During the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021, France’s President Emmanuel Macron called for dialogue with Russia and the creation of a new international security architecture. He described such a dialogue as necessary for peace in Europe. This is not the first time Macron called for a review of the Europe-Russia relations. During last year’s Munich conference,  addressing the French ambassadors on August 27, 2019, he stressed the need to rethink relations with Russia because “pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error.”  It appears Macron is anticipating an end to Western dominance worldwide and that some other countries, including Russia, are seeking to change the global system.
Macron’s call was followed by new European sanctions on Russia over the persecution of its opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The decision was contrary to an American approach expressed repeatedly by President Joe Biden. It also came in an unfavorable European context as the European Parliament members slammed Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, over his visit to Moscow in early February 2021. They condemned the visit as a sign of European diplomacy’s weakness. Later, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that Moscow is ready to sever ties with the European Union if it imposes harsh economic sanctions on Russia.
Many questions have been raised about Russia-Europe relations’ status and future and the factors driving their dynamics. Vital interests between the two sides necessitate cooperation and warm relations after the strain during the Ukraine crisis. On the other hand, wide divergence on strategic issues still persists, making tension a dominant feature of their relations.
This paper tries to foresee the future of EU-Russia relations and analyzes the factors that necessitate their reformulation, such as mutual interests. It looks at the developments caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s initiative to support many European countries, particularly Italy. The paper also analyzes the transformations taking place in the EU and the global system and the challenges and complexities engulfing the present state of affairs, and how they affect their future. The American factor is equally vital because Moscow and Brussels relations can only be analyzed in a tripartite framework that includes relations with Washington and Moscow’s views.
First: Pull factors in the Russia-Europe relations:
Russia and Europe are linked by several vital common interests, which constitute their relations’ pull factors. These include the following:
Russia’s foreign policy doctrine, approved by President Vladimir Putin on November 30, 2016, states that it seeks to create a shared space for peace, security, and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region. The policy would be driven by the principle of indivisible security, equal cooperation, and mutual trust. It also underscores that the EU remains Russia’s important trade, economic, and foreign policy partner. The country is interested in stepping up mutually beneficial bilateral ties with Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and other European countries.  This Russian approach stems from its association with Europe and concerns for the continent’s security and stability.
One-fourth of Russia is located in Europe, and European Russia occupies almost 40 percent of Europe’s total area. Since Russian Tsar Peter the Great confirmed the country’s European identity in the 17th century, Russia has been an active power influencing security, stability, and interactions in the continent. This continued till the advent of the communist Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which drove Soviet Russia away from Europe.
Nonetheless, Russia’s geographical location ensured its influence on Europe even as global interactions continued. During WWII, Russia allied with the United States, Britain, and France to stave off Hitler’s expansionist policies threatening Europe and world security and stability. That alliance did not last long because Russia and its allies’ ideological differences quickly surfaced in what came to be known as the Cold War.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev played a central role in reaffirming Russia and Europe’s intrinsic bonds when introducing the concept of “Common European Home.” He first mentioned this while addressing the British House of Commons in December 1984 before taking office.  With this concept, Gorbachev meant the integration of and cooperation between Russia and Eastern and Western European countries. He expressed the need to overcome the difference in their social systems and the nature of their respective alliances. He also did not mean excluding the Unites States, which he considered a natural part of the European political structure. 
Gorbachev saw several factors favoring a “Common European Home,” particularly aspects such as uniformity and homogeneity evident in Europe more than anywhere globally. From the Atlantic to the Urals, Europe constitutes a single cultural entity with shared history, political traditions, and experience. Interactions and relations within Europe are unparalleled globally, paving the way for completing the “Common European Home.”
Besides, more integration, cooperation, and interconnectedness between the two parts of Europe is the only way toward greater economic development, progress for the European civilization, and the optimal utilization of Europe’s enormous economic, scientific, and technological potential. Gorbachev believed that Europe’s disarmament and enhanced cooperation should be the first bricks laid in constructing the “Common European Home.” 
Following Soviet Union’s disintegration, Russia sought to get closer to Europe and integrate into the West’s structures and institutions. It joined the group of highly industrialized nations, the Group of Eight (G-8), in June 2002 and hosted the Group’s summit in 2006. It joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August 2012 after 18 years of negotiations. Furthermore, the NATO-Russia Council was established on May 28, 2002, to promote political and military consultation and cooperation between Russia and NATO member-states. This trend continued until the Ukrainian crisis shattered all these achievements.
