Abstract. This article is devoted to the study of the fundamental reasons that led to a profound crisis in Russia’s relations with the European Union and the West as a whole. The focus is on the objective changes in international relations and the subjective factors in the policies of the RF and the EU that predetermined the vector of their interaction. This article provides a layer-by-layer analysis of these causes starting with a superficial perception of problems and going progressively deeper and deeper to the sources of the current crisis. This method of analysis may be called the “matryoshka (nested doll) method.” In other words, we offer a countdown from today’s crisis to the post-bipolar start of cooperation between Russia and the EU. Why did things go wrong after getting off to such a good start? And finally, who is to blame for a partnership that did not happen and is there a way out of the impasse?

Ukraine Conflict: Cause or Consequence?

Relations between Russia and the European Union over the past almost three decades have seen many ups and downs and have often verged on crisis. The amount of problems that arose in these relations after the breakup of the USSR has had a negative impact on the quality of partnership between the RF and the EU.

The Russian political elite repeatedly expressed concern about the structural crisis inside the European Union, the growth of nationalism and radicalism in Europe, the anti-Russian attitude of some “new Europe” countries, etc. However, until the Ukraine conflict [4], the partners managed to maintain a good level of interaction and positive capital in bilateral relations. The EU and Russia took the 2008 Caucasus crisis more or less in stride, but the conflict in Ukraine, especially Crimea becoming part of Russia, was a moment of truth. The European Union sees it as the main cause of today’s rift in post-bipolar Europe and a dramatic deterioration of relations between the EU and Russia.

Unlike the 2008 Caucasus crisis, which was from the outset a confrontation between Russia and NATO, the Ukraine conflict, on the face of it, started as a clash between the European Union and the RF – or rather, as the rivalry of their regional strategies, the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) and Russia’s Eurasian Union project. Several starting points of the exacerbation of tensions between Russia and the EU can be named, including Ukraine’s refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, a decision Kiev made in November 2013 shortly before the Vilnius summit.

We believe that the turning point occurred earlier. In 2012, with Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, Moscow switched the vector of its development from Europe to Eurasia, and it did not want Ukraine to be on the other side of the divide. Enthusiasm for Russia’s Eurasian destiny arose during the period of uncertainty about the perspective of the country’s modernization. The economic and financial crisis of the West led Putin to the conclusion that Russia should stop being lectured by the enfeebled EU, which in the Kremlin’s opinion no longer had the right to tell other states how they should run their countries and what path toward economic prosperity they should follow. A further stimulus for the pivot toward Eurasia was the EU’s negative reaction to Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012. Putin decided that Russia should modernize its economy without looking toward European technological innovations but instead adopting a new industrialization plan based on modern national technologies and the Eurasian Union. The latter was to create a common political, economic, military, customs, humanitarian, and cultural space that would be equal to the EU [1, p. 3]. However, much in that concept remained unclear. The emphasis on the defense industry and on Soviet technologies had failed to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. Besides, where would new technologies come from and how did that project relate to the modernization project, which was officially still valid?

In retrospect, one has to admit that Russia overreacted to the European project of Eastern Partnership. Moscow had the impression that the Association Agreement that Kiev signed with Brussels would almost automatically make Ukraine a member of the European Union. And yet history attests that there is a major difference between associated membership and the status of a candidate for EU membership. For example, Turkey, a NATO member and a co-founder of the Council of Europe, OECD and other international organizations, gained the status of an associated member of the EEC in 1964. It filed a formal application to join the EU 23 years later (1987) and it was granted the status of candidate country only 12 years later (1999). In another six years (in 2005), negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU began. They continue to this day without any prospect of membership. The Kremlin’s fixation on Kiev’s European choice was due to the fact that for Russia, Ukraine was the most important country in the post-Soviet space without which no major integration project within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its original meaning was possible.

The European Union’s strategy with regard to the post-Soviet space was established in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) aimed at stabilizing its closest neighbors. Russia refused to take part in the ENP, and at the Russia-EU summit in St. Petersburg in 2003, decided that relations with the European Union would develop in the format of four common cooperation spaces outside the ENP framework. The idea of the EU Eastern Partnership project had been initiated by Sweden and Poland in 2007, before the Caucasus crisis, but it did not acquire a concrete shape until 2009. In the opinion of European leaders, the conflict between Georgia and Russia, which led to the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, ruled out Russia’s participation in the Eastern Neighbourhood program. However, the formal pretext for not inviting Russia to join the Eastern Partnership was Russia’s refusal to take part in the European Union’s regional projects, in particular the ENP, and to develop cooperation in a separate strategic partnership format.

The Eastern Partnership became the EU’s reaction to the shortcomings of the Neighbourhood Policy, its disappointment with the “orange revolutions” in the CIS space and tacit acknowledgment of the failure of GUAM1 as a subregional integration association. The Eastern Partnership sought to promote political rapprochement and economic integration of the European Union with six countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) to which Brussels could not offer a prospect of membership within the next several years and to promote reform in the Eastern Partnership countries. All these measures were to stabilize the situation in the immediate proximity of the EU.

Initially, Russia’s attitude to the Eastern Partnership was relatively calm, although there was a sneaking suspicion that the European Union was intruding into a region of Russia’s special interests in the post-Soviet space and was trying to oust it from there by depriving it of the status of privileged partner of the CIS states. Although security issues were not on the EP agenda, the fact that Brussels had included in its project Armenia and Belarus, Russia’s closest allies in the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), made the Kremlin suspicious of the European Union’s real goals [10]. These fears were corroborated by the statements of some European experts. For example, the German political analyst Alexander Rahr said in an interview that through the EP, “the EU sought to remove Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and even Belarus from under Russia’s influence and effectively push Russia away from Europe into Asia. Very little has been said within this European partnership about attempts or stimuli to integrate Russia into the common European space” [21]. Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network (ELN), spoke in much the same vein: “Many in the EU now acknowledge that far too little consideration was given to Russian sensitivities, interests and residual capacity to influence events on the ground, particularly but of course not only in Ukraine” [14].

