EU's Russia Question

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Friend or foe, or something uneasily in-between? That's the question Europe is asking about Russia, and Russia about a newly aggressive Europe. President Vladimir Putin's choice of Dmitry Medvedev, chairman of Gazprom, the gas company with an emerging stranglehold on European energy supplies, only throws this question into an even starker light.

Relations between Europe and Russia have been deteriorating for several years, but once-manageable economic issues, including energy, are now being aggravated by much more volatile political differences. The risk is a climate of undisguised hostility, with potentially greater costs than during the nadir of the Cold War.

The most obvious and imminent flashpoint is Kosovo. The likelihood is that in the next few months most of the European Union's member nations will recognize the Albanian-majority enclave on Serbia's southern edge as an independent state. This is certain to inflame not just Serbia, but also the Kremlin.

Then there are rising tensions over plans by the United States to base a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as the growing likelihood that further NATO enlargement will include Georgia, an increasingly prosperous neighbor with which Russia has fractious relations. Russia continues to fan secessionist flames there by encouraging the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Tempers are rising in both Russia and Europe, yet, paradoxically, when it comes to the major challenges they face, their interests are largely identical. Both are threatened by Islamic extremism and growing unrest. Both have much to lose if the Middle East erupts into fresh violence. And both face serious demographic problems, with shrinking and aging populations, as well as the challenge of Asia's rising superpowers.

The breakdown in relations has been gradual and undramatic -- more a morose and resentful refusal to see each other's point of view than a succession of disputes. This owes much to the humiliations that Russia suffered when the end of communism forced its economy to its knees, and to Western shortsightedness about Russia's fundamental strengths and resilience.

The EU is as much to blame as the Kremlin. In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither EU nor European national policymakers have devised a coherent strategy setting out the relationship that Europe wants with Russia.

Today, it is more important than ever that the EU, which now includes not only former Soviet satellites but countries that were part of the U.S.S.R., should create a strategic policy framework. This reflects not only worries about energy and shared security concerns, but also the need to head off any looming crisis in the Middle East that could plunge large parts of the world into turmoil, if not armed conflict.

There, and in the volatile Caucasus, a significant improvement in Europe's relations with Russia is crucial to defusing tensions. For its part, Europe needs to mount a charm offensive to persuade Putin and Medvedev that Russia's real interest is in improving bilateral relations. Russia needs to collaborate on energy in ways that bring genuine security. In the Middle East, it needs to persuade Iran to hold in check the military elements of the nuclear program that Russia has made possible.

None of this will be easy, not only because Europe's relationship with Russia has grown so chilly, but also because Putin is understood to despise the EU as politically impotent. Russian leaders may have misinterpreted as a sign of weakness Europe's representation at last fall's EU-Russia summit by two Portuguese politicians -- European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and Prime Minister Jose Socrates, whose government then held the revolving EU presidency.

Most telling in Russian eyes has been EU countries' competition for oil and gas contracts, which has done much to convince the Kremlin that Europe is not a political force to be reckoned with.

On the European side, engineering a new spirit of detente will be tough. There is widespread disapproval of Putin's autocratic style and of his government's human rights record. Extending an olive branch to Russia will have little or no voter appeal in most EU countries, and Putin's efforts to retain power de facto, if not de jure, after Medvedev wins his likely victory in March are certain to make matters worse.

The question, therefore, is whether Europe and Russia can establish a new framework for talking to each other. There are plenty of well-worn diplomatic paths, so it's not structures that are lacking. What's needed is a more positive frame of mind, and specific ideas about what to do.

Giles Merritt is secretary-general of Friends of Europe and editor of the policy journal Europe's World. © Project Syndicate.