There is a structural complementarity between Russian and the EU energy sectors, as Russia is the largest energy supplier to the EU. In 2018, according to Eurostat, Russia ranked first among Europe’s oil suppliers, accounting for 30 percent of the EU’s total oil imports and 39 percent of its gas imports.  This means that energy security in Europe is strongly tied to Russia, particularly Germany, which is the largest consumer of Russian gas.
Moreover, the EU is the Russian energy and economy’s primary market. Oil and gas exports provide about 55 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenue and more than 60 percent of its foreign exchange. In 2018, for example, oil and gas accounted for over 60 percent of Russia’s total exports. The share of oil in GDP amounts to 13 percent. On June 10, 2020, the Russian government approved its Energy Strategy 2035. Among this strategy’s main goals are to enhance Russia’s energy exports to existing markets, mainly to Europe, by modernizing and developing the infrastructure and expansion of exports to Asia-Pacific markets, which consume only 6 percent of Russia’s total gas exports and 12 percent of its oil exports. 
Russia transports its gas directly to Europe through a network of pipelines, including the Yamal pipeline, which runs across Belarus, linking the Yamal peninsula, one of the key Russian gas regions in the north, to Europe. It also uses the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea to Germany, and Nord Stream 2. On February 14, 2021, Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Alexander Novak, confirmed that more than 95 percent of Nord Stream 2 has already been built. The Nord Stream 2 is expected to carry up to 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia directly to Germany every year, passing through the Baltic Sea without crossing transit countries.
Europe considers the Nord Stream 2 a new lifeline for the continent, and Germany relies heavily on it, considering its plans to reduce dependence on nuclear energy and coal. A consortium of five European energy companies possesses 50 percent of the project (10 percent for each company), while the Russian Gazprom owns 50 percent.  On February 19, 2021, German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, confirmed that creating opportune conditions for completing the project with Russia remains a top priority of the German government despite intense US pressure and the strained Berlin-Moscow relations over the case of imprisoned Russian activist Alexei Navalny.
Cooperation during Covid-19
Russian aid to some European countries, especially Italy, during Covid-19 in March 2020, constituted a pull factor between the two sides. Russia sent to Rome 104 virologists and eight medical and nursing teams with medical equipment, mobile labs and sterilization units to fight the coronavirus as part of an operation dubbed by the Kremlin as “From Russia with Love.” They helped in Italian cities’ disinfection and established a field hospital with a Russian work team to treat coronavirus patients.  The Russian aid came at a critical time for Italy, which has long supported the lifting of sanctions on Russia while the EU members have been slow in helping other member states of the union.
Some European countries have also shown their desire to obtain the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, prompting the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to announce on March 4, 2021, that it has begun tests on the vaccine. This came after the Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, announced that his country could use Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine even without the EMA approval, just as Austria and Serbia have already started buying it based on national approval.
Resumption of cooperation with Russia
European politicians and MPs have made calls for resuming Russian-European cooperation to serve European interests. On February 17, 2021, German MP and spokesman of the Alternative for Germany block said Germany is entitled to claim compensation from the United States for obstructing Nord Stream 2, making the German consumer pay a higher gas price. He said that Germany must make it clear to the United States that sanctions should be lifted and that it is necessary to increase pressure and threaten to impose counter-sanctions on it. This coincided with Chairman of Germany’s Bundestag Committee on Economic Affairs and Energy, Klaus Ernst’s opposition to negotiations between Berlin and Washington on stopping the Nord Stream 2 project. 
On February 12, 2021, an Irish member of the European Parliament, Clare Daly, criticized the EU’s anti-Russian rhetoric over the Navalny case, saying, “this is a geopolitical agenda against Russia, fueled by a military-industrial complex that needs an enemy to justify their millions.” She reiterated her support for the visit by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Burrell to Moscow. “Of course, you’re right to go to Russia; we should be engaged in dialogue, not war,” she said. 