The prospect of Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the EU which envisaged the creation of a free trade zone, met with a negative reaction from Moscow not only because of the clash of two regional projects, the EU’s Eastern Partnership and Russia’s Eurasian project. The Russian leadership began to suspect that the EP was a smoke screen to cover up NATO expansion into the CIS space. In the opinion of Gerhard Schroeder, Russia repossessed Crimea because of NATO enlargement, and if Ukraine had joined NATO, as the USA wanted it to, Sevastopol, one of the key Russian seaports, would be on the territory of the Western alliance [23].

It has to be noted that NATO enlargement had a big impact on Russia’s perception of the policy of EU enlargement because the leaders of both organizations repeatedly stressed that these were two mutually complementary processes in bringing the countries of Central and Eastern Europe back into Europe. Formally, NATO enlargement was justified by the desire of the Central and Eastern Europe countries to join the Euro-Atlantic partnership to redress a historical injustice with regard to these countries, which had been torn away from Europe as a result of the split into two systems. Although the European Union’s Copenhagen criteria2 do not define NATO membership as a necessary condition for joining the EU, the recent waves of EU expansion to the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe confirm that this was the case de facto. First the candidate countries join the West’s security alliance, NATO, and then they can claim EU membership. This factor changed Russia’s initial positive attitude to the enlargement of the European Union and its Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership. The Kremlin came to see the advance of both alliances to the post-Soviet space as a threat to the country’s vital interests.

An abrupt downturn in relations between Russia and the West was caused by the Bucharest NATO summit (April 2008), which discussed the issue of Ukraine and Georgia joining the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). The US, backed by Canada and the “new Europe” countries,3 ardently supported Georgia and Ukraine joining the MAP. “Old Europe,” led by the Franco-German tandem, urged NATO not to be in a hurry for fear of a negative reaction from Russia. Although Georgia and Ukraine were not officially invited to join the MAP in Bucharest, they were given to understand that they could become NATO members when they met the organization’s membership criteria. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili took Washington’s support too literally and tried to force a military solution to the problem with the rebellious regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia so that these conflicts would not stand in the way of Georgia’s NATO membership. It all ended up in Georgia losing these autonomies.

In the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia drew a red line: “No to NATO expansion to the Russian zone of influence.” Security considerations were also at the basis of the Russian takeover of Crimea, although the Ukrainian case was different from the Georgian scenario. In the opinion of part of the Russian elite, after Moscow’s tough reaction in the Caucasus crisis, the West decided to change its tactics and prioritized the European Union with its EP program that would pave the way for NATO. As early as 2009, US Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Ukraine William Taylor, when asked whether Ukraine should join NATO in order to then join the EU, replied that Ukraine should decide for itself whether to join the European Union or NATO first [24].

In retrospect, many Western experts admitted that NATO expansion had precipitated Russia’s takeover of Crimea. For example, the British Reuters news agency, commenting on the Russian takeover of Crimea, wrote that “Russia has long opposed NATO’s eastward expansion as threatening its own security and says Kiev’s plan to associate itself more closely with the West – including with the military alliance and the European Union – has forced it to react” [22].

In addition, some Western experts point out that territorial conflicts in the CIS countries seen by NATO as potential members automatically take the issue off the NATO agenda. After the 2008 “five-day war,” Moscow recognized the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, which made it much more difficult for NATO to admit Georgia and undertake to defend that divided state [9]. The same can be said about Ukraine. At the same time, the Kremlin’s tough reaction to the expansion of the EU and NATO to the CIS increases the desire of Ukraine and Georgia to join these organizations. The confrontation creates a vicious circle, making it impossible to settle the differences between Russia, on the one hand, and its neighbors and the West, on the other hand.

In other words, the Caucasus crisis and the Ukrainian conflict that European leaders declare to be the main cause of the deterioration of relations with the RF are not the cause but a consequence of deeper problems. These problems stem from the different perceptions of Russia and the West of the foundations of post-bipolar security in Europe and rivalry in the post-Soviet space.

The Clash of Two Approaches to European Security

The end of bilateral confrontation put into bold relief the issue of the institutional foundations of post-bipolar Europe. After the collapse of the USSR, the Russian leadership considered the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) a security organization conceptually better prepared for the new realities than NATO. First and foremost, the OSCE was the only collective security organization in Europe in which Russia had a full voice and a say in the decision-making process. That is why Russia preferred it as the main European security institution. Russia’s efforts in the 1990s to enhance the role of the OSCE in Europe and turn it into a “European UN” were to a large extent prompted by disappointment in NATO’s policy in the post-communist space. However, the reforms of the OSCE (creation of some new bodies while preserving the former decision-making mechanism) launched in the early 1990s failed to make a cardinal change and increase the organization’s role in addressing specific European security problems, as witnessed by the first stage of the Yugoslavia crisis.

Among other things, Russia continued to insist on the consensus principle because it was afraid to be outvoted on issues that were important for Russia’s interests. The result was a vicious circle, with Russia opposing the implementation of a new OSCE model that it advocated itself. Russia’s insistence of the need to strengthen the OSCE as an alternative to NATO as the central frame of European security also turned out to be counterproductive for Russian interests. This position was of course fiercely opposed by NATO countries, especially by the US, which did not want to see a stronger OSCE. Russia’s efforts aimed at enhancing the role of the OSCE to turn it into a “European UN” in the mid-1990s were prompted by the Kremlin’s concern about NATO’s increased role in the security system that was emerging in Europe [6, p. 149]. The entire post-Soviet space was de facto divided between two organizations: NATO and the OSCE. The former was responsible for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the latter for the CIS countries. This was bound to eventually change Russia’s attitude toward the OSCE because it created the impression that it was a second-rate organization for second-rate countries.

