Soft-Containment and Politics of Relevance. Conceiving a New Dimension of EU-Russia Relations

Scientific Study, 2018

29 Pages, Grade: 1


Abstract: The acceptable fact is that the relationship between the EU and Russia is famously characterized with conflict and cooperation. In a real life situation, conflict may engender cooperation, while cooperation also has the potential to degenerate into conflict. The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union heralded the beginning of a new form of relationship between the EU and Russia, on the one hand, and between the United States and Moscow, on the other hand. In this conflict-cooperation paradigm of the EU-Russia relations, trust plays an important role. It is improbable to expect that a robust relationship would exist between Brussels and Moscow in a diplomatic atmosphere characterized with distrust and clash of foreign policy. In this regard, however, Brussels and Moscow seem to possess and pursue policies that are equidistant from each other. While Moscow tends to press for political relevance in Europe, Brussels attempts to confine Moscow to its Eastern borderlines. The article, therefore, describes the not-entirely-new but less-explore dimension of the EU-Russia relations: soft-containment vs. politics of relevance by tracing the process of engagement between the two actors (the EU and Russia) since the collapse of the Soviet Union using a qualitative method of research.

Key words: soft-containment, politics of relevance, post-Soviet space, EU, Russia


President Ronald Reagan and the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, struck several deals in the later part of the Cold War era. Since the latter assume the leadership of the Soviet Union as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by succeeding Konstantin Chermenko in 1985, the hostility between the two great powers began to wane, while at the same time, the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union was closer than never before. Mikhail Gorbachev agreed with the West to sheath the sword and to also bring down the barrier wall (the Berlin wall) standing between the West and the Soviet Union in East Berlin. Finally in December 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) which sought to prohibit arms race politics of the late twentieth century between the Soviet Union and the West. The INF Treaty has a contagious effect in Europe as it was transferable both in theory and in practice. The elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles between the two actors calm the nerves of other European powers who, without the Treaty prohibiting the proliferation of ballistic missiles, would otherwise be anxious and desperate in developing their weapon-making industries in order to counterpoise the seeming unending weapon and military strength of the Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union eventually became a reality in 1991. However, it did not happen at the instance of domestic revolution or demonstration at home. The Soviet people decided to give up on their utopian ideology and embraced reform in the middle of divided opinions over the potentials of an envisioned new market economy (Slovenko, 2002:462). Even though one may agree that the Soviet Union was not a progressive society, contrary to its acclaimed progressive ideology, its collapse was not as a result of desolation of Soviet ideology (Stephan, 1995:37); but from Gorbachev’s experiment with perestroika which practically resulted in “immense failure” and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union (Blacker, 1990; Donaldson, 2000:287). In a published article on BBC News, Mikhail Gorbachev was described as “the man who lost an empire.”[1] Given the acclaimed underlining features of Communism which involves commitment to social and economic equality of the people and detachment of social choice from individuals who serve as decision-makers in the society (Stephan, 1995:24); Gorbachev’s reform process aims at fine-tuning Russian foreign policy in order to align it with the reality of global economic, environment, security, and rights of people (Donaldson, 2000:289-290). Mikhail Gorbachev carried out radical socio-economic reforms (glasnost and perestroika) which snowed ball into weakness of Communism at home, and in central and Eastern Europe as well. The weakness of Communism, therefore, led to 1989 collapse of the berlin wall which was built after the victory of the Soviet Union, alongside the Western allies, against Nazi Germany in the Second World War and its successful occupation of East-Berlin. So, the fall of berlin war precipitated, alongside radical reforms at home (Moscow), the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Even though the West perceived Russia as an entity with special status since the end of the Cold War. (Trenin, 2006:2); the West erroneously believed also that the collapse of the Soviet Union had reduced the status of the Kremlin and therefore, according it a special status in global affairs was not necessary”Had Russia been handled better in the 1990s-had its sense of insecurity not been aggravated-the country’s tendency towards expansionism might well have been moderated.” (Tymoshenko, 2007:73).

