Dražen Šimić

European Union and Russia have drifted apart dangerously over the war in Ukraine. Although resolving the crisis should be a top priority in EU capitals, Moscow and beyond, it has been allowed to continue and fester, relegated below the refugee crisis, Greek financial meltdown and presumably whichever next big story. Things may seem to be under control, except in Ukraine of course, but the illusion can change with a single incident, as shown by the flight MH17 disaster and subsequent fallout. We must deal with Ukraine and ultimately find a solution which is acceptable to all parts of the Ukrainian society. Afterwards, in order to secure long-term peace and prosperity in the region, in Europe and potentially beyond, what is going to be needed is a mutually beneficial arrangement between European Union and Russia – a treaty which will establish a close partnership. Obviously, at the moment such an arrangement seems impossible.

The reasons behind Russia’s actions in Ukraine can be found within; seemingly to do with the regime’s pride and prestige. If true, this is rather short-sighted because whatever the motives, Russia has managed to alienate yet another nation; a great number of Ukrainians – although not all obviously – now fear and despise their giant neighbour. We have seen it before, during the times of the Soviet Union, and to see it again represents a striking historical and moral defeat for Russia.

It is difficult to see sense in the Ukrainian disaster from the point of view of Russia’s long-term interests, unless Mr. Putin and his government believe that they lie in having hostile, potentially volatile former friends and allies as neighbours. They may also confuse fear with respect. In any case, understanding Russia’s geopolitical objectives requires serious dedication. There have been some sensible views on how to proceed but more needs to be done, in both Russia and the EU, to devise viable policies and implement them. One simple observation is that, for such an enormous and powerful country, Russia seems rater sensitive to threats from relative minnows.

Russia does not appear to have a coherent strategy towards the EU or the West in general. From presumably common European perspective, Russian leader’s views on sovereignty seem a bit archaic, as well as confusing given his country’s integrationist drive in the ex-Soviet neighbourhood. What Russia ostensibly craves is a return to self-perceived former glories, to be achieved by a variety of means; from the aggressive stance on neighbouring countries like Ukraine and Georgia, to establishing organisations such as the Eurasian Economic Union – apparently to rival the EU. Time will tell how successful these strategies can become, but they won’t change the fact that Russia and European Union will always be better off as partners. All Russia’s grievances, in Ukraine or otherwise, must be carefully assessed and dealt with. However, some truths need to be communicated to Russians too. Namely, Russia has assisted in bringing disaster to Ukraine and has endangered European security. Russian leaders need to think carefully about what they want to do next for the sake of their own people and the wider international community. Whatever they choose, they should do it in a rational manner and with a long-term vision. Essentially, they must do what is best for ordinary Russians.

The current state of affairs may suit Moscow for a while because their country has shown teeth to the West, but it came at a terrible cost in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia and her policies have been roundly rejected and the country isolated by what is still the most liberal and prosperous part of the world; this may eventually resonate with a significant section of the Russian society. The Ukraine war and subsequent sanctions have naturally caused a backlash. Many Russian people also feel a renewed sense of national pride and may support their president for now, but this is likely going to be a short-term high. Once the reality of their position sinks in – that they are pawns in a game and victims too – they may abandon their leaders at the ballot box, or worse. The best and the most rational course of action for Russia therefore is to commence, however reluctantly, the process of full reconciliation with the European Union and the West.

As for the European Union, there is a good framework in place for dealing with Russia; what is missing are unity and vision. The EU supports Four Common Spaces and Partnership for Modernisation, which are decent and substantial objectives but which have been at least put on hold, and probably made obsolete by the crisis over Ukraine. In any case, they need to go further than, for example, visa-free travel, environmental concerns, energy roadmap and so on. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has offered a free trade deal but this is not enough either. We have seen by now that none of these approaches have worked. They cannot secure peace and prosperity for future generations, which must be the principal objective of any serious attempt to deal with outstanding issues. What Russia should be offered is an aspirational overhaul of the relationship, more on which later.

However, the best course of action for the EU in the current circumstances is to maintain sanctions against Russia, until an outcome acceptable to all sides in Ukraine has been reached. This includes the fate of Crimea, whose sovereignty could be shared by the two countries. The sanctions will provide an important incentive to Russia to bring the rebels in Ukraine to heel. They will also benefit Russian democracy in the sense that in time, ordinary people will come to appreciate that their leaders’ actions can have dire consequences for themselves, and perhaps vote accordingly. The most important matters to consider are:


  1. EU should maintain visa requirements for Russian citizens who wish to travel to or do business in the EU until a just, suitable and lasting peace deal in Ukraine has been reached.
  2. EU and individual member states must work to reduce dependence on Russian gas. This is not as harsh as it possibly seems because it may spur Russia into further diversifying its economy.
  3. Funds need to be allocated, short to mid-term, to alleviate hardship for businesses affected by Russian counter-sanctions.
  4. Establishment or expansion of alternative sources of information in Russian language, by trusted broadcasters such as the BBC, should be supported.
  5. Ukraine should relinquish ambitions to join NATO, as this is clearly an issue on which there is no agreement among the Ukranians themselves. Strict neutrality would be the best option if fully respected by all sides. However, subject to acceptance by all sides, Ukraine may pursue further integration, and one day perhaps full membership of the European Union.


