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Hybrid geopolitics in EU-Russia relations: understanding the persistence of conflict and cooperation


In recent years, developments in Ukraine, but also more broadly on the European continent, have emphasised that competition (and even conflict) has almost completely overshadowed cooperation between the European Union (EU) and Russia. However, this seems to mark a departure from the conflict and cooperation dichotomy that characterised EU-Russia relations following the end of the Cold War. According to the literature, the conflict and cooperation dichotomy involves complementarity between overlapping processes of collaboration and competition (Samokhvalov 2018; Nitoiu 2017; Rak 2017; Diesen 2017). Mainstream analyses of EU-Russia relations have proliferated on an impressive scale since 2014, these with an emphasis on the perceived rise of geopolitics as a key driving factor on the European continent (Barkanov 2015; Bekus 2017; Laruelle 2015; Youngs 2017). Besides the Ukraine crisis, symptoms of the emerging role of geopolitics centre around the wide range of crises that the EU has experienced during the last decade: e.g. the Eurozone crisis, the Arab, or the migrant crisis. Studies here highlight the way in which geopolitics constrain EU actions towards Russia and its eastern neighbourhood. Geopolitics are generally understood to hinder meaningful cooperation among states and lead to conflict (Raik 2016; Raik and Dinesen 2015; Casier 2016). 1

Against this backdrop, this article analyses the way the rise of geopolitics has affected the conflict and cooperation dichotomy in EU-Russia relations. It contends that the role of geopolitics in the security architecture of the European continent is characterised by continuity, as its pervasive effects have constrained the agency and autonomy of both Russia and the EU. Moreover, the growing number of studies on EU-Russia relations tend to employ a classical or traditional understanding of geopolitics. 2 From this perspective, states are prone to experience security dilemmas as they engage in the self-interested promotion of power beyond their borders (Cadier 2014; Grygiel 2015). By contrast, this article contends that both Russia and the EU have developed distinct and hybrid geopolitical approaches. These approaches are shaped by their unsettled and hybrid identities, as well as by shifting perceptions of the self and other, and by the role played by geographical space (Oskanian 2018; Zielonka 2008). This contention resembles the concept of fluid symbolic boundaries developed in the introduction to this special issue. Hybrid geopolitics thus shape the way the EU and Russia seek to gain autonomy and agency, and also shapes their bid to achieve administrative influence or even hegemony in their shared neighbourhood.

The main claim of the article is that the apparent increasing role of geopolitics in EU-Russia relations can be best understood by focusing on the concept of hybrid geopolitics. It should be noted, however, that the article does not aim to present a well-defined framework for analysing the conflict and cooperation dichotomy or the notion of hybrid geopolitics. Consequently, it should be read as an initial attempt to understand the conflict and cooperation dichotomy through the lens of hybrid geopolitics, with future research aiming to analyse the relationship across a range of relevant and timely case studies. The article begins with an exploration of the way in which geopolitics characterised the development of the conflict and cooperation dichotomy during the post-Cold War period. The section that follows discusses the perception of the rise of classical forms of geopolitics and argues that continuity in developing distinct hybrid approaches to geopolitics represents the main driver of symptoms of traditional geopolitics. The last sections reflect on EU and Russia’s approaches to hybrid geopolitics and their impact on the conflict and cooperation dichotomy.

The conflict and cooperation dichotomy

The evolution of EU-Russia relations following the end of the Cold War has been at best convoluted and marked by often contradictory and simultaneously overlapping processes. Better known as the conflict and cooperation dichotomy, the concept describes the constant state of limbo that underpins interactions between Russia and the EU (Averre 2016; Nitoiu 2014; Haukkala 2015). Cooperation tends to coexist with competition and conflict, often overlapping and creating a complex dynamic, which, in turn, hinders the development of genuine cooperative patterns. The persistence of the conflict and cooperation dichotomy allows both Moscow and Brussels to avoid a full breakdown in their relationship. A series of key studies attempts to explicitly analyse the evolution of the dichotomy (Nitoiu 2011; Chebakova et al. 2017; Casier 2017; Korosteleva 2016; Ademmer, Delcour, and Wolczuk 2016). However, most of the literature on EU-Russia relations only indirectly tackles the constant overlapping of conflict and cooperation. The Ukraine crisis has led to a period of intense geopolitical conflict and competition, and with it a proliferation of studies on EU-Russia relations. Nevertheless, even in the face of seemingly antagonistic and conflictual modes of interactions, cooperation is still present: e.g. trade and investment (European Parliament 2017), business links (Wigell and Vihma 2016), tailor-made Russian counter-sanctions (that do not target Russia-friendly EU member states), or sanctions busting through countries like Turkey or Kazakhstan (Hedberg 2018). Much of the dynamic of the conflict and cooperation dichotomy has its roots in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent evolution of a new European security architecture. The end of the Cold War led to the emergence of a series of expectations in Russia and the West regarding the scope of their future relationship. On the Russian side, post-Soviet leaders shared the belief that embracing the liberal world order and aiming to adapt to Western rules and values would see Moscow accepted as an equal. Having willingly given up the clout of its empire, and (from its perspective) single handedly ending the Cold War, post-Soviet Russia would deserve acknowledgement, respect, and support from the West (Tsygankov 2013). This was the heyday of Westernisers and Europeanisers, who promoted the need for Russia to embrace Western values and modes of governance in order to modernise. To that extent, The West (as well as the EU) was perceived as a beacon, which would guide Russia during its transition to democracy while allowing the latter to set the agenda of international relations (Baranovsky 2000). On the other hand, in the US and the EU, the end of the Cold War was framed as the defeat of the Soviet Union, and proof that history had entered a new stage where capitalism and liberal democracy would be the only viable options. In this interventionist mode, the West engaged in a “civilising” mission, to spread liberal democracy around the world. Even though it was influenced by a collaborative agenda, the promotion of liberal democracy tended to apply a one- size-fits-all approach, disregarding the views of other states. Hence, relations between the West (and the EU) and post-Soviet Russia were framed by a willingness to cooperate on both sides, but also developed out of contrasting views (and expectations) of the other. In this context, both the EU and Russia have not been ready and willing to come together and discuss the nature and role of power on the European continent.

