EU-Russia relations: the beginning of a warmer winter?

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the EC, went to Baghdad were she was welcomed by Nazar Al-Kheer Allah, Iraqi Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations (EC Audiovisual Services, 22/12/2014).

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the EC, went to Baghdad were she was welcomed by Nazar Al-Kheer Allah, Iraqi Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations (EC Audiovisual Services, 22/12/2014).

The year 2014 has seen many changes and overturns in the EU-Russia relations, but although the New Year is just a few hours away, there is still time for the last swing. From both sides.

Yesterday a few Russian media outlets reported that the High Representative of the European Union Federica Mogherini stated that Western powers want to find common ground with Russia and end their confrontational approach over Ukraine. During an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Mogherini suggested to open up a direct dialogue with Moscow, denying that the EU differs from the US in its position towards dealing with the crisis at the same time.

Mogherini reportedly said to the Italian newspaper that it is “in Moscow’s interests to help end the Ukrainian conflict”, while the West must “begin direct discussions with Moscow over our mutual relations and the role Russia can play in other crises”. “Russia has an important role not only in Ukraine, but also in Syria, Iran, the Middle East, and Libya”, she continued.

Mogherini’s words, which were promptly spread by Russian media, might show a change in the EU’s approach towards Russia, which comes right after a possible flip from Moscow’s side too, after months of cold statements. What remains uncertain though, is whether this change applies on the communication strategy solely, like a big refurbishment of the “Kremlin’s façade”, or somewhere deeper. In a statement titled “Main Foreign Policy Events of 2014″, the Russian Foreign Ministry last Saturday described the EU as its “neighbour and major trade and economics partner”.

The Ministry has pointed its relations with the European Union as a “priority in its international policy”, adding that despite the current deteriorating Russia-EU ties, partnership with Europe will be among the country’s top priorities “for years to come”. Just a few weeks have passed since the South Stream project has been officially dropped by Russian leaders, and these last announcements sound like a big, unexpected U-turn.

What is very interesting to see though is how the Ministry seems to drag attention on the whole geopolitical situation of the year which is now coming to its end, more than on the actors and creators of any instability. “2014 was marked by the accumulation of instability elements and build-up of crisis occurrences in international relations, which are undergoing a transition period, connected with the shaping of a new polycentric world order”, the document says.

In the document, which is still only available in Russian, the Foreign Ministry also refers to the sanctions placed on Russia by the EU and United States over the Ukraine crisis, claiming those are targeting “not only individuals, but also the state economy” and that Moscow’s response was retaliatory to such measures, according to the translation provided by RT.

But just a few days before those statements, the situation looked a bit different. At those times the words of a very influential Russian diplomat, Vladimir Chizhov, Ambassador to the European Union, sounded not so pro-positive. On Wednesday 24th, in an interview with TASS, the Russian news agency, Mr. Chizhov doubted that the European Union is a reliable partner due to its political course towards Russia. “Surely, the EU will remain an important partner for us. But I should admit with regret that EU reliability as a partner now after what had happened is not so evident,” he said.

Mr. Chizhov openly referred to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU as the latest Russian proof of the above, but claiming that the EU has no consensus on whether sanctions against Russia should be abolished, extended or increased. According to him this happens “not because the EU is tired of taking sanctions decisions, but because their efficiency is low”.

Although no one could see a glimmer for a thawing in such words, nowadays it’s clear that something is moving, and that the situation will look different after a “warm” winter to come. It’s probably the instability of the economic situation, including the ruble crisis, to set the agenda, and shape the communication strategy of both sides. EU leaders already held strategic talks on Russia earlier this month, with German chancellor Angela Merkel foreseeing only a lifting of sanctions on Russia, France and Italy taking a softer line, and many foreign Ministers – as German Frank-Walter Steinmeier from the centre-left SPD party in the grand coalition – warning that a Russian economic collapse would be dangerous for Europe.

It was only yesterday when Austrian President Heinz Fischer cited possible further sanctions against Russia as a “foolish and damaging” step. “I believe it is a false and even damaging point of view that the sanctions can be toughened to the extent, when Russia is weak,” he said during an interview with APA news agency.

On Christmas eve Russia’s TASS reported the news that the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini is expected to visit Moscow by the end of this winter. On the same day Mr. Chiznov underlined that Moscow is ready to cooperate with the EU leadership and that it is “hopeful that the dialogue will start working at all levels”. On the same day he also added that Brussels has begun to understand that “the sanctions have no prospect”, but it’s never too late to change your mind.

All in all, during these Christmas holidays we notice a major shift in the EU-Russia relations. All roads point towards a more solid soil in international relations in 2015 and this is undeniably something that the world needs.

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