Can the EU and Russia find elusive common ground?

Can the EU and Russia find elusive common ground?

Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel threw their European fellows a curve ball at the end of June European Council meeting, calling for closer engagement with Russia and even positing the idea of inviting Vladimir Putin to a summit with EU leaders for the first time since the invasion of Crimea. The initiative, which seemed to take many European policymakers by surprise, came in the wake of Putin’s surprisingly successful meeting with US President Joe Biden in Geneva. After years of disintegrating relations between Moscow and Washington, the possibilities of a slightly less acrimonious relationship—and even cooperation on a limited number of issues—were raised in earnest in Switzerland.

The likelihood of a similar rapprochement between Brussels and the Kremlin appears unlikely in the short term, after the European Council ended up adopting quite harsh language on Russia, put forward by the Baltic states. Nonetheless, the infighting among the EU leaders about how to handle Moscow, alongside recent incidents in the Black Sea, have only underscored how important it is for the West to ratchet down tensions with Russia rather than engage in perilous brinkmanship. A top Kazakhstani diplomat recently refloated the idea of hosting an international summit in Kazakhstan including the EU and Russia—could the Central Asian country, given its geographical location and close ties with both the East and the West, provide a neutral stage for Brussels and Moscow to de-escalate tensions?

Biden-Putin meeting offered EU a new blueprint for pragmatic relations

No-one is expecting overnight miracles following the Geneva summit, but the meeting between Biden and Putin appears to have been largely successful in achieving its aims of “setting guardrails” rather than resetting Moscow-Washington relations altogether.

Ambassadors were reinstated in both countries, while the American and Russian leaders touched on several areas of possible collaboration, including climate change and cybersecurity, where Biden set out “red line” sectors of critical infrastructure which must not be attacked. Even sensitive pressure points such as Iran and Syria yielded respectful debate, igniting hopes that the Moscow-Washington relationship might improve off of the post-Cold War lows plumbed in the leadup to the Geneva summit.

Germany and France’s hopes of a similar thawing of relations between the EU and Russia, however, were shot down in no uncertain terms by their fellow member states at the June European Council meeting, with particular criticism coming from Poland and the Baltic nations. The recent manoeuvres in the Black Sea, however—in which the UK sent a warship to skirt the coast of Crimea as a show of support for Ukraine and was met with a barrage of warning bullets by Moscow—have underlined the urgency of steering the Europe-Russia relationship away from the brink.

Enter Kazakhstan?

This might seem like a futile hope after top European diplomat Josep Borrell recently warned that he expects EU-Russia relations to deteriorate still further. Not everyone is so defeatist about the situation, however. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, then Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev had suggested that his country could host a four-way summit between the US, the EU, China and Russia in an effort to diffuse global tensions and uncover avenues of collaboration. The idea sparked interest in Europe at the time, and although the pandemic put the brakes on it in the interim, Kazakhstan’s presidential envoy recently resurrected the idea in a wide-ranging interview with Euractiv.

The concept certainly has potential. Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana) could prove an apt venue given the Central Asian country’s hopes to act as a bridge between East and West. Indeed, Kazakhstan has made no secret of its ambitions to parlay its neutrality and strategic geographical location into a role as a hub of international mediation, an “Asian Geneva”. The country has already played host to several high-profile international dialogues, including peace talks between Russia and other leading players in Syria and the preparatory talks which eventually led to the JCPOA deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. Nur-Sultan’s efforts to manage the acute geopolitical crisis in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, in particular, indicated that Kazakhstan could allow Moscow “a way to manage its relations with Western powers”.

Kazakhstan has focused its forays into international mediation on conflicts which pose a risk to Eurasia’s geopolitical stability—and, as a result, Kazakhstan’s own security. As such, it’s not surprising that Nur-Sultan would be interested in deescalating tensions between the EU and Russia. The European Union accounts for around 50% of Kazakhstan’s trade turnover. Just weeks ago, Nur-Sultan hosted a summit on the economic ties and energy cooperation between the EU and Kazakhstan. At the same time, as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Kazakhstan has maintained excellent ties with Russia—while remaining wary of any politicisation of the EAEU.

The country has also sought to alleviate concerns from human rights groups that acted as headwinds for its diplomatic pedigrees. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev permanently abolished the death penalty at the start of this year and signed a decree last month to further improve Kazakhstan’s human rights record through priority areas including gender equality and the rights of citizens with disabilities.

EU and Russia must learn to cohabitate

The possibility of Kazakhstan serving as conduit between the EU and Russia cannot be discounted—indeed, any potential solution should be considered that could help prevent the “negative spiral” of EU-Russia relations recently predicted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. While the entrenched attitudes of governments like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia certainly present a sizable obstacle in teasing out a less hostile relationship between Brussels and Moscow, it may not be an insurmountable one. Opening a dialogue surely represents the first step in defusing the tensions that have been simmering in recent years. The Putin regime’s behaviour with regard to cyber espionage, Crimean conquest and political opponents cannot go unchallenged, but an interminable stand-off will not benefit anyone in either the short or long run.

Image by Press Service of the President of Russia (Kremlin.ru) (Wikimedia Commons)/Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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