Despite its enormous economic power, the EU’s fractured political structure prevents the bloc from forming a united front against Russia.
Since Friday, Moscow and Brussels have been busy exchanging stinging messages to each other as each side blames the other for the severing of its relationship.
Last week, Russia expelled diplomats from Germany, Sweden and Poland, accusing them of participating in pro-Navalny protests. This week, three EU countries have retaliated in kind, expelling Russian diplomats.
EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell’s recent visit to Moscow, which came after Russian dissident Alexey Navalny’s arrest on his return to the country, did not do any good in healing the growing rift between the sides.
During a heated press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Moscow’s anti-Western press corps, grilled Borrell. Under intense criticism from his European peers, Borrell urged the EU to impose sanctions over Russia.
But experts doubt these will work in changing Russia’s behaviour.
“The EU’s biggest weapon against Russia is its comparative advantage, which is an economic term, [meaning one’s economic strength to produce better and gain more than others]. The EU as a whole will beat Russia clearly in economic terms,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia political analyst.
“But the problem is the EU’s incapability to use its economic power as a joint political bloc against Russia. Could the EU use its economic potential against Russia? Has the European Union really become a union as its name suggests? That’s the real problem when it comes to putting a real pressure over Russia or any other power,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World.
The EU’s fractured political structure does not allow the bloc, which recently saw the UK leave as a result of the country’s Brexit referendum, to act in a unified fashion to punish its adversaries, according to Yalinkilicli.
That said, EU sanctions do hurt the Russian economy - they contributed to a 4 percent economic decline last year, according to Rosstat, the Russian federal state statistics service. As a result, the Kremlin does not desire a complete break-up with the EU, says Yalinkilicli.
Despite escalating tensions, both sides need each other. Moscow relies on trade with Brussels, while the EU is dependent on Russia’s gas supply.
A throwback to the Cold War
Prior to the Navalny crisis, Russia-EU ties were not in good shape.
Since the explosion of the Ukrainian political crisis in 2014, both political and economic relations have deteriorated between the two sides. “Russia-EU relations have declined to the level of the old Cold War days after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula [from Ukraine] in 2014,” says Yalinkilicli.
While Borrell recently accused Russia of breaking ties with the EU, Lavrov responded by saying that the EU has been breaking with Moscow by overthrowing an elected government in Kiev in 2014 through street protests.
Since the end of the Cold War, Ukraine has acted as an unofficial buffer zone between Russia and the EU. Moscow lost many eastern European nations to the Western bloc with the dissolution of its predecessor state, the Soviet Union.
Since 2014, the Western-backed Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists, have been in a political deadlock. The EU imposed sanctions on Russia with the emergence of the Ukrainian conflict.
Fierce exchanges between the two sides, ones that focus on who is drifting away from whom, also show that the political situation is deteriorating.
“The messages sent by Russian authorities during this visit confirmed that Europe and Russia are drifting apart,” Borrell said.
On Monday, Lavrov sarcastically refused any Russian break-up with the EU.
“Who is drifting away from whom? After all, could it be that the EU itself is moving farther away from Russia, the Russian language and culture?” the Russian foreign minister responded to Borrell’s charge.
Lavrov has been Russia’s top diplomat for nearly two decades. He speaks several languages, including English and French, as well as Sinhalese, the majority language of Sri Lanka. He also speaks Dhivehi, the official tongue of the Maldives.
Interestingly, European diplomats, accused of participating in pro-Navalny protests were expelled from Russia on the same day Borrell was visiting Moscow to “test if the Russian authorities are interested in a serious attempt to reverse the deterioration of our relations and seize the opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue.”
A brief history of tensions
From the late 17th century to the middle of the 19th century, Russia and Europe had been on good terms, says Yalinkilicli, making a holy alliance against the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
Under the famous Romanov dynasty, Russia found itself increasingly Westernised. That was until the early-1800s, when a political conflict emerged between pro-Western Decembrists and traditional Orthodox Slavic political factions.
Eventually, with the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the defenders of the third way, the communists, won the political competition in Russia, establishing the Soviet Union, says Yalinkilicli.
With the end of the Cold War in the late-1980s, there was an intense political question in the newly emerged Russian Federation on being part of Europe or not, says Yalinkilicli. “In 1996, Russia even became a member of the European Council,” Yalinkilicli says.
“With Vladimir Putin coming to power, Russia has returned to its traditional policy, according to political scientists, studying transitional political systems. Russia has returned to its own historical orbit, locking the country with its long dilemma between the powerful state and the weak society,” says Yalinkilicli.
Since then, Putin’s Russia has shown “its teeth to the West” with its interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and lastly Syria, issuing a political message that Moscow will not surrender to the Western bloc, according to the analyst.
As a result, Navalny’s politics have been perceived as submissive to the West by the dominant Russian political establishment, Yalinkilicli says.
He also thinks that the new Biden administration, which is fiercely anti-Russian, unlike the Trump government, is one of the crucial reasons behind the worsening relations between the EU and Russia. “There is a perception in Moscow that the Biden administration seduces Brussels to go after Russia.”
“In this context, when you look at EU-Russia ties from Moscow, it’s not expected that relations will get better in mid and long term,” concludes the Moscow-based analyst.