Can EU-Russia relations be repaired post-Putin?

Putin’s decision-making has set Russia down a path that any successor would find difficult to turn from.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses secretaries of security councils and national security advisers during a meeting to discuss Afghan issues at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, February 8, 2023. Sputnik/Grigory Sysoev/Pool via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses secretaries of security councils and national security advisers during a meeting in Moscow on February 8, 2023 [Sputnik via Reuters/Grigory Sysoev]

A year after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the debate about whether this is President Vladimir Putin’s war or not continues. Anti-war Russians, many of whom have sought refuge outside the country, blame the Russian president. For them, his delusions and paranoia have caused a turn to neo-totalitarianism at home and military aggression abroad.

The Russian opposition in exile and in prison insists that if Putin is to fall from power, the situation would reverse. Leonid Volkov, the number two of imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, has even suggested that following the end of the war, the West should offer “a Marshall Plan” not only for Ukraine, in dire need of reconstruction, but also for Russia.

In other words, opposition-minded Russians hope that Moscow will rebuild bridges with Europe and the US once Putin is no longer on the throne.

Understandably, the notion of “Putin’s war” has next to no purchase in Ukraine itself. By and large, Ukrainians fault Russia as a country and as a society, whether it is the jingoistic cheerleaders for Moscow’s “special military operation” or the silent majority who choose to simply ignore it and get on with their daily lives.

Why should Russia be trusted to behave differently one day, they ask, given that Putin speaks for a nation with an imperial mindset?

Besides, a successor to the 70-year-old leader is unlikely to come from the pro-Western opposition or be any different from the current occupant of the Kremlin. Some of the names pundits speculate about – say the head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolay Patrushev – are at least as hawkish as Putin. So for Ukrainians, Russia has to be defeated, no matter who runs the show in Moscow.

But what about the European Union? Has the war moved its relations with Russia – cultivated so carefully for so long – past a point of no return?

For Poland and the Baltic States that is very much the case. For a year now, they have had their “told you so” moment. Even before the Russian invasion last year and the occupation of Crimea in 2014, they made the case that Russian revanchism poses a fundamental threat to the post-Cold War order in Europe.

To the west, France and Germany, however, have been much more ambiguous in their approach to relations with Russia. From the moment he first assumed office in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has been making a case that Europe should think about the long term and engage the Russians. Macron stuck to this line pretty much until the invasion and kept calling Putin in the hope of working out a diplomatic solution of some sort. And as recently as last December, the French president spoke of “security guarantees” to Russia that should be part of a settlement.

Germany has elicited even more frustration and ire among Eastern European friends of Ukraine. Long years of cosying up to the Russians and business cum political ventures, such as the Nord Stream gas pipeline, have tainted its record. The German political class has long seen Russia as a friend and some, like former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, landed lucrative gigs with Moscow’s state-run energy companies.

In the past year, there has been some change in action and rhetoric. In the wake of the invasion, Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared the so-called Zeitenwende (historic turning point), the idea that Berlin will finally take European defence seriously and put its weight behind it both financially and politically. His position has found support among the German public, the majority of which is pro-Ukraine, too.

However, the German bias towards hugging closely Russia, in the expectation that denser ties yield greater security and predictability, has not been relegated to the past. With Scholz dragging his feet on providing military aid to Ukraine, notably on the Leopard tanks, he is signalling that the German leadership has not given up on Moscow altogether. In Germany’s logic, Russia will always be there, whether we like it or not, and we cannot simply shut it down, build a fence around it or ignore it.

Of course, a more charitable interpretation of the tank tussle is that Scholz’s gambit aimed at committing the US to European security, with the 2024 US presidential elections looming on the horizon. But even so, it is safe to assume the Germans will not be in the avant garde of the “stop Russia” coalition going forward.

So then does the lack of full alignment on Russia mean that the EU is leaving the door open for normalisation of relations in the long term? Not exactly.

The war may and probably will last years. So long as there is fighting, it is hard to envisage any form of productive diplomatic engagement, let alone rekindling political and economic links. Certainly, until Putin is in office relations will be confrontational.

In case of de-escalation, a new line will be drawn across Eastern Europe leaving Ukraine and possibly Moldova and Georgia on the “Western side”, Belarus on Russia’s, and Armenia and Azerbaijan in no-man’s land. A Cold War-like scenario will materialise, with the pro-Western countries drawn into EU and NATO’s orbit and Russia entrenching itself in whatever parts of Ukraine it might succeed to keep.

This also means that Cold War-style diplomacy will be deployed. The EU – and its ally, the US – will engage with Russia only in order to preserve stability and avoid a full-frontal collision. The essence of Western policy will be containment, not integration as was the case in the 1990s and 2000s.

The war has taken a heavy toll on economic links between Russia and the EU and Putin’s policy choices have accelerated forces that any future leader might struggle to reverse. Moscow used to be one of the main energy suppliers to the union; it is no more and is unlikely to recover its position. The Russian share of the European gas imports has gone down from 50 percent in 2021 to a meagre 12.9 percent at present.

The European sanctions have forced Russia to gravitate towards China and to some extent, the Global South. This will be one of the war’s lasting legacies.

Anti-Putin Russians hope that their country may eventually find its way back to the West. European leaders are right to think long and hard about what comes after the fighting stops – as sooner or later it will. Yet, as history shows, wars are transformative events. For better or worse, the clock will not turn back to February 23, 2022.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.