Russia and the West

The possession of nuclear weapons and Russia’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council are enough reasons not to consider Russia a barking dog disempowered by lack of teeth. However, Russia is of the opinion that, if its immediate neighborhood is important to the larger world, then Russia must equally be consequential (Legvold, 2001:63). In the analysis of EU-Russia relations, since the end of the defunct Soviet Union, the role of the US in Europe has a great deal of influence on EU-Russia relations. Visualizing Russia mode of operation towards the EU, Moscow sees the United States as a threat or barrier to maintaining a robust relationship with the EU or the rest of Europe. The influence of the United States in Europe since the Cold War era remains a concern of great consequence to Moscow, especially when we consider Russia as an active and important player in Europe with a “host of legitimate interests to attend to” and not as an outsider in Europe (Haukkala, 2009:2). The international context and implication of the domestic crisis and challenges that stemmed from the politics of the Cold War period in Russia changed pro-Western nature of Russian foreign policy to a more vociferous call for a multipolar world order.[2] The call for a multipolar world order by Russia was also, and mostly, impelled by the fact that in the early 1990s, the Kremlin had lost its political and economic influence in Europe and could only depend on the West to get back on the track and regain its global influence if Washington so wishes. This simple but difficult narrative could only be achieved in Moscow through a feeding-bottle approach from the West. It means that, for Moscow to revive its economy, vital economic and financial instructions have to be received from Washington and monitored through the European Union who would have concluded series of economic agreements with Russia during the same period, thereby acting as surrogate for the United States in Europe to completely contain Russia. Likewise, Russia was hoping to witness the emergence of middle-world powers from Asia and the Caribbean in order to balance the power of the United States with the ultimate objective to alter the US-influenced global world order late twentieth century that replaced the bipolar-world order of the mid-twentieth century.

In the build-up to the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Russia as a permanent member of the UNSC, alongside Germany and France, opposed U.S. invasion (co-joined by the United Kingdom) of Iraq. Since the notion of bipolar world order remains obsolete as Russian-American relations are no longer the determinant of global politics (Sakwa, 2008:266); Russia could not unilaterally demonstrate its blunt opposition to the US move. Therefore, it aligned itself to the joint-decision of the other two Western powers (Germany and France) with the view to forming a new relationship with Germany and France, at least. However, Russia did not confine itself to the European powers only in an attempt to construct a new foreign policy towards the West. Even though Moscow disagreed with the United States over the military invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Moscow described as error, Russia sought to establish a new relationship with the United States under President George. W. Bush.

Russia had hoped that a new and robust relationship with European authorities would be sired from Russo-Franco-German voice against the United States-Britain hatched invasion of Iraq borne out of hegemonic ideology of the United States aimed at sustaining and strengthening hegemonic global order in a world without world government. Russia had thought that a new relationship with the EU would decrease US influence through NATO in Europe, but Russia was disappointed and disillusioned in 2004 when NATO enlargement was brought to its doorstep as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania became members of NATO. However, worse was the overall approach of the EU for Russia when Poland and the Baltic states were integrated into the EU in 2004 (Trenin, 2006:3); approximately a year after the joint Russia, Germany and France resistance to US-UK invasion of Iraq. More so, the eastern enlargement of 2004 which absorbed a number of post-Soviet countries, some who are immediate neighbors to Russia, into the EU dashed Russia’s hope for a better relationship with the EU. Therefore, the relationship between Russia and the West (the EU) started souring at an increasing rate after NATO enlargement policy in Central and Eastern Europe which promoted Russia’s concerns for security in the ‘near abroad’ under Moscow’s foreign policy (Hudson, 2015:6).

As stated by Mankoff (2009:11): “Russia in the early twenty-first century is in many ways a state in search of itself;”[3] because Russia was the only and a classic example of a large country in the world that has lost a greater part of its territories and global influenceand in trying to restore its lost influence and reclaim its lost sphere of influence, Russia’s interest often comes into conflict with the interest of the United States within the global system. (Zlobin, 2008:311). The West envisioned a more democratic Russia emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so, the United States offered to assist the newly founded Russian federation in developing its economy as a prerequisite for building a stable and prosperous society that would engender modern political institutions that would prioritize, promote and guarantee social, political and economic rights of the people. But in general, given the fact that the United States was unable to provide and guarantee “undivided responsibility” in the global system made the US lost social, political and ideological attractiveness in Moscow (Zlobin, 2008:308).

