Concrete steps that would reset EU-US-Russia trilateral relations: returning to the negotiating table, putting an end to NATO encroachment on Russia, and hosting educational exchanges.
Nearly one month after the June 16th Biden-Putin summit, progress in normalizing US-EU-Russia relations remains indeterminate and fragile. Cautious diplomatic efforts are ongoing, including a July 9 phone call between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin after both countries backed a UN Security Council agreement to extend cross-border humanitarian aid operations into Syria.
Still, the possibility of a sudden eruption persists. With a view to deepening stability and cooperation, there are three ways American, European, and Russian leaders can go beyond the dialogue started in Geneva.
(1) Return to Normandy Format and Minsk Protocols
The Normandy Format talks, involving France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, have been ongoing since 2014 and aim to resolve the conflict in the Donbas, but with little to show for the talks have largely stalled. If and when they resume, participating Leaders should be prepared to make changes to the format so as to guarantee that progress can be made.
Ukrinform recently reported that Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, hopes for US participation in the Normandy Format talks, and in the wake of a largely constructive Biden-Putin summit in June, this may now be an option worth considering. During the summit, Biden agreed to commit the US to the Minsk protocols as the path towards stabilization and peace. Involving the US in future discussions pertaining to the Minsk protocols will give Biden a chance to live up to his promise, or not. Whatever the Biden administration’s true motivations end up being, involving the Europeans, Americans, and Russians in common dialogue on Ukraine will clarify where these parties stand.
(2) Ending NATO enlargement
A major obstacle to trilateral relations, and indeed a substantial cause of the present instability plaguing Eastern Europe, is NATO expansionism. Since the 1990s, NATO’s “open-door-policy” has seen many Eastern European countries, including the Baltic states, join the American-led alliance. This has in turn put multi-national forces directly on Russia’s border.
The prospect of Georgia joining NATO produced a crisis in 2008, and when the Ukrainian government was ousted by pro-Western actors in 2014, a conflict ensued in Ukraine’s eastern regions. These instances have undermined regional stability, and particularly the European Union’s Eastern Partnership, a program that seeks to facilitate closer relations between EU member states and so-called former Soviet countries. The reason for this is that any discussion of Eastern European countries aligning with the EU has been inextricably tied up with NATO enlargement, as was the case with Ukraine in 2014.
For all intents and purposes, the EU is subordinated to NATO, a result of lacking autonomy in matters of security and defense. As the EU seeks to expand European-led defense initiatives, starting with the Maastricht Treaty of 1993, Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) since 2017, it will begin to move away from over-reliance on the US through NATO. Notably, the EU’s security and defence architecture is predicated on Civilian peacekeeping and uncontroversial missions like anti-piracy operations, as opposed to containment policies aimed at countries like Russia and China, which NATO insists on butting heads with.
If it takes its role seriously, the EU may be presented with an opportunity to mediate US-Russia relations, but this would only be possible if Europeans acted independently in a genuine and transformative way, which is not far off from what some EU countries like France are already pushing towards. Rather than committing more funds to NATO’s budget, Europeans may want to chart their own course, all the while creating the conditions that would alleviate Russian concerns over US-NATO encroachment and exhaust US criticisms that American taxpayers contribute disproportionate sums to European security.
(3) Furthering Educational Collaboration
Ru-PAC analysts have previously written on the importance of US-Russia educational and cultural exchanges when it comes to building bridges at the interpersonal level. East-West academic collaboration has been a staple of diplomacy since the Cold War, via organizations such as the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, or IIASA, which was the brainchild of US and Soviet leaders during the 1970s and continues to foster cooperation between academics from around the world.
In a 2020 EU Parliament Brief on relations with Russia, European leaders echoed the need for greater people-to-people contact as a step towards easing tensions. The participation of Russian university students in Erasmus+ exchanges has increased significantly in recent years, and so has the number of European students traveling to Russia. Continuing along a path of openness in academia and actively promoting exchanges is a logical measure aimed at long-term reconciliation.
The are many avenues for the EU, US, and Russia to engage one another in productive ways. Cybersecurity, for example, was a key topic during the Biden-Putin summit and continues to be a major concern for both countries as well as the EU. Ultimately, it is not a question of identifying areas of cooperation but rather of creating the prerequisite conditions for lasting cooperation to be possible in the first place, which will require (1) ending the conflict in Ukraine, (2) recognizing that Russia is reasonably concerned about NATO expansion, and (3) breaking down barriers at the personal and cultural level.
Julian Fisher is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).