Look West, Go East

When the leaders of the European Union and Russia gather for their summit on Friday in Khanty-Mansiisk, the main items on the official agenda will be a new partnership and cooperation agreement and an energy charter. But the real challenge is to find common political ground between Russia and Europe.

Dmitry Medvedev's election as president was expected to mark a new chapter in relations with Europe. After Russia's growing assertiveness and belligerence under President Vladimir Putin, many politicians and pundits in the West hoped that a more liberal president would opt for closer cooperation with the EU and a firmer anchoring of Russia in the European-Atlantic community.

But the early signs are that Moscow is privileging its relations with the East. The destination of the new president's first official state visit abroad was Kazakhstan and China in late May. In Astana and Beijing, Medvedev's talk of special relations and strategic partnerships was more than lofty rhetoric. Like Putin, he is determined not only to reinforce bilateral ties, but also to consolidate and extend multilateral frameworks such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Community, a union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

In reality, this apparent commitment to multilateralism masks the Kremlin's intention to cement its regional leadership, enhance its global power status and provide an effective counterweight to the U.S.-led Western hegemony in international affairs, particularly in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the wider Middle East.

The CIS remains the main vehicle for guaranteeing what Moscow considers its legitimate sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space -- from Ukraine and the Caucasus in the west to Central Asia in the east. One of Medvedev's first foreign policy decisions was to set up the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, charged with providing an integrated strategy and coherent approach that maximizes Russia's interests.

And on his visit to Kazakhstan, there was even talk of developing the EEC into a full-fledged Eurasian Union -- Moscow's response to Brussel's cooperation agreements with countries in Central Asia, where the EU is already the single biggest trading partner. Coupled with plans to establish permanent naval bases in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia, Russia's growing energy ties with Iran and Turkey provide a nexus between Central Asia and the wider Middle East. Indeed, Russia views this space as a key arena in the global battle of ideas and influence with the EU, the United States and China.

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Of course, Russia's geographical position, national interests and cultural identity prevent any exit from Europe or the West. And closer relations with the EU and a growing presence in Central Asia are not mutually exclusive. But it appears that under the Medvedev-Putin joint leadership, the focus of Moscow's foreign policy has shifted toward the east.

The EU must shoulder some blame for this evolution. At least since its eastern enlargement, Brussels lacks a coherent and unified strategy for relations with Russia. New member states, such as Poland and the Baltic states, have frequently used the existence of bilateral tensions with Moscow to veto stronger EU-Russia ties advocated by old member states like Germany and France.

Divided over Iraq and plans to install a U.S. missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, the EU has been unwilling and unable to develop its 1999 vision of a strategic partnership with Russia. Unsurprising, the European focus on economic cooperation and some legal harmonization has not produced a shared sense of political purpose. Linked by a growing volume of trade and investment, the EU and Russia are drifting apart geopolitically.

This tendency bears significant mutual risks. Without more EU engagement, Russia's weight in the international system will be largely based on natural resources and military might, not civilian "soft power." Without further Russian cooperation, the EU will lack military capabilities and a political presence in Central Asia. It is hard to imagine how the EU and Russia can be effective global actors without closer political integration.

In consequence, EU-Russia relations are at a crossroads. The current outlook that pits an eastward-looking Russia against an Atlanticist EU must be abandoned in favor of a new, shared vision. Moscow must end unilateral support for autocrats throughout the post-Soviet space and accept that Russia's future lies in the wider Europe. For its part, Brussels needs a new Ostpolitik, in which relations with Russia, its biggest and most important neighbor, assume geopolitical priority. What Russia and the EU require is a clear commitment to a strategic alliance.

Such a mutual commitment could translate into concrete policies and confidence-building measures such as further information sharing in the fight against terrorism, closer cooperation on transnational crime and cross-border illegal migration, as well as common approaches to climate change, poverty reduction and a better global balance of power within the existing international institutions, such as the United Nations, Group of Eight, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

On his first visit to a EU member state on June 5, Medvedev spoke in Berlin about the limits of Atlanticism and the need for ''unity between the whole Euro-Atlantic area from Vancouver to Vladivostok.'' Under the present leadership, Russia is looking west but going east. Now is a unique window of opportunity for the EU to provide an alternative.

Adrian Pabst teaches religion and politics at the University of Nottingham and is a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies.