Researching Russian Relations
Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! You’re an expert in Russia-EU and Russia-UK relations, and I’d like to use this time to talk through with you some of the things you think are important for policymakers to be thinking about now and how the nature of the relationship between the actors that you study has changed in the context of this conflict. To set the scene, would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research into relationships between Russia and the West up until this point, and where we were starting from prior to this conflict?
Dr Maxine David: I have been researching Russian relations for many years now, and I have always been interested in the member state perspective. In addition to thinking about the European Union as an actor, it is also very important to make sure that we understand that there are differences among the member states. We shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations about the European Union – there will be differences between member states in terms of how they approach Russia and how they think we should all approach Russia. Moreover, there will be different perspectives within the member states as well. We should expect diversity of opinion.
Now, I am a foreign policy analyst, so I am mostly interested in Foreign Policy relations, which is quite difficult in the EU context, because you have the Common Foreign and Security Policy, but external relations – such as trade – obviously impact on foreign policy. My past work on UK-Russia relations, especially in the 1990s, highlighted the importance of trade in that relationship. In other cases, there are some EU member states that have a deeper history with Russia – language and geography are part of that history, but they are not the defining thing in the relationship, and all the EU states have at various points seen relationships with Russia as important to one degree or another.
I have also done some work thinking about EU-Russia relations within a wider context – including the decline of US hegemony, and a rising China. Russia, since Putin came to power, has tried to reassert itself as a great power on the world stage, so what does that mean for the liberal world order? In exploring this question with KCL’s Dr Ruth Deyermond, we became disturbed by narratives suggesting that Russia was against the liberal world order, when there is so much evidence to suggest that Russia is very anchored in the very same order. It may want to shake up certain parts of that, but it benefits hugely from being part of it. We are now seeing the extent to which it has a relationship within this world order in the effects that sanctions are having.
We have also seen Putin look in recent years for ways of extricating Russia somewhat from the liberal world order through alternatives to Swift, relations with China, etc. However, the people in my network who focus on China-Russia relations, like KCL’s Dr Natasha Kuhrt, say we should not overestimate the depth of the China-Russia relationship, but neither should we underestimate the fact that there are lot of areas where their interests converge, and where we can expect them to support each other. It is more of a strategic and pragmatic, rather than a ‘deeply felt cultural-ties’, type relationship.
Have the countries that you study in Europe deviated from the behaviour that you might have expected from them over the past week? How is the ongoing crisis shaping or changing relationships between EU member states?
Historically, the EU has struggled to have a Russia policy, because there was a lack of unity. The member states have differing interests and different levels of exposure to Russia, and over the years there has been a recognition of that and a lot of attempts to bring them together. The review of the neighbourhood policy after 2014, the five guiding principles, and their global strategy have seen some successes there. Nevertheless, there remained differences – such as disagreements over Nord Stream, and I sometimes thought that there were over-optimistic expectations about what an actor like the EU can do. We saw that with the covid-19 pandemic – the EU was criticised for not coming together quickly enough to act with one voice, but it takes time to manoeuvre 27 member states into position, and once they were in position they worked very effectively together. We have seen a similar pattern emerging in the past few weeks with respect to Russia. At the start, there were a lot of talks about the big differences, and people were pessimistic about how the EU would hang together, but that time was just the member states taking a moment to work out the kinks. And we know EU integration has generally moved forward at pace when there is a crisis – and this is a huge crisis, which has galvanised the EU member states to come together. I think we have to regard this as a poor foreign policy move from Putin – he has unravelled years of work in bringing the EU member states together in this single show of solidarity.
At the same time, we should remember that different ideas and interests within the EU regarding how to engage with Russia are still there. Depending on how long the war goes on, we shouldn’t be complacent about whether we see the 27 hanging together in everything. The longer the war goes on as well, the more likely there are to be internal differences – including about whether the current approach is working.
What do you think policymakers should be thinking about at this point?
One of the things I am most worried about is people-to-people contacts. In the past 30 years, when there have been difficulties in EU-Russia relations at the high level of politics, people-to-people contacts have kept the relationship ticking. Educational exchanges are one example of a success story there. And sanctions are going to affect people-to-people relations – this is about business as much as anything else. Small businesses will be affected, for example. But I would like to see some debate about whether educational exchanges, as a case in point, should continue. We need to see ourselves in a longer battle for the emotions of ordinary Russians, and we need to be careful not to alienate them anymore than the Kremlin is currently trying to do. Domestic developments are making it hard for ordinary Russians to access counter arguments, and I worry about the younger generation not being able to engage with the West. So that should be the subject of wider political debate.
What can the current situation teach us about our own institutions?
I have been saying it less now because we really are in a kinetic war now with Russia, but we have got to look at our own societies and democracies. We have talked about backsliding in Poland and Hungary, but this is true across so many European states, and certainly in the UK. We need to have more of a conversation about that, and when this is over, we will need to actively reflect on where we are, democratically speaking.
I also think we must think very carefully about how we got here, and our role. I have been quite disturbed for several years now that in the West we are very good at reflecting on our mistakes and being transparent about most of them, but at the same time, Russia is not. We made a lot of concessions in recognition of Russia’s sensibilities, and yet Russia is setting a narrative about how it is being encircled or under threat from the West. So, we need to get better at talking about the things we have done to build better relations with Russia, in recognition of some of their arguments, and then there are some arguments we need to just stop engaging with. This whole NATO thing about promising not to enlarge, for example – let’s acknowledge that there were differences there. Historians have been very good at showing how difficult historical conversations translated in terms of legally enforceable treaties. If Russia is talking about the Budapest Memorandum, for instance, Russia promised to be a protector of Ukraine. For me, there is a kind of equivalence here – we didn’t have a memory about NATO enlargement. We have been ceding too much ground to Russia because we recognise there are mistakes that we have made. Let’s acknowledge them, but let’s also say that it’s 2022, these are the values that you agreed to, and we’re going to hold you to them.
You can learn more about Dr David’s work – including past publications – here. You can also follow along with her insights on Twitter at @MaxineDavid.