The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia used to see itself as part of Europe. Here’s why that changed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference with Austrian President Alexander Van Der Bellen as part of a meeting in Vienna on June 5. (Ronald Zak/Associated Press)

The European Union is expected to announce soon whether it will expand its economic sanctions against Russia. It first imposed sanctions in March 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea; they were expanded a few months later after Russia destabilized eastern Ukraine and following the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by a Russian-made missile over territory controlled by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. The sanctions reveal that E.U.-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War.

It hasn’t always been this way. As an article of mine published earlier this year shows, Russia saw itself as part of Europe at the turn of the millennium. It aspired to closer integration with the E.U. But over the past 18 years, the Kremlin has gradually turned its back on the West — and now sees the E.U. as an aggressor in a new Cold War. This happened in three distinct phases.

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As the first president of post-Soviet Russia, Boris Yeltsin wished to integrate with the E.U., an aspiration held by much of Russia’s political elite. After being elected president in 2000, Vladimir Putin initially pursued Yeltsin’s vision.

Adopted in 2000, Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept — an official white paper that defines the country’s foreign policy — described the E.U. as being “of key importance” for Moscow, “one of its main political and economic partners.” At the time, the Kremlin saw the United States and NATO as the principal threats to Russia’s national interests and the main obstacles to its long-term foreign policy goal: once again being a “great power.” The E.U., by contrast, was the acceptable face of the West.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in mid-2003, however, Putin began to speak about the need for Russia to become a “strong” country to thrive in the post-Cold War world. Russia began reasserting its right to ensure that its neighbors’ foreign policy was aligned with Russia rather than the E.U. When the E.U. expanded to include the three Baltic states and several former Warsaw Pact countries in 2004, Russia accused Brussels of drawing “new dividing lines” in Europe.

After that, Russia began to treat the E.U. as an expansionist power, encroaching on its sovereignty and foreign-policy objectives. The Kremlin concluded that the E.U. had been actively involved in the “color revolutions” in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 — each of which would have, or did, reorient those nations’ allegiances toward the E.U. and away from Russia.

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From the middle of Putin’s second term as president, the Kremlin began to group the E.U. with the United States and NATO. All of them, in Russia’s view, were seeking to undermine Russia’s sovereignty by dictating policies, norms and values at odds with those in Russia.

At the same time, Putin repeatedly asserted that the post-Cold War system is unfair. You can hear it in his speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, when he railed against a “unipolar” international order. The United States, he argued, had “overstepped its borders in all spheres — economic, political and humanitarian — and has imposed itself on other states.” As a result, he said, Russia would “carry out an independent foreign policy.”

The 2008 iteration of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept reflected this change. It downgraded the E.U. to being “one of the main trade-economic and foreign policy partners” of Russia.

This shift from Europe to Eurasia quickly became tangible. After Russia launched a war with neighboring Georgia over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the E.U. suspended negotiations with Russia on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement — the legal basis for relations between Brussels and Moscow — in September 2008. Then, in May 2009, the E.U. launched an Eastern Partnership program with six former Soviet republics, intended to boost economic and political relations with Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested that “countries with anti-Russian attitudes” — primarily the Baltic states and the states of Central Europe — would turn the E.U. against Russia.

In January 2010, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan established the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU), which replaced the E.U. as Russia’s chief integrationist project. The ECU is a customs union aimed at the former Soviet states and centered on Moscow. Imagined as a counterweight to the E.U., the ECU showed Russia’s efforts to bring together the post-Soviet region under its influence, to increase its regional and global power.


Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 was overshadowed by widespread protests in Moscow over the rigged parliamentary elections in late 2011. These protests were seen by the Kremlin as being part of a Western, including the E.U., plot to change Russia’s regime.

In response, Putin worked to crack down domestically on Western influence and to promote Russia as a defender of conservative values. The Kremlin began to criticize the E.U. for promoting Western values — supporting the LGBT community, in particular — as universal standards, and for imposing them on Russia.

Putin believed that the E.U. helped support the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, when Ukrainians toppled their corrupt leader (and Russia backer) Viktor Yanukovych. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its destabilization of eastern Ukraine, Putin adopted still more bellicose rhetoric toward the E.U. The Kremlin argued that to protect Russia’s sovereignty, it had to intrude on that of its neighboring countries.

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The most recent iteration of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept was adopted in November 2016. Here we see the E.U. marginalized, while “Eurasian integration processes” are emphasized instead. This refers to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), announced in January 2015 as the ECU’s successor. The EAEU seeks to integrate the post-Soviet states into a cohesive economic entity. It currently has four members aside from Russia: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. 

E.U.-Russia relations — like broader West-Russia relations — have degraded still further over the past two years, most obviously since the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, in England in March 2018, and Putin’s reelection as president later the same month.

But this slide has been underway for the past 18 years, as Russia has shifted from treating cooperation with the E.U. as desirable to seeing confrontation with the E.U. as unavoidable.

Andrew Foxall (@drewfoxall) is director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre at Henry Jackson Society, a London-based international affairs think tank, and author of “Ethnic Relations in Post-Soviet Russia” (Routledge, 2015).