On the whole, it has to be said that after the end of bipolarity, the West displayed a condescending attitude toward the OSCE, an organization that had played a key role in strengthening stability in Europe. It claimed that “the role of this loose conference of nations (and it remained essentially a conference despite its recent name change)4 could never be more than complementary” [8]. The West scoffed at Russia’s contradictory attempts to reform the OSCE because it had no doubt as to which organization should be the main structure of European security. NATO leadership and the leaders of its member countries did not consider any alternative institutional basis for the security of the post-bipolar Europe. Christoph Bertram, a prominent German political scientist, candidly expressed the view prevalent in NATO. “When the old order of the Cold War disappeared, the Alliance might have disappeared with it. Military pacts usually last no longer than the threat they are created to deter. As the walls tumbled all over Europe, there were many who hoped that now the Cold War alliances would be replaced by an all-European security framework – and few foresaw that this new framework would in the end have to be provided by NATO. But this is how it has turned out, not only because NATO’s members continued to feel comfortable with their organization (my italics – N. A.) but also because there was no other structure in place which could offer a realistic alternative to them as well as to the many other states now seeking a stable international environment on the continent” [8]. The remarkable thing about this long quotation is that it bluntly attributes the unpreparedness of NATO’s leadership for cardinal reform of the European security system to that organization’s bureaucratic interests.

At the same time, NATO leadership was aware that the traditional goals for the sake of which the West had created this defense alliance had disappeared after the end of bipolarity. The prime goal of NATO was to defend the West against a potential threat from the East, the USSR, and the Warsaw Pact. With Europe split into two hostile camps, the threat from the East was the main factor that cemented Atlantic solidarity. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, the emergence of an independent Russia, which declared its readiness for democratic reform, deprived NATO of its former and sole enemy. Despite the contradictory development of the RF after the breakup of the USSR, the errors and miscalculations of the Russian leadership in domestic and foreign policy, which fueled the West’s fears concerning Russian unpredictability, the so-called Russia factor, could not play the same unifying role as the Soviet threat in ensuring Atlantic solidarity. Even Russia’s takeover of Crimea did not prove to be a signal to the West to return to traditional Atlanticism. The dream of convinced Atlanticists about returning to the original state turned out to be illusory because status quo ante belongs to the Cold War era, when Western Europe was totally dependent on the American ally for its security. NATO’s second goal – to control Germany – became already irrelevant during the Cold War. Germany is a democratic and economically flourishing state, an inalienable part of the Alliance and the European Union and an engine of European integration. Finally, the third goal – to ensure a US presence in Europe – objectively underwent radical changes owing to the development of European integration in the sphere of common external and security policy as US security interests shifted toward the Asia Pacific region.

Thus a new goal was found in the process of expansion to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In other words, expansion to the East was chosen as the new function of NATO, which was to give the organization a new lease on life without any radical changes.

At the formal level, relations with Russia, from NATO’s viewpoint, were settled by the signing of the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation and the creation of the Permanent Joint Council, which failed to withstand the very first serious test, the Kosovo crisis. Ironically, NATO’s military operation against Yugoslavia in 1999 was the first operation of an enlarged NATO, which merely confirmed Moscow’s suspicions concerning the true meaning of NATO enlargement.

Leaving aside the question of whether a process can in principle replace a goal, it has to be admitted that NATO’s decision to expand ultimately marked the triumph of traditional views on European security despite all the rhetoric about indivisible security in the post-bipolar world. The psychological aspect of the issue should also be taken into account. Because Russia was fiercely opposed to NATO expansion and its political elite reacted angrily to every new move in this direction, this created a confrontational climate, which kept NATO in its traditional dimension. Looking back, we can safely say that relations between Russia and NATO were developing in accordance with the logic of self-fulfilling prophecies. The growth of anti-NATO sentiments in Russia was not lost even on Boris Yeltsin, who from time to time delivered angry “Russia will not allow” tirades against NATO and Washington, thus convincing the West that it had chosen the right path. The fact that NATO openly ignored Russia’s positions further fueled mutual suspicions. The main reason for Russia’s negative attitude to NATO expansion was that it was “an open-ended process,” which led the Kremlin to suspect, not without reason, as it turned out, that the Alliance sought to advance into the CIS space.

The post-Soviet space did not turn into one of the main arenas of international contradictions between Russia and the West (EU, NATO/US) at once. After the disappearance of the “communist bloc,” the EU’s strategy concentrated on the so-called People’s Democracies seeking to integrate eight former communist countries in Central Europe and the Baltic region. This strategy was primarily based on security considerations. The war in Yugoslavia revealed conflict potential in the post-communist countries. By integrating the former socialist countries of Central Europe, the European Union sought to neutralize that conflict potential in its immediate proximity. It stabilized the Eastern neighbors by absorbing them and bringing their institutions in line with its own institutions [11, p. 5].

In principle, the EU’s relations with its neighbor states envisage three levels of relations: cooperation, association, and full membership. Initially, the former Soviet space was not included in the EU enlargement strategy. Moldova was the only exception. It belonged to the Southeastern Europe (SEE) region, which was also included in the EU regional strategy, the Stabilization and Association Process, and it did not envisage automatic EU membership. As distinct from the CEU and SEE, with Russia5 and the 10 former Soviet republics that were members of the CIS (except Tajikistan), the European Union signed standard Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCA), the lowest format of relations with third countries.

