At the end of a two-day summit that wound up today, the EU and Russia announced the start of formal negotiations for a longterm strategic cooperation agreement to replace the one signed in 1998. Those who like to read significance into minor trivia might take note of the date: July 4th. The negotiations, which have been previously blocked by Poland and most recently Lithuania, are set to address a wide range of subjects, but prominent among them will be increased economic integration between Russia and the Euro zone. That means everything from visa waivers for travel to the all-important energy sector.
Here’s what European Commission member Benita Ferrero-Waldner had to say about the convergence of interests:
We also know that there are very significant investment needs in the Russian energy sector. At the same time, there are obstacles to this investment in many areas of the Russian energy sector. Electricity has been liberalized recently, and we are seeing more foreign investment going into this sector. On the other hand, investors from the EU have encountered difficulties in the oil and gas sectors. Just as EU companies are keen to bring their know-how and their investments to Russia, Russia is keen to expand its investments in the EU, and the combination of these complementary goals should make it possible to reach a negotiated solution.
The logic of a EU-Russian strategic relationship, as I’ve argued previously, is self-evident. But logic rarely trumps history, and Russia’s status as a semi-European power has been a historically prickly one. There are also a lot of points of contention on human rights and democracy issues, as well as Russia’s recent posture, ranging from irritating (Iran) to belligerent (Abkhazia).
Europe’s response, though, is based on recognizing that Russia’s objective is to regain its position of influence, rather than to challenge the West. The more Russia is integrated into a stable and mutually respectful network of economic (and potentially strategic) relationships, the less likely it will be to upset the order upon which that is based.
The worst case scenario, by the way, is not a nearterm war in Abkhazia. It’s a longterm Russian seizure of the gasfields of Central Asia once Russian capacity to meet its delivery obligations bottoms out in 2012. Every Euro spent between now and then on Russia’s gas infrastructure is really a Euro spent on preventing Operation Uzbeki Freedom.