On February 13, a French member of the European Parliament and representative of the right-wing Identity and Democracy bloc in the European Parliament, Nicolas Bay, strongly criticized what he described as the absurdity of the European Union’s stance toward Russia. He stressed that Europe is imposing sanctions on Russia for about seven years. Still, the Union itself primarily suffers from the consequences of these punitive actions, explaining that this matter relates to different sectors, including agricultural products.
The sanctions hit the Greek agricultural sector the hardest. The country’s agricultural products constitute over 40 percent of its exports to Russia, and Greek fish farming companies have a 35 percent share in the Russian market. Russia absorbs about 60 percent of the Greek peach exports, 50 percent of kiwi exports, and 90 percent strawberry exports. All these are perishable products that cannot be stored for long. The same happens to the Finnish agricultural and dairy products sector, which made the Finnish Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto, emphasize the importance of dialogue and relations with Russia in various fields. 
Second: Challenges facing the Russia-Europe relations
Despite the aforesaid pull factors, which are supposed to drive Russia and Europe to rethink their relations and resume cooperation, there exist several hurdles, such as:
According to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia is the primary threat to European security. When the Alliance was established, its first Secretary-General Lord Ismay famously said the Alliance’s purpose was “to keep the Soviet Union out” because Moscow was the primary threat to the coalition. Although seven decades have passed since then, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the Cold War was over, the Alliance’s doctrine has not seen any change in this regard.
On December 1, 2020, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg presented to the virtual conference of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs a report titled NATO 2030: United for a New Era.  The report said Russia would remain the main military threat to the Alliance, in light of its “ongoing assertive policies and aggressive actions” and what he considered “Russia’s aggression against Georgia and Ukraine.” The report also pointed that Russia’s assertive activity in the Baltic and the Black Sea regions, in the High North, and in the Eastern Mediterranean has “negatively impacted the Euro-Atlantic area’s security.” The report further said China would likely be the second military threat to NATO after Russia over the coming decade and that “looking out to 2030, Russia will most likely remain the main military threat to the Alliance.”
The crisis of trust between NATO and Russia has become a structural characteristic of their relationship. Many interlaced strategic and pragmatic factors make it challenging to overcome soon. Many issues remain between the two sides. Some have eased a little, such as the dispute over Belarus, while some still exist and continue to fuel contention. The most important of these issues are:
A: Ukraine and reciprocal sanctions
Ukraine is one of the core issues of dispute between Moscow and Brussels and exemplifies their contradictory interests since the crisis breakout in late 2013. While the EU launched its Eastern Partnership initiative in 2009 to strengthen the relations between its members and six former Soviet states, including Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his Eurasian Union project to build an economic union between Russian and former Soviet states, with Ukraine at the forefront.
A clash of interests emerged between Moscow and Brussels and was exacerbated by the NATO proposal to add Ukraine to its membership, bringing NATO and its military infrastructure right up to the Russian borders. Russia considered this an unacceptable threat. Consequently, the Ukrainian crisis became a theater of confrontation between Moscow, the EU, and Washington.
Following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, and amid the Washington-led punitive actions against Moscow, the EU imposed three packages of sanctions on Russia. These sanctions included a travel ban on several Russian individuals, economic sanctions on several state-owned oil corporations, military industries, and financial companies. The third package of sanctions was related to Crimea. The first and second packages are renewed every six months, while the package associated with Crimea is renewed every year. On January 21, 2019, another package of European sanctions was imposed on Russia. It included the head of Russia’s military intelligence, Igor Kostyukov, his deputy, and two other figures, thus blacklisting a total of 155 individuals, some of them close to President Putin, alongside 44 Russian corporations and companies. 
In response, President Putin signed a decree banning imports into Russia of agricultural products, raw materials, and foodstuff originating in the United States, the EU, Canada, Norway, and any country that has decided to impose economic sanctions against Russian legal entities and (or) individuals. To make up for the banned imports, substitutes would be imported from Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Iran, and Latin America. Also, local Russian producers would be encouraged to increase the supply of banned goods.
Despite the launch of the Normandy Quartet format, which includes leaders of Russia, France, Ukraine, and Germany, and the Minsk II agreement on February 12, 2015, which included 13 items, foremost of which was the ceasefire between the two parties, European sanctions on Russia have continued. This has been the case despite the relative detente following Volodymyr Zelensky’s rise to the presidency in Ukraine, the exchange of detainees between the Russian and Ukraine, and the resumption of the Normandy Quartet on December 9, 2019, in Paris, after four years. Despite all this, sanctions and counter-sanctions have gone on for over six years, and their scope has expanded.