Brussels, of course, recognized Russia’s importance as the closest neighbor. In the mid-1990s the EU adopted a course to include the RF into Greater Europe. However, neither the EU nor Russia had a clear vision of the goals and essence of this initiative. It had a generally well-meaning character, which is evident in the statements of prominent European political figures, members of the Commission for Greater Europe, at the Commission’s meeting in Moscow in 1994. In the opinion of Jacques Chirac, the Commission’s chairman, the priority for the Europeans was to be assisting Russia in establishing strong long-term links with the European countries. Otto Lambsdorff, president of the Liberal International, claimed that a very high level of integration between Russia and Europe could be achieved even without Russia joining the EU. Alois Mock, the Foreign Minister of Austria and chairman of the European Democratic Union, said that Russia undoubtedly had the right to be in Europe if it wanted to [19, pp. 9, 29, 19].

Unlike NATO, Russia in its attitude to EU enlargement proceeded from the assumption that European integration was a logical, objective process that contributed to the expansion of the zone of stability and economic prosperity on the European continent. This favorable attitude was based on the expectation that EU enlargement would be an alternative to NATO expansion. However, that did not happen.

The West – both the EU and NATO – only became interested in the CIS space after the CEE happily returned to the fold of European and Euro-Atlantic integration and the Balkan countries embarked on the process of economic and political democratization. After the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, neither the EU nor NATO evinced any desire to become involved in resolving conflicts on the territory of new independent states (NIS) in the CIS, leaving it to Russia to sort out its “near abroad.” Looking back, it can be said that this was a short-sighted policy that missed a chance to cooperate with the RF in peacekeeping operations. Russia’s participation in the NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia was practically the only positive instance of such cooperation because the format of the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo merely exacerbated the contradictions between Russia and the Western partners.

However, after Russia managed to stabilize this space (more often than not by force through the freezing of conflicts), the European Union and NATO began to show an interest in involving the post-Soviet states (all except Russia) in their regional strategies. The driving force of the two organizations’ regional strategies was the revival of “Russian expansionism.” The West’s obsession with the threat of the Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions strengthened anti-Western sentiments in Russian society and a sense of a beleaguered fortress, creating a vicious circle situation.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that it was Russia’s setbacks on the path toward democratic transformations that rekindled its neighbors’ feelings of uncertainty and fear. It has only itself to blame for failing to formulate a new realistic concept of European security in a timely manner. Only the Russian leadership is to blame for failing to build new relations with the former Soviet republics and slipping into a counterproductive model of relations based on economic bonuses in exchange for political loyalty. Finally, by starting the first Chechen war Moscow provided a pretext for the West and the neighboring states to use Russian “unpredictability” to speed up NATO enlargement.

As early as 1993, Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev added fuel to the fire of Western suspicions by describing the “near abroad” as “a unique, one-of-a-kind geopolitical space to which no one except Russia can bring peace.” The West saw this as a commitment not to allow “third countries” into the region. The Yeltsin leadership wanted the CIS to be recognized as an international organization with observer status at the UN General Assembly. Seeking to enlist the West’s support for the peacekeeping operations that Russia and the other CIS states were carrying out in the post-Soviet space, Kozyrev made another attempt at an OSCE leaders’ summit in Budapest in December 1994, fueling Western suspicions concerning Moscow’s goals in the region [16].

In the end, mistrust and suspiciousness concerning each other’s true intentions turned the CIS into a zone of rivalry between Russia and the West along with the Greater Middle East and South Asia. It became evident that rivalry in the region could spill over from economic and political spheres into military confrontation between the leading powers and their alliances in conflict zones. The new confrontation between Russia and the West with unpredictable consequences became reality, as witnessed by the Caucasus crisis and the Ukrainian conflict. However, the differences between the two actors over the system of European security and the place in it of the post-Soviet states that engendered these conflicts have deeper roots.

Who Lost the Cold War?

Thirty years after the disintegration of the USSR, which marked the end of the bipolar era, arguments as to who lost the Cold War continue unabated both in Russia and in the West. There is some confusion in terminology. The end of the Cold War between Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and the West was marked by the adoption of The Charter of Paris for a New Europe in November 1990. But it did not mark the end of bipolarity, which happened a year later with the collapse of the USSR. Being so close in time, these two events are perceived by many as one phenomenon. In any case, it was felt that by losing the Cold War, the Soviet Union was doomed – i.e., that since it broke up, it was the losing side.

American historian John Lewis Gaddis, author of a brilliant study of the Cold War, meanwhile believed that international détente extended the life of the Soviet Union [26]. This is debatable, because détente was an unnatural “environment” for the USSR that had been created for confrontation with the West. Although Gorbachev’s Soviet Union differed in many important ways from the USSR of Stalin and even of Brezhnev, détente was eroding its systemic foundations, depriving it of meaning. Gorbachev’s reform was more an improvisation driven by the idea of “socialism with a human face” and the notion that one cannot live in confrontation with the whole world. Mikhail Gorbachev did not want to destroy the USSR; he wanted to reform what could not be reformed by definition. The Soviet-style autocratic system, while not being too sophisticated in conception, had its iron logic and a certain harmony. For this reason, it was impossible to remove a single brick from its foundation without bringing down the whole building. Stalin was very well aware of this, and the Iron Curtain was intended to protect the Soviet structure form the “harmful influence” of Western liberalism. Perestroпka (restructuring) and new political thinking were incompatible with the structure designed only for the Cold War. The Soviet Union lost not the Cold War, but détente, which demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the Soviet economic and political model under normal, non-military and non-confrontational conditions.