The end of the Cold War thus created a series of lingering contradictions in relations between the EU and Russia, which neither had the willingness nor the ability resolve. These salient and unresolved contradictions have an impact on issues such as: the European security architecture, regional integration, spheres of influence, or the role of norms and values. First, the development of the post-Cold War security architecture has followed a rather one-sided and monistic approach (Sakwa 2018). This view is primarily influenced by an EU and transatlantic- centred mindset, which has not engaged with the more pluralistic image outlined in the Common European Home project, presented by Gorbachev during the 1980s (Malcolm 1989). During the honeymoon period of the 1990s and early 2000s, both the EU and Russia chose to gloss over the nature of the security architecture of the European continent in order to achieve greater cooperation.

Second, the dissolution of the Soviet Union left a vacuum of power in the post-Soviet space, which Russia was unable to fill for much of the post-Cold War period. Nevertheless, throughout this period Russian policymakers did not give up on the ideal of persevering or reinstating the old sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, even though they rarely articulated it up until the middle of the 2000s (Baranovsky 2000). Third, in spite of a willingness during the first part of the post-Cold War period to engage on a cooperative path, neither the EU nor Moscow made headway in expanding European integration towards Russia. At the same time, following the wave of enlargement towards Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the EU started to push its integration project in the post-Soviet space, coming into collision with the integration efforts spearheaded by Russia. With the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), tensions and contradictions between EU and Russian models of integration were exacerbated and left the post-Soviet states in the stark position of having to choose between two mutually exclusive alternatives. Fourth, both the EU and Russia have developed contrasting approaches to the promotion of norms and values in international relations, as well as what constitutes normal behaviour in world politics. For example, while the EU frames its promotion of universal norms and values beyond its borders as a legitimate endeavour (Smith 2016), Russia puts national sovereignty at the centre of its worldview and perceives the external promotion of norms and values as a security threat (Lavrov 2016).

Besides these four contradictions, the persistence of the conflict and cooperation dichotomy has also been driven by the deeply inward approaches to foreign policy developed by Russia and the EU. In both cases, foreign policy has been used primarily for internal purposes. For the EU, foreign policy has been epiphenomenal to European integration, providing its model of governance impetus during periods of discontent or crisis (Bickerton 2011). On the other hand, the Kremlin is increasingly using foreign policy in order to safeguard the regime against domestic risks and disorder (Cadier and Light 2015). Hence, their approaches towards each other in the post-Soviet space have been rather insular and not sensitive to the needs, interests, and views of the other. This paints the picture of a dialogue of the deaf, where partners engage in monological interactions with a limited willingness to meaningfully engage with the other. What is even more surprising is the fact that the EU has framed its approach towards Russia as beneficial for Moscow, aimed as it is at helping the country develop and democratise (Prodi 2004). Conversely, the Kremlin has argued that it has made impressive efforts and concessions in an altruistic manner in order to meet the EU’s requirements for cooperation without receiving anything in return (Putin 2013a). Starting in the latter half of the 2000s, the literature narrates a Russia and an EU that have stopped paying attention to the views and interest of the other (Forsberg 2019). This range of insular approaches to foreign policy is also part of the larger identity crises that the EU and Russia have been experiencing since the end of the Cold War. At the root of these identity crises are key questions regarding the civilisational models that the two actors promote in world politics, which, as the next section shows, have increasingly collided and led to the perception of the emergence of classical forms of geopolitics…

Disclaimer: This piece is an extract, the original joint article, written by Cristian Nițoiu and Florin Păsătoiu, was firstly published in the East European Politics Journal. For the full article please follow the DOI or  the Taylor & Francis website.

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