Academic study has given increased attention to the relationship between the EU and Russia in the post-Soviet space. Hence, much of what Vasile Rotaru writes in his book is already familiar. This is because EU-Russia relations have always been complicated and intriguing. The publication under review here, is about a dramatic journey Brussels and Moscow have gone from “strategic partnership” to confrontation. The author explores the major successes and failures in the ambivalent relationship during the post-Soviet years with a particular accent on turbulent events that occurred after the inception of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). At the heart of this study lies a comprehensive analysis of the fundamentally divergent worldviews of these two actors – the EU as a postmodern polity on the one hand and Russia as a modern state on the other. The EU follows a liberal path, advocating postmodern international system based on normative principles of peace, freedom and democracy. Russia, in turn, pursues a neorealist paradigm, viewing the international arena through the lens of zero-sum Realpolitik and shaping its foreign policy according to the nineteenth-century ideologies (p. 19). Overall, this book discusses three important dimensions of EU-Russia relations, which form the central focus of the current conflictual atmosphere between Brussels and Moscow: democratic values, energy relations, and the shared neighborhood (p. 17).
The book is divided into two main parts. The first part, comprising chapters one through three, describes deep-seated differences between the EU and Russia in regard to their world outlook, examines the evolution of Moscow’s foreign policy towards the EU since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and dives into an analysis of several events that have significantly affected EU-Russia relations in recent two decades, such as Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the 2013/14 Euromaidan protests, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Chapter one addresses the reasons why EU-Russia cooperation in the early 1990s turned to confrontation, especially after Putin’s ascendancy to power in 2000. The author argues that differing views and opposing perceptions of mutual relations led to different definitions of political concepts such as sovereignty, democracy and security. The very different approaches to international politics generate inevitable clashes. One should also mention, however, that divergent logic of reshaping the region likewise create continued frictions which prolong the cycles of instability in the common neighborhood. Yet, the author correctly asserts that it is unrealistic to expect from Russian leaders educated during Soviet times that their worldview will change radically overnight with the breakup of the USSR (p. 38).
Chapter two explains how Russia moved away from its initial infatuation with the West and entered a process of consolidation of its own separate identity. The early Yeltsin years were only a short period when Russia adopted a pro-Western approach and considered the EU a model for its development (p. 40). Yet, this foreign policy line did not last long and the Kremlin advanced its own concept of “sovereign democracy” which started challenging European values and establishing new rules under Putin’s presidency. Even despite the Kremlin’s violations of human rights in Chechnya, Brussels opted for close cooperation with Moscow. The author claims that Russia’s “weakness power” obliged the EU to make certain concessions for the sake of maintaining a good relationship. However, this strategy proved ineffective, as it showed the paucity of the EU’s leverage over the Kremlin, especially after the latter’s deviation from democratic reforms and Putin’s declared goal of restoring Russia’s great power status.
In chapter three, the analysis goes even further, describing the August 2008 war in Georgia and the Ukraine conflict that began in February 2014. It is these two critical turning points that exacerbated tensions between the EU and Russia, but at the same time revealed their strong mutual dependence in the fields of energy, trade and security. The author asserts that both actors still have a potential for further cooperation, as they seek to secure stability in their shared neighborhood (p. 79).
The second part, encompassing chapters four through six, looks in more depth at the Eastern Partnership (EaP) from the perspectives of the EU and Russia, taking into account integration policies that Brussels and Moscow pursue in the post-Soviet space. In chapter four, the author analyses the role of the EaP and its impact on Russia’s perceptions of the EU. Although the original idea of the EaP was initially conceived in the early 2000s, the proposal gained political momentum in the wake of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war and the January 2009 Russia-Ukraine gas dispute. Just then, for the first time, Russia started to perceive the EU as an adversarial competitor in their common neighborhood, and as a real threat to its national interests in the “near abroad” (p. 93). The fact that Russia decided to counteract the EU’s initiative by establishing its own integrationist projects, such as the Customs Union in 2010 and the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, is hence not surprising at all.
Chapter five highlights how Russia’s tough position in the “near abroad” involuntarily contributed to the inception of the EaP. Amid increasing suspicions of Western presence in the post-Soviet space, the Kremlin has tried to reinforce its power in the six EaP states covering Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. To resist EU encroachment on its backyard, Moscow has taken a more decisive attitude in its relations with these countries, which Russia regards as “subjects” of its own sphere of influence (p. 102). The Kremlin have placed increased pressure on the post-Soviet leaders, using energy blackmails, trade embargoes, sanctions, and secessionist conflicts to safeguard Russian national interests. The author claims, however, that such an assertive strategy has alienated Russia’s neighbors and made them seek closer ties with the West for guarantees of their sovereignty (p. 120).
Chapter six concentrates on the complex interrelationships between Russia and the EaP nations. While giving an overview of the individual country cases, the author explains how Russia’s post-imperial foreign policy has become increasingly assertive, even aggressive with its annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin has radically revisited its approaches to the EU’s Eastern neighbors, whom Russia aims to keep in its orbit. Rotaru’s analysis concludes that Moscow’s tactics have sought primarily to curb the EU’s clout in the conflict-torn region and to offset Western influence in the international arena (p. 166).
Although the book comprises updated versions of the author’s journal articles and some revised fragments from his previous publications, it offers a coherent overall picture of EU-Russia relations and their policies towards six post-Soviet states. It is a pity, though, that the book is poorly structured in some places because it includes frequent repetition of the same action and the same judgement – shortcomings that make for a rather burdensome text full of generalizing statements. Moreover, the author avoids identifying the way forward for two international actors and their regional partner states. Therefore, further research looking at interdependent nature of a triangular relationship between Russia, the EU and the EaP countries is required to advance our understanding of how adversarial competition could be transformed into beneficial cooperation in the common neighborhood. As such, this book has the potential to become a reference point for both academia and the political world.