The question of who lost and who won the Cold War does not only have theoretical and philosophical implications, but is directly linked with the evolution of post-bipolar international relations, above all the relations between Russia and the main Western power centers – the EU and NATO/US. World wars – and the Cold War was a world war between the two systems – as a rule ended with peace congresses at which the victorious countries established a new world order. The Western countries, above all the US, considered themselves, by default, to be the winners and Russia the loser in the Cold War. The end of bipolarity gave a powerful impetus to the development of European integration and gave birth to the European Union, which replaced the European Economic Community in 1993. NATO was celebrating victory, having survived its rival, the Warsaw Pact, and felt that for this reason, the North Atlantic Alliance should be the basis of European security. The need for a new world order after the collapse of the bilateral confrontation was not on the agenda of the US, NATO or the EU. Indeed, the Helsinki Decalogue, the 10 famous principles of the Helsinki Final Act, came to be seen as an anachronism in Europe and the US. This eliminated the rules of international political behavior of powers whose observance guaranteed the prevention of conflicts in Europe during the years of bilateral confrontation. The US, which considered itself the main winner that defeated the Soviet Union, proclaimed itself to be “the pole of democracy and freedom.” American triumphalism after the Cold War had two different versions, neither of which, however, set the goal of restructuring international relations in accordance with the new realities. “First was the Clinton version, which promoted a prosperity agenda of market values on a global scale.” Odd Arne Westad, a Norwegian scholar specializing in the history of the Cold War, noted that “its lack of purpose in international affairs was striking, but its domestic political instincts were probably right: Americans were tired of foreign entanglements and wanted to enjoy ‘the peace dividend.’ ” The second was the Bush version. Where President Bill Clinton emphasized prosperity, President George W. Bush emphasized predominance. The Bush version was designed by his foreign policy advisers who thought mainly in Cold War terms, stressing the importance of projecting power, controlling territories, and regime change [25]. In other words, both the US leaders, having declared the US the winner of the Cold War and the leader of the free world, were unconcerned with problems of a new world order.

It is important to note that neither the US nor Europe, in spite of their support of the Russian democratic reformers, actually had a condescending, not to say dismissive, attitude toward post-Soviet Russia. Whereas during the Cold War, no international issue of any importance could be solved, as Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko said, “without the Soviet Union or in opposition to it,” after the collapse of the USSR, that irritant disappeared. Russia, which had emerged from the Soviet Union, was perceived in the US and Europe as a weak and dependent state, which had lost its superpower status. Michael Mandelbaum, an American political scientist of note, wrote that “six years after the end of the Soviet Union, the successor Russian government was weak, weaker not only than its tsarist and communist predecessors but considerably weaker than its Western counterparts” [17].

In criticizing the Western policy vis-а-vis Russia, Mandelbaum stressed: “This Western approach to Russia was not, as during the Cold War, one of active, principled hostility. Indeed, the two major Western initiatives were not, on the whole, aimed at Russia at all. On the basis of NATO and EU initiatives, however, neither could the Western approach to Russia be described as one of active embrace. Six years after the end of the Soviet Union, the door to the West was not closed to Russia; but neither was it flung wide open. Post-communist Russia was not, in any case, yet in a position to walk confidently through that door. When and if it is ready to do so, however – and indeed even before that – Russian foreign policy would not, and will not, be determined by Russia alone” (my italics – N.A.) [ 17]. In Europe, the prominent British political scientist Lawrence Freedman summed up this view most bluntly when he wrote that “there is now no particular reason to classify Russia as a ‘great power…. ‘ It cannot therefore expect the privileges, respect and extra sensitivity to its interests normally accorded a great power” [12, p. 26]. There is no doubt that the condescending attitude of the US and Europe to ward Russia created an explosive potential for the future.

This attitude of the West to Russia is partly due to the fact that it simply did not understand what Russia wanted, what its foreign policy goals and resources were. Over two years the Russian leadership did not come up with any more or less realistic or coherent initiative aimed at resolving conflicts, arms control or reform of international organizations that would be helpful in solving the problems that arose after the end of the Cold War. It is worth recalling that Russia’s first important initiative in this field, the European Security Treaty (EST), was put forward by President Dmitry Medvedev only 20 years later, when the international situation was not so favorable. The Russian proposal of a regional pact “based, naturally, on the principles of the UN Charter and clearly defining the role of force as a factor in relations within the Euro-Atlantic community” [18], provoked a barrage of criticism in the West. The initiative was perceived as an attempt to split NATO and create new spheres of influence in Europe.

Lacking foreign policy experience (as distinct, for example, from Gorbachev), President Yeltsin saw the new relations between Russia and the US, which to him embodied the entire West, as the main and only condition for “a big leap forward,” i.e., the rapid integration of Russia into Western structures. In effect, this meant that in the early 1990s, the Yeltsin administration made no distinction between the EU and NATO, considering both structures part of the US-led Western community.

President Yeltsin and his team subconsciously seem to have accepted Russia’s subservient position vis-а-vis the West, although there were no real reasons for this. In the foreign policy field, the goal of establishing “new relations” with the West boiled down to declarations of Russia’s adherence to universal human values, which, though delectable, could not replace the formulation of concrete foreign policy priorities and aims. Thus, Andrey Kozyrev put forward the concept of Russia’s “strategic democratic initiative” as an answer to the “new political thinking” proclaimed by Gorbachev and Shevardnadze. The concept was named by analogy with Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars).6 In the work of the first Foreign Minister of Russia, the wish to be witty, verbally adroit and to be liked by the Western colleagues, and to be unlike the Soviet diplomats, prevailed over the substance of the Russian foreign policy. These were also the aims of the Russian President’s speeches. For example, in his first address to the UN Security Council on January 31, 1992, President Yeltsin said: “Our principles are very simple and understandable: the supremacy of democracy, human rights and freedoms, of law and morality” [27]. Several months after that statement, the unconstitutional use of force to resolve the internal political crisis in Moscow in October 1993, devalued the Russian President’s words and scared the West.

In short, in the first decades of post-Soviet Russia, the Kremlin toed the Western political line on a wide range of issues. Such a policy was bound to become a target of attacks from the anti-Western nationalistic opposition, which criticized the Foreign Ministry for “betraying” Russia’s interests to please the West. Finally, this policy did not have much support inside Russia. The Russian political pendulum was doomed to start swinging away from cooperation with the West.

