Can EU-Russia relations improve after Putin? | Russian-Ukrainian war

A year after Russia launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine, the debate continues over whether or not this is President Vladimir Putin’s war. Anti-war Russians, many of whom sought refuge outside the country, blame the Russian president. For them, his delusions and paranoia caused a turn toward neo-totalitarianism at home and military aggression abroad.

The Russian opposition in exile and in prison insists that the situation would be reversed if Putin were to fall from power. Leonid Volkov, jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s number two, has even suggested that after the war ends, the West should offer a “Marshall Plan” not only for Ukraine, which is in dire need of reconstruction, but also for Russia.

In other words, opposition-minded Russians hope that Moscow will rebuild bridges with Europe and the US when Putin is no longer on the throne.

Understandably, the term “Putin’s war” has almost no meaning in Ukraine itself. Mostly, Ukrainians blame Russia as a country and as a society, whether it’s the chauvinistic supporters of Moscow’s “special military operation” or the silent majority who choose to simply ignore it and go about their daily lives.

Why should Russia be trusted to behave differently one day, they ask, given that Putin speaks for a nation with an imperial mindset?

In addition, it is unlikely that the 70-year-old leader’s successor will come from the pro-Western opposition or be any different from the current occupant of the Kremlin. Some of the names being speculated about by pundits – say the head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolay Patrushev – are at least as hawkish as Putin. So, for Ukrainians, Russia must be defeated, regardless of who is in charge in Moscow.

But what about the European Union? Has the war pushed relations with Russia – so carefully nurtured for so long – past the point of no return?

This is largely the case for Poland and the Baltic states. They’ve had their “I told you so” moment for a year now. Even before Russia’s invasion last year and occupation of Crimea in 2014, they argued that Russian revanchism posed a fundamental threat to the post-Cold War order in Europe.

In the west, France and Germany, however, were much more ambiguous in their approach to relations with Russia. From the moment he first took office in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has argued that Europe needs to think long-term and engage the Russians. Macron stuck to that line almost until the invasion and continued to call Putin in the hope of finding some kind of diplomatic solution. Even last December, the French president talked about “security guarantees” to Russia that should be part of the settlement.

Germany has caused even more frustration and anger among Ukraine’s Eastern European friends. Long years of pandering to the Russians and business-political ventures, such as the Nord Stream gas pipeline, marred his record. Germany’s political class has long seen Russia as a friend, with some, like former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, getting lucrative jobs with Moscow’s state-owned energy companies.

Last year saw some changes in action and rhetoric. After the invasion, Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed the so-called Zeitenwende (historic turning point), the idea that Berlin would finally take European defense seriously and get behind it, both financially and politically. His point of view was supported by the German public, which is also mostly pro-Ukrainian.

However, Germany’s bias towards a close embrace with Russia, in the expectation that closer ties would bring greater security and predictability, has not been consigned to the past. Since Scholz is holding off on providing military aid to Ukraine, particularly with regard to Leopard tanks, he is signaling that the German leadership has not completely given up on Moscow. According to German logic, Russia will always be there, whether we like it or not, and we cannot simply shut it down, fence it off, or ignore it.

Of course, a more charitable interpretation of the tank battle is that Scholz’s gambit is aimed at committing the US to European security, with the 2024 US presidential election looming on the horizon. But even so, it is safe to assume that the Germans will not be in the vanguard of the “stop Russia” coalition in the future.

Does the lack of full alignment with Russia mean that the EU leaves the door open for the normalization of relations in the long term? Not really.

The war can and probably will last for years. As long as fighting continues, it is difficult to imagine any form of productive diplomatic engagement, let alone a rekindling of political and economic ties. Certainly, until Putin is in office, relations will be confrontational.

In case of de-escalation, a new line will be drawn across Eastern Europe leaving Ukraine and possibly Moldova and Georgia on the “western side”, Belarus on Russia’s, and Armenia and Azerbaijan in no man’s land. A Cold War-like scenario will be realized, with pro-Western countries drawn into the orbit of the EU and NATO, and Russia which will strengthen itself in all parts of Ukraine that it manages to keep.

It also means that Cold War-style diplomacy will be employed. The EU – and its ally, the US – will cooperate with Russia only to preserve stability and avoid a full head-on collision. The essence of Western politics will be containment, not integration as was the case in the 1990s and 2000s.

The war has taken a heavy toll on economic ties between Russia and the EU, and Putin’s political choices have accelerated forces that any future leader would find difficult to reverse. Moscow was once one of the main suppliers of energy to the union; it is gone and unlikely to regain its position. Russia’s share of European gas imports has dropped from 50 percent in 2021 to a current measly 12.9 percent.

European sanctions forced Russia to gravitate towards China and to some extent the global south. This will be one of the lasting legacies of the war.

Anti-Putin Russians hope their country could eventually find its way back to the West. European leaders are right to think long and hard about what comes after the fighting stops – sooner or later it will happen. Yet, as history shows, wars are transformative events. For better or worse, the clock won’t go back to February 23, 2022.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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