Late last year, the European Union and the Russian Federation ushered in a new period of intense geopolitical rivalry, driven largely by pressure from the escalating disorder in Ukraine and the possible collapse of that country’s government. Despite assurances by top leaders of continued dialogue, the rhetoric from politicians, the press and expert communities on both sides is now disturbingly reminiscent of rivalry from Europe’s bloody past, including the run-up to World War I, exactly 100 years ago.
The root causes of Russia-West confrontation over the post-Soviet space have been consistent for the past two decades. First, there is not yet a clear consensus about who decides the future of the no longer “newly independent” states stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Basin. It may be rhetorically comfortable to suggest that the people themselves are the only legitimate arbiters of their fate, yet the current situation in Ukraine amply illustrates how quickly a domestic political fight turns geopolitical.
Second, even when the two sides come together to negotiate, they do so on the basis of fundamentally different political cultures, with often diametrically opposed domestic political constraints. The EU is at best a kind of referee and press office in the service of the larger member states and their middle-sized understudies. Nevertheless, small EU states can occasionally project an outsized role if they threaten to block the consensus on which all EU decision-making depends. All this makes for a highly disjointed approach to any negotiation. By comparison, Russian politics is straightforward and predictable: The president has the lion’s share of authority over all matters and can mostly deliver on his promises. Yet in such a rigidly vertical system, there is also little room for the top leader to make concessions on the international stage, since he cannot afford even a fleeting appearance of weakness.