These tit-for-tat sanctions have affected Russia and have impacted some European economies as Russia is the primary market for European products. Russia absorbs 10 percent of the EU exports of agricultural products. It is the third trade partner of the Union while the Union Moscow’s first trade partner. This has cast a heavy shadow over the European consensus on the continuation of sanctions on Russia and sparked a debate between two groups within the Union.
The first group, led by Britain, Poland, and the Baltic states, supports the imposition of tightened sanctions on Russia. The second group, which includes countries affected by the sanctions, such as Hungary and Greece, prefers pacification with Russia. However, the European Union Council has sided with the first group, and sanctions have been regularly extended.
B: Russia’s support for the far-right
The EU has leveled several accusations against Moscow for supporting the far-right movement. The Union considers these movements a threat to its entity as they call for the EU break-up and uses antagonistic rhetoric against NATO and the American policies. The EU views Russia’s support for this movement as serving the Russian interests by weakening the West.
These accusations were based on Russia’s invitations to Moscow for some far-right movement leaders and coordination. In May 2013, Bruno Gollnisch, a member of the French far-right National Front Party, visited Russia, and former leader of the party and French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen visited Moscow several times and met with President Putin in the Kremlin during her visit in March 2017. In December 2016, the Austrian far-right Freedom Party signed a cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, to coordinate several issues. The Freedom Party leader, Norbert Hofer, said, “cooperation with the United Russia Party is tantamount to a gesture toward peaceful cooperation.”
This is in addition to financial support for some far-right parties. In 2014, the French National Front Party received a loan of 9 million euros from the First Czech Russian Bank headquartered in Moscow to fund its activities, according to the Voice of Russia radio website on November 23, 2014. Russian media also supported members of the far-right movement such as Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party; Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front Party and were frequently hosted by Russian media outlets. Furthermore, Moscow invited several right-wing parties like the Italian Northern League, the Belgian Vlaams Belang, the Hungarian Jobbik, the Austrian Freedom Party, and the French Front National to monitor the Crimean status referendum in March 2014. 
In June 2020, German news magazine Focus reported that several members of the youth wing of Germany’s extreme-right National Democratic Party, and the minor right-wing party The Third Way, completed a paramilitary training at a special camp, run by a Russian right-wing extremist group called Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), near Saint Petersburg. The US Department of State recently added RIM to its list of global terrorist groups, saying that the group had “provided paramilitary-style training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Europe.” 
c- Alexei Navalny case
For the Europeans, Russian opposition leader Alexie Navalny symbolizes Western liberal values, a preferred politician, and a partner over Putin. He was believed to be poisoned in Russia and recovered, thanks to Angela Merkel and German physicians. European countries sharply criticized his arrest immediately on his return to Russia from Germany in early January 2021, after five months recovering in Berlin.
His prison sentence was on charge of violating the terms of a previous suspended sentence for fraud. On February 5, Russia announced the expulsion of diplomats from Sweden, Germany, and Poland, accusing them of taking part in illegal protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg on January 23, 2021, against the jailing of Alexei Navalny. The three countries responded by expelling several Russian diplomats on February 8.
Tensions between the two sides escalated with the imposition of sanctions on high-ranking Russian officials over the arrest and persecution of Navalny and his supporters on March 2. The sanctions were based on the new global human rights sanctions regime adopted by the EU. Those sanctioned included Chairman of the Investigative Committee of Russia, Alexander Bastrykin, Director of the National Guard of Russia, Viktor Zolotov, Director of the Federal Penitentiary Service Alexander Kalashnikov, and Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that Russia would respond to any new European sanctions against Russian officials over Navalny’s arrest. 
2- The American factor
The December 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America stresses that Russia’s international role poses a threat to the United States and that China and Russia’s revisionist powers want to change the status quo and shape a world antithetical to the US values and interests.  The Strategy reveals the extent of the US concerns about Russia’s return. It shows that the competition between the US and Russia on the various issues is rooted in extended structural contradictions between the US as the sole international hegemon for more than two decades and the returning powers such as Russia and China’s rising power.