In retrospect, it can safely be said that both Russia and the West lost the post-bipolar world: the West by its arrogant attitude toward Russia and refusal to make any substantial changes in its policy, and Russia by making a mess of democratic transformations and its attempts to regain the Soviet-era great power status and restore Cold War relations. “Mutual disenchantment with the way relations have developed over the last 15 years,” writes Academician Aleksey Arbatov, “has reinforced a feeling of nostalgia in Russia and the US for the simple two-dimensional construct of the Cold War era world. A good number of Russian theoreticians today, filling the gaps in an education dominated by the dogma of Marxism-Leninism, are now immersing themselves with a neophyte’s enthusiasm in the century-old ideas of Mackinder on the ‘age-old struggle between sea and land powers’ and the ceaseless hostility between ‘Western-Christian materialism’ and ‘Eastern-Orthodox spirituality,’ and are eagerly sharing their newfound knowledge with others. The West also has no shortage of people ready to preach their vision of Russia as an ‘inherently authoritarian, semi-Asiatic and imperialist’ state” [2, p. 13]. Be that as it may, the fact that the bipolarity era in Europe has not been brought to a close remains a major challenge that Russia, the European Union, NATO and the US will sooner or late have to address.

Suspended Choice

As we approach the innermost part of the matryoshka that reveals the underlying causes of the failed partnership between Russia and Europe, we must confront the question why post-Soviet Russia has not made a final and irreversible choice in favor of Europe. A caveat is in order that the concept of European choice is much broader than relations between Russia and the European Union. From the applied point of view, the European vector is an imperative for Russia’s modernization if it is to become a modern or European democratic state. In the broader historical-philosophical sense, the European choice is Russia’s return to Europe, to its European roots.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which marked the end of bipolarity, brought a dramatic change to international relations in Europe and the whole world. Russia’s emergence on the world arena as a new independent state confronted the Russian leadership with the challenge of determining its further destiny, the search for the most effective model of political and socioeconomic development, a national identity, a clear-cut foreign policy strategy based on a clear understanding of long-term national interests and an adequate assessment of the resources for promoting these interests. In other words, at the turn of the 1990s, like at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, in the early 17th century and in the early 20th century, Russia sought to obtain a new economic and political system, geopolitical space, ideology and national self-consciousness, political allies and economic partners abroad [3, p. 16].

With regard to foreign policy and, more broadly, national security strategy, the task of the Russian leadership was to determine Russia’s place and role in the new post-bipolar system of international relations, to become conscious of and formulate its national interests and consistently promote and defend them in the international arena.

The formation of foreign policy interests of a state is in itself an arduous process of identifying the state’s wants, but this process becomes particularly difficult at sharp turns in history. “Each period,” wrote Hegel, “is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone. Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present” [13, p. 6].

Undoubtedly, after ideological barriers in Europe fell, one of the key foreign policy priorities for Russia involved the European or Euro-Atlantic area where the Russian leadership had to build relations with the former opponents of the Soviet Union, the leading Western countries and their institutions.

The determination of foreign policy goals in this area depended crucially on how Russia determined its identity. Throughout its history, located at the “intersection” of Europe and Asia, Russia presented itself to the outside world as a unique country. Its history over the past millennium shows that Russia’s geographical position at the heart of Eurasia had an abiding influence on its geopolitical evolution, internal development, and foreign policy.

Regardless of the existing political definitions of Europe, which may or may not include Russia, it is historically, culturally, and geographically an inalienable part of the European civilization. However, in spite of this Russia has always been the most remote part of Europe and has never been truly integrated in its socioeconomic life.

The contradictory and tragic history of Russia, which repeatedly diverted it from the objective processes of European development, provided fertile soil for various myths, ideological and political speculation on its uniqueness, its distinct system of values, its special “mission” in the world. It is no wonder that debates about the Russian path and choice acquired particular sharpness and political meaning after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the whole communist system.

The drama of the historical development of Russia, a European country in its civilizational identity, consists in the fact that for 250 years it had been cut off from the rest of Europe by the Mongolian yoke, the protracted period of serfdom and inconsistent reforms that led to its socioeconomic backwardness. The Mongolian yoke played a special role in Russia’s subsequent development because it laid the foundations of Russian autocracy that emphasized centralized power, personal loyalty to the sole ruler, a rigorous social hierarchy, militarization of the nation, and the existence of a huge repressive machine. Later, an ideological superstructure was put on top of this construct, the justification of Russian backwardness by its messianic goals and special preordained destiny of the Russian/Soviet empire. Yet each time an opportunity presented itself, the Soviet/Russian people provided astonishing examples of a modernization leap and the flourishing of science and culture.

The myth about the “incompatibility” of Russia and Europe was traditionally used by the ruling elite in Tsarist Russia and later (under a different ideological banner) in the USSR to justify the inefficiency of the existing economic and political system and the resulting lag behind the civilized world. This concept has a way of springing back to life each time Russia cannot become an advanced power according to modern standards and feels the need to justify its backwardness by metaphysical theories such as Moscow being “the third Rome” or a Eurasian power. The current mounting wave of nostalgia for the former imperial grandeur again appeals to Russia’s idiosyncrasy summed up in the claim that “Russia is not Europe.” Sergey Baburin, a prominent anti-Western Russian politician, writes: “The idea of the development of the Russian land as a territory and as a state determined the external and internal territory of Russia over several centuries. This idea underpinned the ‘Moscow is the Third Rome’ doctrine and still forms the core of modern Russian self-consciousness. Considering territory one of the key features of any state, it has to be stressed that the tragedy of 1991 is not only that some internal administrative borders became state borders. The main thing is that Russia, which was called the Soviet Union in the 20th century, the single organism, the single culture and the single civilization, has been torn into several parts” [7, pp. 407, 408]. We believe that those who think along these lines do not understand why the Soviet empire collapsed. The Soviet Union collapsed not only because the whole communist system collapsed, but the historical, political and economic idea of Russia’s unique mission in the world collapsed. “The paradox of Russian history lies in the continuing ambivalence between messianic drive and a pervasive sense of insecurity. In its ultimate aberration, this ambivalence generated fear that, unless the empire expanded, it would implode,” wrote American historian and politician Henry Kissinger [15, pp. 143-144].

