Russia and the European Union in the Common Neighbourhood: The Prospect of Competition in the Post-Soviet Space

Putin EU Russia Summit

Russia and the European Union in the Common Neighbourhood: The Prospect of Competition in the Post-Soviet Space

Maria Tyulegenova
National Research University - Higher School of Economics

To start the new year, we'll be sharing a selection of thought pieces from Consortium Fellows who participated in our most recent Consortium Module, hosted by St Antony's College, University of Oxford.

The Ukraine crisis revealed long-standing contradictions between Russia and the EU over the post-Soviet republics. Despite a widespread belief that the case of Ukraine was the main reason for the Russia-West split, the roots are hidden in the history of the interactions and ideological background of two actors competing in the common neighbourhood: the EU and Russia. Because of their sensitive location, those states within the post-Soviet republics were influenced by the two regional players exercising structural and normative power to shape their neighboring environment, as both tried to coordinate the external challenges emanating from the region. The aim of this article is to demonstrate the nature of EU-Russian contradictions over this region and possible ways out of it.

The EU's approach to the post-Soviet space

The active integration of the Central and Eastern European countries has shed light on new territorial priorities for the EU. In spite of the USSR collapse and disappearance of the common “evil”, Western countries were concerned with their security and saw their protection in terms of the process of enlargement. Having been disappointed by enlargement’s inability to guarantee the securitization of Europe, Brussels turned to alternative collaborating arrangements in the form of the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiatives. The root idea of the ENP mainly proceeded from geopolitical considerations: stabilizing the European peripheries and laying the foundations of EU foreign policy beyond enlargement. The aspiration of regional stability and security in a common neighbourhood were among the EU's supreme goals.

Concentrating on the security angle in the EU’s approach towards the common neighbourhood can be explained by tracing the region’s history. The conducting of neighbourhood policies coincided with the EU's response to security challenges, such as the major enlargement of 2004 and the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. However, the image of the EU remains as a community supposedly struggling against threats using normative power, rather than traditional, hard power strategies. The core of Brussels’ strategy to promote its stability and security was based on the normative transformation and spreading of its core values: democracy, human rights, good governance, and market economy. Member states' approach towards the post-Soviet space can be best understood through the concentric circles model, or the concept of normative power, which reflect the liberal approach of the EU. European security was meant to be reached through the creation of the ring of ‘friends’ near its boarders.

Russia's approach to the post-Soviet space

Unlike the EU, Russia traditionally perceived its security from a realist perspective and deployed hard power methods for its securitization. The USSR collapse separated the republics but left Russia with a strong feeling of historical, cultural and economical unity with its neighbours. Since the USSR’s collapse, the post-Soviet space has always been considered as within Russia’s sphere of interests. Having become the successor of the USSR’s great power status, the Russian Federation realized that the security on its borders depends mainly on what happens within post-Soviet states. Furthermore, new security challenges undermined the role of Russia in the region and made it vulnerable and suspicious in respect to Western interference.

After a series of key events, Moscow started to seek to reinforce its strategic position in the region. First, NATO's enlargement and hostilities in Kosovo in 1999 proceeded in the face of Russia's strong opposition, and came as a warning signal for Russian policy makers. Secondly, and most importantly, the ‘Colour Revolutions’ were largely interpreted in Moscow as a western coup, threatening Russia's interests in the region. The security dilemma dominated in the country’s mind. Exclusion from the European security architecture was among the reasons why Russia perceived these actions as a threat. Finally, Russia's response to the launch of the EaP in 2009 demonstrated a gradual ‘pivot’ from the West to the East. Currently, Russia is experiencing the turn from a Eurocentric cultural and economic course towards a Eurasian alternative. Russian leaders have reached a point of fatigue from not being an equal partner with their Western colleagues, particularly concerning the decision making process in the common region. Competition with the West over the common neighbourhood motivated Russia to create the rules of regional politics and develop its own normative power through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU).


Acknowledging the clash of interests seen in the common neighbourhood helps us realize ‘how we got to this crisis point’ in Russian-Western relations. The escalation of the EU-Russia confrontation makes considering the possible ways of how two different integration projects (EaP&EEAU) could co-exist essential. The Ukraine case clearly demonstrated how the two different practical and ideological approaches clash and lead to dire consequences. At the same time, the post-Soviet republics are torn apart by the necessity of choosing between the two sides and the risk of making the wrong decision. Furthermore, the lack of negotiations and face-to-face meetings lead to the stagnation of EU-Russian relations. The Russia-EU summits, previously held on a regular basis, are now a neglected way of communication. Since 2014, Russia and the EU have stopped pursuing constructive dialogue and avoid mentioning the pressing issue of post-Soviet space, which confirms both side’s sensitivity to the region. Engagement with Russia in the common neighbourhood on the condition of full acceptance of the sovereignty and independence of all countries in the region, as well as their ability to pursue relations with both the EU and Russia, should therefore be the goal.  All available channels of communication between the EU and Russia could offer alternative ways to discuss joint initiatives and explore similar approaches to smoothening tensions in the common neighbourhood, together with the post-Soviet republics.