Russia-Europe Relations in Historical Perspective: Investigating the Role of Ukraine

By Torbakov, Igor | Insight Turkey, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Russia-Europe Relations in Historical Perspective: Investigating the Role of Ukraine


Torbakov, Igor, Insight Turkey


There seems to be a consensus within both Russian and European analytic communities as to the ultimate reason behind the dramatic deterioration of Russia-European Union relations over the last three years. This reason boils down to a single word: Ukraine. "By all estimates the relations between the Russian Federation and the European Union have reached the lowest point," contends Russian expert Timofei Bordachev. "What both sides saw 20 years ago as an important and mutually beneficial project has been ruined by the military and diplomatic crisis concerning Ukraine." (1) Finnish academics Tuomas Forsberg and Hiski Haukkala characterize the conflict in Ukraine and the consequent rupture in EU-Russia relations as a "perfect storm." (2) According to prominent Russian foreign policy pundit Fyodor Lukyanov, "Ukraine came as a shock and unleashed all the negative feelings vis-a-vis each other which had accumulated during 25 years of [Russia-EU] cooperation." (3) In Tom Casier's opinion, "with the Ukraine crisis the pragmatic competition that characterized the EU-Russia strategic partnership for a long time has derailed into direct confrontation" (4) while Roy Allison argues that all kinds of differences in Russia's and the EU's interests and outlooks had been simmering for years, "until they surfaced prominently and violently around what all along arguably was the most predictable geopolitical and normative flashpoint, Ukraine." (5)

The Ukraine crisis and subsequent Russo-Ukrainian war were sparked by a seemingly technical issue: the planned signing by Ukraine of the Association Agreement with the European Union. Yet Russia's international conduct over the last several years, both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, appears to demonstrate that foreign policy formulation involves more than a rational analysis of "correlation of forces," economic interests and geopolitical positions. It would seem that foreign policymakers' decisions can also be powerfully influenced by various forms of political imagination, including historical myths and symbolic geographies. To get a better handle on the fluctuations in EU-Russia bilateral relations, one has to take a closer look at how Russia's proverbial love-hate relationship with Europe vacillates back and forth between two interconnected spheres: the world of political imaginary and the realm of actual decision making. Notably, Ukraine has pride of place in the dreamworld of Russian greatness.

This essay intends to investigate a two-pronged question: 1) how the differing, quasi-imperial natures of Russia and the European Union (coupled with the political imagination of their respective elites) make it hard for them to find a convenient compromise or settlement in their shared--and contested--neighborhood in Eastern Europe and, specifically, in Ukraine and 2) how the recent EU-Russia dynamics prompted Moscow's policy elite to reconceptualize Russia as a distinct civilization apart from Europe. While exploring these issues, the essay will maintain a special focus on Ukraine, whose role in the Russia-Europe relationship has historically been and continues to be pivotal. Over the last several years, there has emerged a body of literature that seeks to make sense of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, of Russia's rift with Europe and of the reasons behind the Russo-Ukrainian war. (6) Most of these works, however, have been produced by social scientists and International Relations specialists whose vision the historian Hugh Ragsdale once famously characterized as "impaired," the importance of their scholarship notwithstanding. As these scholars tend to "draw materials for the reflection on the contemporary problem entirely from its own time and place," the end result of their intellectual efforts often suffers from one serious drawback: the foreshortening of perspective. (7) There is a dearth of studies offering a deeper historical contextualization. This essay intends to fill in this lacuna, correct the distorted outlook and provide a broad historical perspective. …

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