As relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) teeter on the brink of total collapse, the Kremlin is doubling down on its strategy of cultivating alternate ties with individual EU member states and its Chinese partner.
Weeks into the international scandal stemming from Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s detainment, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that Russia could respond to further European sanctions by severing formal ties with the EU. “We don’t want to isolate ourselves from world affairs, but we have to be prepared for that... If you want peace, prepare for war,” he added. Several weeks following Lavrov’s statement, Brussels and Washington imposed a coordinated sanctions package against a slew of senior Russian officials. Reiterating Russia’s emergent zero-tolerance policy concerning sanctions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the restrictions “represent meddling in Russia’s internal affairs” and are “absolutely unacceptable, inflicting significant damage to the already poor ties.” Citing the “the principle of reciprocity in relations between states,” Peskov warned that Russia will choose a “response that would best serve our own interests.”
Earlier this week, the EU sanctioned two Russian officials accused of facilitating the persecution of LGBT individuals in the Russian constituent republic of Chechnya. During a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Lavrov all but pronounced Russia-EU relations as dead. “There are no relations with the European Union as an organization. The entire infrastructure of these relations has been destroyed by unilateral decisions made by Brussels,” he said.
Russian Permanent Representative to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov offered a similarly grim assessment of Russian-EU ties: “The current situation [in relations between Russia and the European Union] is lamentable. It is abnormal. It is the result of the conscious or, maybe, sometimes unconscious, political course pursued by the leadership of EU structures here in Brussels.”
Nevertheless, these harsh proclamations have yet to be followed by concrete punitive measures from the Kremlin. Russian political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov noted that Russian-EU relations have already been so gutted over the seven years following the 2014 Ukrainian crisis that there are hardly any substantive ties left to sever. There remains one notable exception: Russia could decide to leave the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), a potential retaliatory action that was previously floated as a possibility by senior Russian lawmakers. There is currently no indication that the Putin administration, which symbolically left PACE following the 2014 crisis and fully rejoined the organization in 2019, is actively considering this course of action.
Despite its increasingly hostile relationship with the EU, Russia does not intend to cut ties with Europe. Instead, Moscow looks to continue its years-old strategy of circumventing the EU as a supranational body by cultivating bilateral ties with its individual member states. Nord Stream 2, an ongoing pipeline project between Russian energy giant Gazprom and several West European companies, is among the biggest illustrations of this approach. Aside from purely economic considerations, there is a clear popular diplomacy aspect to this policy. Lamenting recent decisions made in Brussels, Chizhov appealed directly to the peoples of EU member states: “Nevertheless, I have grounds to think that people [in the European Union]…believe that it is necessary to have relations with Russia,” he said. Nowhere is Russia’s accent on bilateral public diplomacy more apparent than its role in Europe’s ongoing vaccine wars. Flouting the EU’s troubled ‘bloc vaccination’ strategy, several EU members have already signed or are actively considering bilateral contracts for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine: as of the time of writing, these include Hungary, Italy, and Slovakia. The EU’s Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton insisted that Europe has “absolutely no need of Sputnik V,” but Germany disagrees. Earlier this week, a German official urged the European Commission to launch a joint Sputnik V procurement that would allow member states to purchase the Russian vaccine through an overarching EU contract.
Moscow has enjoyed relative success in supplementing its virtually nonexistent ties with Brussels through meaningful bilateral relationships with certain EU countries. With the EU’s foreign policy apparatus consistently unable to corral a united geopolitical-economic-cultural front against Moscow, there is every indication that the Kremlin intends to follow this bilateral strategy into the coming years.
But even as Russia looks to partially salvage its ties with Europe, it is also doubling down on its burgeoning partnership with China. Lavrov directly linked these two issues during his joint conference with Minister Wang Yi. “If Europe severed these ties, just destroying all the mechanisms that had been created for many years, and we only have individual European countries that want to be guided by their national interests, then, probably, objectively, this leads to the fact that our relations with China are developing faster that what is left of relations with European countries,” he stated. Beijing, too, is interested in brandishing its "strategic partnership" with Russia, following the openly hostile Anchorage summit and a recent EU sanctions package over China’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang province. “The United States and its ‘Five Eyes’ allies coordinated this week as if they’re starting a gang fight. Just look at the map and you will know that China has friends all over the world. What would we worry about?” said China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
As with its circumvention of the EU, the Kremlin’s overtures to China are part of a broader Russian effort to mitigate and counter western economic pressure. Lavrov said in a recent interview with Chinese media that Moscow is interested in forming a “coalition” of countries united against “unilateral sanctions,” such as the ones being currently imposed on both Russia and China by the west. “Such initiatives should be encouraged,” he added. “We must form a maximally wide coalition of countries that would combat this illegal practice.”
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.