German Chancellor Angela Merkel's stepping down will not change the dynamics of Russian-European relations for four inter-connected reasons.
Firstly, since 2014 the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine have been marginalized and are unable to win presidential or parliamentary elections. They have no possibility of becoming influential again because of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which is how three-quarters of Ukrainians see the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the ongoing war have removed 16 percent of voters from Ukrainian elections who traditionally voted for pro-Russian political forces. These voters will not return to participate in Ukrainian elections unless Crimea returns to Ukraine and there is a peace deal on the Donbas.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who believed when he was elected in April 2019 he could reach a peace agreement with President Vladimir Putin, has come up against the same Russian intransigence and chauvinism towards Ukraine as his predecessor Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky would be not be criminalizing two pro-Russian political parties if he still believed he could strike a peace deal with Putin. Zelensky will continue to support Ukraine’s goals of NATO and EU membership which are enshrined in the constitution. Ukrainian support for Russian-led Eurasian integration is at an all-time low and will not recover as long as Russia continues to occupy Ukrainian territory and launch military aggression against Ukraine.
Ukraine will continue to lobby European international organizations, such as the Parliamentary Assemblies of the Council of Europe and the OSCE, and NATO and EU to maintain sanctions and a tough line against Russia. Pro-Russian voices inside Ukraine who would be more accommodating to Russia will remain mooted and without power.
Secondly, NATO will continue to offer Ukraine (and Georgia) high levels of integration only, not a Membership Action Plan (MAP) or membership. The EU’s Eastern Partnership has always offered Ukraine (as well as Georgia and Moldova) integration but not membership; that is, 'enlargement-lite.' The United States will continue to supply military equipment to Ukraine. NATO military exercises with Ukraine in the Black Sea will continue irrespective of Russia’s growing opposition to them. The Turkish-Ukrainian strategic partnership and military cooperation will continue to grow.
Thirdly, according to Mikhail Zygar, "Putin was obsessed with Ukraine almost from day one." Putin is president for life (or at least until 2036) and the war will continue if he is Russia's leader. But even if Putin were no longer Russian president, the war will not end, as the source of the war lies in Russian views of Ukraine as a central part of the Russian World, Ukraine as an “artificial state,” and Russians and Ukrainians as “one people.”
86 percent of Russians support the annexation of Crimea, including opposition politician Alexei Navalny. As the Levada Centre reported, “There is not a single other indicator in the surveys carried out by the Levada Center in the last seven years that has remained so stable” as Russian support for Crimea’s annexation. 57 percent of Russians support the secession of the Donbas from Ukraine. 70 percent of Russians support the issuing of passports to Ukrainian citizens in Russian-controlled Donbas, the so-called People's Republics of Donestk and Lugansk. By the end of 2021, one million passports will have been distributed.
The peninsula’s occupation will remain indefinitely an obstacle to peace in the Donbas because no Ukrainian leader would support a peace deal that required recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea. The distribution of Russian passports will become another major obstacle to peace.
Fourthly, European (and Western) sanctions will remain indefinitely. This is because Russia will not withdraw from Crimea, no peace agreement will be reached over the war in Ukraine, and Russia will continue to undertake cyber warfare, hacking, assassinations, and other forms of hybrid warfare against Western targets.
Overall, Russian-European relations will therefore not significantly change.
Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.