EU-Russia Relations just after the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Given the experience of the past and the perceived unchanged nature of Russia, the EU resolved to establish a new relationship with Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of the Russian Federation in 1991. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 pronounced a new dawn in EU-Russia relations as several chapters of relationship were opened between the two important European actors. As a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the European Union (EEC at the time) was susceptible to diverse challenges ranging from migration to border security and from economic threat to geo-political risk. Therefore, the EU proposed the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 1994, signed on 24 June 1994 by the two actors but entered into force on 01 December 1997. The negotiation started with 12 EU Member States after 1986 accession of Spain and Portugal. But at the time of coming into force of the PCA, the membership of the EU had increased to 15 with the entering of Austria, Finland and Sweden into the Union in 1995. Therefore, it was necessary for the European Union to feed the interests of the new members into the agreement. Perhaps the reason for the delay in its enforcement! The PCA which covers policy areas such as trade, science and technology, education, energy, transportation, energy and environment, prevention of illegal activities, political dialogue and many more;[4] aims at laying the foundation for political, economic and stability (because the agreement avoided the mention of security) cooperation between the EU and the Russian Federation.

The idea of the partnership was to douse the ever-present hostility and threat from the Kremlin and to gradually cause socio-political and socio-economic transformation of Russia into a democratic society that behaves in accordance with the principles of democracy and rule of law. However, just like every other PCAs between the EU and non-Member States of the Union, one of the criticisms against the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and Russia is that the agreement lacks provisions for cooperation in the areas of foreign and security policy and/or police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters (Elsuwege, 2002:2). The lack of provisions for foreign and security cooperation under the EU-Russia PCA, which is difficult to come by in reality in Moscow due to the Cold War experience, made the instrument less effective in cementing the relationship between the EU and Russia because at the time, the relationship between the EU and Russia can no longer be confined to trade negotiations, visas and migration, and democratic values as a result of changing political dimension of the global system impacting foreign policies of the two actors as the EU and Russia are only active actors in their neighborhood and not great powers in the new world order (Averre, 2009:1709). Therefore, both actors operate within the hegemonic world order championed by the United States.

The newly independent countries that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 were weary, economically and politically, owning to the long period of communist style of governance. Always cautious of insecurity around its neighborhood, however, the EU initiated a process of democratization and nation-building in the post-Soviet space following the third global wave of democratization that featured Eastern Europe as propelled by the two precipitating policies (perestroika and glasnost) of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev between 1986 and 1991. The most promising and sufficient way in which Western European leaders could consolidate peace, stability and prosperity achieved after the Second World War and up to the end of the Cold War in Europe was to harbinger the economic and political development of the new independent states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In doing so, the EU also avail itself the opportunity to enjoy stability and sustain its democracy within. In practice, almost all the former communist countries prioritized the transformation of their economies from a unified monolithic system that characterized the Soviet era into a capitalist and a more liberal market economy.

EU-Russia Relations: Clash of Foreign Policy?

The Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) laid down the legal framework of relationship between the two actors as discussed above. The Europeanization of the former Soviet states was speedily done to avoid any attempt by the Russian Federation to re-incorporate the post-Soviet space under its sphere of influence using the newly formed Commonwealth Independent States (CIS) founded in 1991 after the official dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the early years of the reign of President Yeltsin, he sought to cement the relationship between Russia and the US. This attempt, however, failed because Moscow and Washington are not always of the same page when it comes to issues of global interest. The foreign policy of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin was characterized with the desire to join the new hegemonic world order championed by Washington (termed as “bandwagon” approach), while at the same time; Moscow advanced the idea of multi-polarity (termed “anti-bandwagon” approach). Therefore, the nature and scope of Russia’s status in the world system after the Cold War occupied Russia’s foreign policy (Ambrosio, 2017:2-4). At any rate, Russia’s attempt to balance the hegemonic power and status of the West was unsuccessful because multi-polarity is usually achieved through economic, political and military strength in the global system couple with inherent prospects for democracy rather than through rich culture or amazing civilization (Gorodetsky, 2004: 4); therefore, many of these features were lacking in Moscow.

The foreign policy goals of Moscow in Europe during the Cold War were to sustain territorial and political gains achieved at a very high cost in the Second World War, and to also gain access into and dominate the remnant of Europe (Blacker, 1990:89). In this regard, Russia still considers itself as an independent Eurasian power with alternative political and economic ideologies to the West, even though Russia was a weak and supposedly; a new democratic state wanting to become a friend of the West in the early 1990s (Asmus, 2008:96). But shortly after the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russian foreign policy under President Yeltsin prioritizes defence (Donaldson, 2000:298); resulting from strong pessimism towards the West in the later years of Yeltsin administration caused by NATO involvement in Iraq, Kosovo, and its enlargement in Europe. However, the relationship between Russia and the West deteriorated more by the time President Putin came into power in 2000 (Gorodetsky, 2004:12). Against the backdrop of the leadership attitude of Mikhail Gorbachev, through perestroika and glasnost, Russia was misunderstood and misconceived in the West. Because following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow conceived different techniques of purposive and normative influence in Europe, from an attempt to maintain its legacy in the early 1990s to convergence policy in the late 1990s to expansionist ideology in the 2000s (Flavier, 2015:9); and also from prioritization of the former Soviet states to promotion of Russian economic expansionist policy in the CIS with the aim of re-establishing and enhancing its political influence (Trenin, 2006:4). The attempt to acquire economic power in the post-Soviet space was evident in the economic policies of president Yeltsin and his Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov (see McFaul & Stoner-Weiss, 2008:80).