The collapse of the USSR opened up for Russia the prospect of economic and political modernization and a return to Europe as a modern prosperous state. Unfortunately, these opportunities were not used by the 1990s reformers. Moreover, their miscalculations in the choice of economic model largely discredited the concepts of market, democracy, and cooperation with the West. These miscalculations can be attributed to the fact that the new Russian leadership, which came to power on the wave of revolutionary transformations, had no reforming experience since they all came out of the Soviet era. Believing that the fact of their coming to power meant the triumph of democracy, the new leadership, for all its good intentions, set about ruling the country by essentially the same authoritarian methods. In creating a market economy at all costs (shock therapy), the reformers hoped that the invisible hand of the market would transform the political foundation of post-Soviet Russia. Having taken a step toward a parliamentary system, to be on the safe side, they put the institution of the presidency above the separation of powers and created a hybrid form of state with elements of autocracy and undeveloped democracy. The imperative of consistent Europeanization of Russia was supplanted by a naïve-pragmatic calculation that “the West will help us” [5].

The program of shock therapy was imposed on an unprepared society by force, by typically neo-Bolshevik methods, without a broad professional discussion, without forming a broad political consensus required for reform to succeed [6, p. 7]. The political crisis in October of 1993 – the stand-off between the Yeltsin-led “reformers” and the Supreme Soviet – had an economic dimension to it, being a reaction to the lack of a political consensus on the reforms being carried out. It triggered an unprecedented spike of inflation in 1992-1993 that plunged a huge section of the population below the poverty line, the government became fixated on combating inflation, tightening financial screws, canceling subsidies and benefits, withholding wages and pensions, and curtailing state social programs. The 1993 crisis put the country on the brink of a civil war. The use of force to resolve the crisis, followed by the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet, far from putting down opposition to the reform course, united it, causing a groundswell of conservative anti-Western sentiments, which was reflected in the composition of the State Duma and the widening gulf between the country’s leadership and the bulk of the population.

Another key political consequence of the reorganization of the economy and redistribution of property in the 1990s was the emergence of an oligarchic model of relations between business and power based on family ties and the forcing of decisions by a narrow group of individuals close to the President. The process of big business and the top echelons of state bureaucracy growing together developed rapidly, leading to monstrous corruption at all levels of power, which was converted into money. Thus the political and economic model of modern Russia was beginning to take shape as early as the 1990s. Its main features are, first, the predominance of the institution of the presidency over the separation of powers and, second, the orientation of the economy toward commodity export, which is by definition a model of an authoritarian political system. Such a model inexorably leads to reorientation toward Asia, because it is there that one finds markets for energy resources that are potentially promising, a benevolent or at least indifferent attitude to authoritarianism and nationalism in all their manifestations. Granted, modern Russia is not the Soviet Union. It has a market (albeit undeveloped) economy and all the trappings of a democratic state. However, they have yet to be invested with real content. We also see a creeping restoration of many traits of the Soviet one-party system represented by the new nomenklatura, broadening powers of the security bodies, the judiciary and law-enforcement bodies in social life, huge amounts are spent on building up military might, and a rehabilitation of Stalinism is taking place. As a counterweight to European liberalism, the Orthodox imperial ideology, the mythology and the great power tradition of Tsarist Russia are being revived. In other words, the traditional Russian construct is being restored under a new roof.

Russia has diverged from the European path more than once in the course of its history, but each time after zigzags and aberrations it has returned to the former path.

What Does the Future Hold in Store for Us?

Because of the profound rift between Russia and the European Union, we can hardly look forward to robust cooperation, least of all in the international political sphere. Occasional interaction is possible where the interests of the RF and the EU coincide, whatever their motives. That was demonstrated during the course of cooperation in salvaging the Iran nuclear deal. To put it another way, selective cooperation is the most the two sides will be capable of in the foreseeable future. It will take cardinal changes on the part of the European Union and Russia to change the existing paradigm.

One condition for a turn toward normalization of relations between the partners is the settlement of the Ukrainian conflict in the Minsk format, which may remove the issue of sanctions that hurt both sides. However, as shown above, the deep roots of the current disarray in relations between Russia and the European Union are traceable to other layers of the disagreements between the partners. Russia would like to get guarantees from the West that NATO will not invade the CIS space, but the Western powers cannot give such guarantees “over the heads” of Ukraine and Georgia. This calls for a new all-European conference to discuss and work out rules for the post-bipolar Europe. That in turn is impossible without settling the Ukraine conflict. A vicious circle is formed from which there seems to be no way out. Yet there is a way out. It would involve the organization of an international UN-supervised peacekeeping operation on the territory of Ukraine in the corridor separating the opposing sides. An agreement on such an operation between the RF and the European partners could be a thread that, if pulled at, could unravel whole tangle of contradictions.

The forming of a new agenda in relations between the European Union and Russia would depend greatly on the dynamics of their internal development. Will the European Union be able to strengthen its international positions and become a real power center? Will the EU be able to overcome the internal division between “the old and new Europe,” between north and south, between Euro-optimists and Euro-sceptics, cope with the consequences of Brexit, the pandemic and gain strategic autonomy? As for Russia, its relations with the European Union will depend on the vector of its domestic development, above all the reappraisal of the Eurasian path of development, renunciation of anti-Westernism and the adoption of a European identity. Some optimism can be derived from the words of Vladimir Putin at the Davos Forum (January 2021). The Russian President supported “the position of the outstanding European political leader, the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl who said that if European culture was to survive and remain a center of world civilization in the future, then of course Western Europe and Russia should be together. It is hard to disagree with this. We have the same point of view and position” [20].