These policies are needed to manage the present, but what about the future for EU/Russia relations? As I have already mentioned, there should eventually be a major leap forward. Some profound changes will probably have to happen first, in terms of legal framework, democracy and human rights in Russia, with intention of bringing them significantly closer to EU standards (which are far from perfect themselves of course). Otherwise, Russian citizens will remain unequal to their EU counterparts, which would defeat the idea of a close partnership.

Russia and the EU need to come up with a treaty that should integrate the two much more profoundly than ever. Firstly, the two economies should come together along free-trade lines. This will be easier said than done but will ultimately benefit both.

Most significantly, the new deal would introduce freedom of movement between EU and Russia. All EU and Russian citizens would be able to live and work in any part of either. They would have the same rights as citizens of host countries, except for mutually agreed measures such as the right to vote in national elections, equal entitlement to social-security benefits and so on. Some existing arrangements should be studied, such as the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangements between Australia and New Zealand, but with a formal agreement in place. Furthermore, EU citizens residing in Russia would be afforded same legal protection as in the EU itself. Russian residents in the EU would be protected by EU laws, but host countries would ultimately have the right to deport non-citizens for serious offences. The final deal would exclude defence as there is no trust, or love lost, between Russia and NATO, to which belong quite a few members of the EU. In security matters, the central role of the United Nations should be respected but realistically, the two sides will probably need an additional, bilateral agreement.

Russia and EU member states will remain sovereign. As part of the deal, there should be regular joint EU/Russia government sessions, at least annually. Both sides should expect an inevitable occasional, frustrating failure. Finally, provisions for a ‘divorce’ should be made, in an unlikely case that such an arrangement, after a period of success, becomes untenable (in that context it will be interesting to observe how the Brexit negotiations will unfold). However, even if the agreement failed to materialise at a particular time, the idea must be returned to, because it can provide a viable long-term settlement between the two enormously important entities.

Mutual benefits of the partnership are obvious in terms of political stability and economic opportunity. Most importantly, the deal would provide a genuine, realistic opportunity for peace and prosperity for future generations. Russians and EU citizens would benefit from endless opportunities that freedom of movement and doing business over such a vast territory could offer. Russia would get a very good deal and would be ‘accepted’ into the European family of nations. EU and its citizens would not have a country of nearly a hundred and fifty million people – and nuclear power – as a hostile neighbour. This alone should be incentive enough, but there may be other benefits, such as at least partially addressing the issue of population decline in many parts of the EU by accepting and integrating young, well-educated Russians.

As for technicalities, the treaty should be a joint project, or if this is not possible, EU may offer it as its long-term plan. To alleviate any suspicions and to underline the voluntary nature of the arrangement, both Russia and EU could offer their citizens referenda on the issue. The negotiations would probably be painstaking and frustrating, but the sight of the long-term objectives must never be lost. Unless there are very significant changes, it is unfortunately difficult to envisage progress under the current Russian regime, but these circumstances will inevitably change.

There are other factors to consider. The countries of the former Warsaw Pact might be particularly reluctant to committing to a treaty with Russia; in that case it would be up to Russia to implement long-term trust-building measures. There is also an important question of how the United States, China and other big powers would react – this may call for more difficult talks. Nevertheless, if the proposed partnership between Russia and EU is a success, it is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that one day other countries would want to have similar, now implausible, arrangements among themselves or even join existing ones.

We must furthermore consider the fate of small European states which are currently outside the EU, as well as any other country, probably but not exclusively bordering Russia or the EU, which may be affected. They should not be left adrift.

Finally, there is no doubt that it would require time and effort on a massive scale to turn this idea into reality. Things are always easier said than done, and especially so in politics. This project may therefore seem impossible now. However, it would be irresponsible not to try very hard unless we want a long period of instability, potentially with new local wars and a corrosive effect on economy and security in the region and beyond. The relevant institutions of the EU and Russia should work towards such an outcome if there is broad agreement on the principles and beneficial potential of such a treaty, and if it is understood that the framework explained here is both attainable and desirable.

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