There are arguments in favor of European integration of Russia in the literature. While some claimed that the relationship between the EU and Russia should be taken to the next level (EU integration of Russia), others only hypothesized that Russia may become a member of the EU in the future. In reality, the idea that Russia should or would join the EU is highly unthinkable and unfeasible. The reason is that Russia is to the EU what the United States is to Europe. The willingness or otherwise of Russia to cooperate with the EU determines the availability of security and stability in the EU. The more the United States is interested in the EU, the more achievable is a stable Europe. To begin to think that a consequential Russia could take instructions from Brussels and operate on the same political, economic and legal pedestal with her former satellites states in the EU is to believe that the United States would give up its veto power in the United Nations Security Council someday. Put differently, without being pessimistic, it may also mean an expectation of a future occurrence when the United Sates would cede the structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As stated by Wiegand (2008:10), “Russia sees itself as different to be bundled together with other EU neighbors.” In Moscow the political elites believed that Russian should endeavor to build better relations with the West in terms of regional and global economic integration, but Russia should remain a great power no matter what (Lo, 2002:4). Therefore, one of the ways in which Russia could achieve economic integration with the West is to at least enjoin a relatively less hostile political relationship with the West, if a totally hostile-free relationship is implausible. That said. Political relationship with the West comes at a high cost as Russia is expected to import Western values into its domestic politics. This will also lead to Russia acting on the terms and conditions dictated by the hegemonic Western-led global institution. And such political alignment with the EU, by extension, will impel ‘soft-containment’ policy of the EU towards Russia and Moscow will be confined to its immediate borders and its influence in post-Soviet space will be curtailed. Against this backdrop, the first vice-premier of Russia, Sergey Ivanov, stated that Russia would embrace “flexible coalitions” without assuming obligations and/or entering into any long-term alliances with any state detrimental to Russia’s national interests (Zlobin, 2008:309).

In the following paragraphs, the article traces relevant historical moments in EU-Russia relations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, depicting containment approach by one party and the quest for relevance by the other party. Methodologically, the article adopts a qualitative approach by offering a descriptive analysis of EU-Russia relations in order to describe the alternative dimension of EU-Russia relations existing in parallel to the conflict-cooperation dimension of EU-Russia relations. The hypothetical argument of this article in the subsequent paragraphs is that the EU employs soft-containment policy towards Russia, while Russia seeks politics of relevance in Europe and in its neighborhood fostered by sphere of influence ideology. Therefore, the article proceeds by first introducing the important concepts of EU-Russia relations and/or Russia-West relations. I proceed in the second part of the article to describe the pattern, but not historical chronology, of relationship between the EU and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the section that follows the above two parts, I describe and interpret the new self-conceived dimension of EU-Russia relations. Then, in the final part of the article, I draw conclusions on the on the topic by emphasizing the need for the EU and Russia to develop a robust relationship as none of the two actors could acquire the needed influence in the global space independent of the other.


[1] BBC News, Mikhail Gorbachev: The man who lost an empire. [published on 13.06.2016] 38289333

[2] M. Ruzic, a review of the book by Jeffery Mankoff (2009), Russian Foreign Policy: the return of great power politics. (Maja Ruzic is a freelance researcher). P.128

[3] M. Ruzic, a review of the book by Jeffery Mankoff (2009), Russian Foreign Policy: the return of great power politics.

[4] EU-Russia Relations. See the European Union and the Russian Federation. ters-homepage/35939/european-union-and- russian- federation_en

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Soft-Containment and Politics of Relevance. Conceiving a New Dimension of EU-Russia Relations
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EU-Russia, Geo-politics, International relations, soft-containment, politics of relevance, Russia, EU
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Mr. Sesan Adeolu Odunuga (Author), 2018, Soft-Containment and Politics of Relevance. Conceiving a New Dimension of EU-Russia Relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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