1. Alexandrova-Arbatova N. The EU-Russia Partnership: A New Context. European Strategic Partnerships Observatory. Egmont-FRIDE, Policy brief 5, July 2012. Available at: http://www.egmontinstitute.be/content/uploads/2014/01/PB5_EU_RUSSIA_PARTNERSHIP.pdf

2. Arbatov A. Moscow and Munich: A New Framework for Russian Domestic and Foreign Policies. Working Papers no. 3. Moscow: Carnegie Moscow Center, 2007.

3. Arbatov A. Security: The Russian Choice. Moscow: EPItsentr, 1999. (In Russian.)

4. Arbatova N. K. (Ed.) The EU-Russia Relations and the Ukraine Crisis. Moscow: IMEMO, 2014. (In Russian.)

page 50

5. Arbatova N. K. The European Pendulum of Russia. Nezavisimaya gazeta. November 25, 2020. Available at: https://www.ng.ru/ideas/2020-11-25/7_8023_heritage.html. (In Russian.)

6. Arbatova N. K. National Interests and Foreign Policy of Russia: European Direction (1991-1999). Moscow: IMEMO, 2005. (In Russian.)

7. Baburin S. N. State Territory: Legal and Geopolitical Issues. Moscow: MGU, 1997. (In Russian.)

8. Bertram C. Why NATO Must Enlarge. NATO Review. March 1997. Vol. 45. No. 2, pp. 14-17. Available at: https://www.nato.int/docu/review/1997/9702-4.htm.

9. Croft A. NATO Unlikely to Grant Georgia Step to Membership: Diplomats. Reuters. June 20, 2014. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-na-to-georgia-idUSKBN0EVlHZ20140620.

10. Eastern Partnership: Problems of Implementation and Possible Consequences. Proceedings of the Meeting of the Expert Council of the Federation Council Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States. November 19, 2009. Available at: http://council.gov.ru/media/files/41d44f243fdc22b87385.pdf. (In Russian.)

11. Ehrke M. The European Union and the Post-Communist Sphere. Compass 2020. Available at: https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/iez/05160.pdf.

12. Freedman L. The New Great Politics. Russia and the West: The Twenty First Century Security Environment. Ed. by A. Arbatov, K. Kaiser, R. Legvold. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999, pp. 21-43.

13. Hegel G. W. F. The Philosophy of History. Trans. by J. Sibree. London; New York: The Colonial Press, 1900.

14. Kearns I. Kissinger’s Cold War Lessons for the EU’s Eastern Partnership. ELN. February 19, 2014. Available at: https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/kissingers-cold-war-lessons-for-the-eus-eastern-partnership/.

15. Kissinger H. Diplomacy. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1994.

16. Kozyrev A. Russia Actually Alone Bears the Burden of Real Peacekeeping in Conflicts along the Perimeter of Its Borders. Nezavisimaya gazeta. September 22, 1993. (In Russian.)

17. Mandelbaum M. Introduction: Russian Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective. Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: https://www.cfr.org/excerpt-new-russian-foreign-policy.

18. Medvedev D. A. Speech at Meeting with German Political, Parliamentary and Civic Leaders. June 5, 2008. Berlin. Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2004_2009/documents/dv/d_ru_20080617_04_/D_RU_20080617_04_en.pdf.

19. “No Great Europe without Russia – No Great Russia without Europe.” Report of the Commission for the Greater Europe. Helsinki: Suomen kansallisviestinta Oy, 1994. (Gummerus Printing 1995).

20. Putin V. Speech by Vladimir Putin at the Davos Forum. Vesti. January 27, 2021. Available at: https://www.vesti.ru/article/2515983. (In Russian.)

21. Rahr A. Many Want to Return to the Cold War. Vzglyad. April 2, 2014. Available at: https://vz.ru/world/2014/4/2/680168.html. (In Russian.)

22. Russia Would React to NATO Build-up Near Borders: Minister. Reuters. June 9, 2014. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-russia-nato-idUSKBN0EK0VJ20140609.

23. Schroeder Called the Expansion of NATO the Reason for the Return of Crimea to Russia. Kommersant. January 17, 2021. Available at: https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4652261. (In Russian.)

24. USA: Ukraine Must Choose between the EU and NATO. Rosbalt. March 21, 2009. Available at: https://www.rosbalt.ru/ukraina/2009/03/21/627819.html. (In Russian.)

25. Westad O. A. The Cold War and America’s Delusion of Victory. New York Times. August 28, 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/opinion/cold-war-american-soviet-victory.html.

26. When Worlds Collided. The Guardian. January 7, 2006. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jan/08/historybooks.features.

27. Yeltsin B. N. Speech by Russian President Boris Yeltsin at a Meeting to the UN Security Council (January 31, 1992). Available at: https://news.un.org/ru/audio/2013/02/1002851. (In Russian.)


1. GUAM is a regional organization created in 1997 (the Organization’s Charter was signed in 2001 and statute in 2006) by Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (Uzbekistan was a member between 1999 and 2005).

2. The Copenhagen criteria are criteria for admission to the European Union adopted in June 1993 at a European Council meeting in Copenhagen.

3. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

4. Initially the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. On January 1, 1995, it was decided to rename the CSCE into OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe).

5. SPA between Russia and the EU was signed in 1997 for 10 years and automatically extended in 2007. SPA was to be replaced by a new Strategic Partnership Agreement, but the negotiations were suspended after Crimea became part of Russia.

6. Both initiatives are referred to by the acronym SDI.