operating on a ‘post-modern’ market paradigm, there have been limitations to the externalization of the EU’s internal energy market and institution-building approach (Metais 2013, Kuzemko 2014). This is most clearly demonstrated in Russia’s refusal to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), which stresses the need for increased efficiency and production in Russian operations through liberalization reforms and improving openness and transparency by allowing foreign investments access to Russian pipelines (Walker 2007, Metais 2013).

The EU-Russia energy dialogue discourses have so far taken three identifiable strands: integration, liberalization and diversification (Kratochvíl and Tichy 2013). The different identities and worldviews can be seen in their divergent interpretations on the energy discourse.

The EU interprets the integration discourse as an asymmetric but special friendship, with Russia coming to absorb benefits from a more mature and normative power Europe (Kratochvíl and Tichy 2013). Both actors benefit from complex interdependence and legally binding and trust-fostering institutions. Russia also stresses integration between friends in this discourse, but prefers to downplay the asymmetric relationship in favour of mutual interdependence, equality and compromise (Kratochvíl and Tichy 2013). The liberalization discourse also defines the relationship in economic terms, but stresses the complimentarity of the actors as symmetrical business partners. However, there is another substantive divergence in interpretation – the EU’s focus is on a neoliberal critique of Russia’s closed energy market, while Russia interprets liberalization to mean limited access of Russian companies to the European markets (Kratochvíl and Tichy 2013).

Turning the ‘securitization’ dimension, we again observe different interpretations of the energy discourse. The diversification discourse is the most distinct in that it stresses geopolitical security considerations rather than the primacy of economic ties. Thus this discourse reverses the idea of mutual interdependence as positive to a dependency that is potentially dangerous. The diversification discourse underlines a neorealist, zero-sum game approach between potential rivals (Kratochvíl and Tichy 2013). Therefore, misperceptions occur between both actors in their interactions, as each actor has different interpretations about the symmetry of the relationship and perceived benefits to each partner.

With different starting points, then, both Russia and the EU have a characteristically ambivalent relationship. Both partners recognize the importance of mutual interdependence, but do not see each other on the same terms. According to Gomart (2008), the EU’s negotiating tactics of ‘constructive ambiguity’ – the deliberate use of ambiguous language and compromise on sensitive issues in order to advance cooperation and political goals – have been met with a Russian response that intentionally fosters doubt. This ‘energy doubt’ policy fluctuates “between conciliatory and confrontational dialogue by sending mixed signals (Gomart 2008)”. The Russian position attempts to toe the fine line between reassuring Europe of its credibility as a reliable energy supplier to Europe, and at the same time demonstrate the possible threat of the energy weapon in order to remind the EU calculus of Russia’s geostrategic and political interests. The result is ambivalence and ambiguity in the bargaining process of both actors.

Therefore, there is a tension between power-based geopolitics and multilateral cooperative governance in the exercise of energy governance (Westphal 2006). Although the EU has undertaken initiatives to build multilateral governance structures and cooperatively regulate energy trade by including Russia in these discussions, there are serious problems because individual actors such as Russia continue to analyse energy trade in neorealist, geopolitical terms. A market-based approach must be complemented by a geopolitical approach to ensure energy security for the EU (Metais 2013). While the EU is a ‘post-modern’ entity, it must learn to apply a ‘double-standard’ in its interactions with a ‘modern’ Russia operating on traditional, geopolitical security terms (Metais 2013). However, the ability of the EU to act as a global energy player will depend on the political will of European member states to engage in a collective and coherent external energy policy and the EU’s institutional capacity to do so (Metais 2013, Piebalgs 2009, Giusti and Penkova 2012). This has remained a challenge for the EU.

Elias Chua

Cooper, Robert. The Breaking of Nations. London: Atlantic Books, 2003.
Giusti, Serena, and Tomislava Penkova. “The European Union and Russia: Engaged in Building a Strategic Partnership.” In The Foreign Policy of the European Union: Assessing Europe’s Role in the World, edited by Federiga Bindi and Irina Angelescu, 118-133. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012.
Gomart, Thomas. “EU-Russia Relations: Towards A Way Out of Depression.” 2008: iv-17.
Kratochvíl, Petr, and Lukas Tichy. “EU and Russian Discourse on Energy Relations.” Energy Policy 56 (2013): 391-406.
Kuzemko, Caroline. “Ideas, power and change: explaining EU-Russia energy relations.” Journal of European Public Policy 21, no. 1 (2014): 58-75.
Metais, Raphaël. “Ensuring Energy Security in Europe: The EU between a Market-based and a Geopolitical Approach.” EU Diplomacy Paper, Department of EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies, College of Europe, Bruges, 2013.
Piebalgs, Andris. “EU-Russia Energy Relations: Common Goals and Concerns.” EU-Russia Energy Relations, 2009 Jun: 5-7.
Walker, Martin. “Russia v Europe: The Energy Wars.” World Policy Journal 24, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 1-8.
Westphal, Kirsten. “Energy Policy between Multilateral Governance and Geopolitics: Wither Europe?” Internationale Politik Und Gesellschaft, no. 4 (2006): 44-62.


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