Both powers seek to dismantle the unipolar system and dislodge the US from its top hegemon position in the world system. In light of this, competition and confrontation between the US and Russia intensify as an indication of what shapes the international system will take in the future and the American position in it. In his address at the Department of State on February 4, President Joe Biden underlined Russia and China’s challenge and threat to the US national security and interests. He said, “the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions are over. We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people,” he said. 
Joe Biden is known to have come from the heart of the establishment. Throughout his long political history, he has been imbued with the spirit of the Cold War. He was Obama’s vice president and partner in the escalation against Russia since 2014 over the Ukrainian crisis. In an interview with CBS News, Biden said, “Russia is the biggest threat to the United States.”
Addressing the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021, he accused Vladimir Putin of “seeking to weaken the European project and NATO Alliance” and “to undermine the transatlantic unity.” Biden also accused Russia of cyberattacks targeting the US and European countries, asserting that “America is back.” “The transatlantic alliance is back,” and “The partnership between Europe and the United States … is and must remain the cornerstone of all that we hope to accomplish in the 21st century,” he said.
On March 3, 2021, the Biden administration issued the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which gives general outlines about how the US will engage with the world. The document talks about the threat posed by Russia, which “remains determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage.” 
The American pressure will continue to obstruct Russia-Europe understandings, especially in the field of energy. The US already stopped the “South Stream” project at the end of 2014, which was supposed to Russia’s transport natural gas directly to southern European countries through the Black Sea. Washington imposed a series of sanctions to obstruct the building of the Nord Stream 2 project, the most recent of which was endorsed by President Trump on January 19, 2021.  On December 20, 2019, a package of American sanctions was imposed on individuals, companies, and vessels that engaged in constructing the sea section of Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream pipelines. The latter pipeline is intended to carry natural gas from Russia to Turkey and some European countries across the bottom of the Black Sea and Turkish land, with a total capacity of 31.5 billion cubic meters per annum.
The US tries to justify its imposition of sanctions by stated considerations, including protecting Europe against Russia’s hegemony and control over Europe’s energy supply. The EU’s dependency on Russian gas involves risks to Europe and the West in general. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline will empower Russia to expand its power and influence across the Baltic Sea and allow it to continue subverting Ukraine’s sovereignty and stability. Also, gas revenues will enable Russia to fund its efforts to undermine democratic institutions in Europe and the US. 
Moscow believes that American interests and Washington’s drive to rival Russia in Europe’s energy market are the real reason behind these sanctions’ imposition. It sees that the shale gas revolution has made the US an important source of liquefied gas exports to the rest of the world, especially to Europe, which is the largest gas market in the world and is the closest and most economically-viable to Washington.
The US has already started exporting its liquefied gas to Europe since 2016, although still in amounts much less than Washington’s aspiration and the European market’s absorption capacity. Europe still tends to import gas from Russia, which is cheaper than American gas and much easier to transport and supply as it comes directly. On the other hand, American liquefied gas is transported by ships. The EU is attracted by Russian gas supplies’ economic viability, especially since Russia manages gas projects within a framework of joint partnership and neighborliness.
This analysis shows that Russia-Europe relations are caught between a mixture of positive and negative factors. Positive factors provide opportunities for understanding and cooperation between the two sides. In contrast, the negative ones drive a wedge between Moscow and Brussels in light of their strategic contradictions and the US-Russia confrontation, which still exists and is poised to continue into the foreseeable future. So, Europe remains torn between its commitment to the strategic alliance with Washington and the desire not to harm its interests with Moscow.
Considering these factors, Russia-Europe relations are likely to remain uncertain. Cooperation in vital areas, such as energy, will continue, and they may reach some tactical understanding. However, strategic contradictions between the two sides will remain. Any fundamental improvement in the Russia-Europe relations must pass through the US, making it unreachable in the foreseeable future. Relative improvement may happen at the bilateral level between Russia and several European countries such as Italy, France, and Germany but not necessarily at the continental level.
This is consistent with the dominant trend in international relations, where pragmatism has become the guiding principle for foreign policy. Each country seeks to maximize its gains through partial or tactical understandings. They agree and cooperate on some issues and disagree on others based on the vitality of their interests associated with each issue.
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