The Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 set back these efforts, but not for long. Thereafter, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), then under Swiss chairmanship, set up an Panel of Eminent Persons to try to pave the way for a reset.
And now, new E.U. High Representative Josep Borrell has made his own much-discussed journey on this well-trodden path.
The results of all these efforts have been more or less the same — at best nothing and at worst a further deterioration of the relationship.
There are of course important areas of selective engagement and cooperation with Russia that have survived this gradual deterioration. The Biden administration has revived the dialogue on strategic stability and nuclear issues, and Europe is keen to talk to Russia on restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement with Iran, climate change and other multilateral issues.
But a few swallows don’t make a summer. And time after time, other events — the Novichok attack in Britain; the recurring cyberattacks against, among others, parliaments in Germany and Norway; the refusal to engage on the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17; or, most recently, the attempt to poison Alexei Navalny and subsequently deflect blame — have derailed attempts to bring the relationship on a more constructive path.
Damaging to the relationship as these events have been, the underlying reason for the serial failure of the frequent reset attempts lies in the fact that there are fundamental issues where Russia flatly refuses to reset its own policies, and instead sees any discussion as an opportunity to press Europe to retreat on its policies and principles.
From the European point of view, by far the biggest barrier is Russia’s policies in its immediate neighborhood. The recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries, as well as the aggression against Ukraine with first the annexation of Crimea and then the establishment of a Russian statelet in Donbas, are violations of fundamental principles of European security.
In 2016, when the E.U. set up some principles to base its relations with Russia on, the first was the full respect for the Minsk agreement on the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity in Donbas. So far, the Kremlin hasn’t been willing to take any credible steps in this direction.
The Kremlin’s expectations with its attempts at dialogue on issues of European security are twofold. First, it wants to have recognized, directly or indirectly, a right to have a say in the policies of its immediate neighbors, de facto reducing their sovereignty. Second, it wants to get rid of existing OSCE and other commitments to human rights and thus be allowed a free hand to repress its citizens at will.
The lessons to be learned from the multitude of reset failures is that it’s only by firmly resisting these attempts that we can over time get Russia to reset its own policies. That is the only credible path to a more constructive relationship.
As former foreign minister of Moldova Nicu Popescu puts it, Russia “will be incentivized to seek a reset only when it hits the wall of Western intransigence without maintaining hope that it can circumvent such intransigence, or wait it out.” For now, he says, “offering Russia resets every other year only leads to greater Russian disregard for Western interests in eastern European security or in the Middle East.”
Then, of course, domestic issues in Russia come into play. The Partnership for Modernization was a result of the Dmitry Medvedev era, when “modernization” was the buzzword of the day in Russia. But those days are gone, and we now see a stagnating regime that is starting to fear it might be rather brittle, as the inevitable succession starts looming.
We might have to wait for Russia to undertake the domestic reset that is probably a necessary precondition for its external reset. As Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations put it, the E.U. and the United States might have to “prepare for years of frustration in their relationship with a regime in Moscow that is slowly decaying, unable to renew itself, and fears for its survival.”