Sergei Prozorov on Europe-Russia relations: "Domestic Politics Are What Define How We Approach This Matter"

Sergei Prozorov met with me on the rainy morning of March 27th at his office at the University of Helsinki, where he is a World Politics professor and an Academy of Finland Research Fellow in the Department of Political and Economic Studies. Prozorov, who received his doctoral degree from the University of Tampere and has also been Research Fellow at the Danish Institute of International Studies in Copenhagen, has published numerous articles on political theory and international affairs – most prominently on the topic of Euro-Russian relations. He is the author of the book Understanding Conflict Between Russia and the EU: The Limits of Integration. In this interview, he gives us a critical perspective on the history, current state and potential future of Russia and Europe’s seemingly broken relationship.


Dr. Sergei Prozorov / Photo: Carla Raffin


After the Cold War, it seemed that maybe the relationship between Europe and Russia would be a fruitful one. There was a Four Common Spaces project, with talks about the abolition of the visa regime, scientific cooperation, energy partnerships… what happened?

The relationship between Russia and Europe since the end of the Cold War can perhaps be divided into three phases. The first, which you eluded to, was the most optimistic one – the phase of integration or hopes for integration – and it lasted from the very late 1980s to around the end of the 1990s. This was the period when it was expected that Russia would join the so-called Common European Home (Mikhail Gorbachev’s phrase from the late 1980s), that it would participate in the European integration process, and even hypothetically and eventually join the European Union. This project was kind of on the agenda, but close to the end of the 90s practical problems started to arise – despite the fact that the project remained as a mere slogan, there were also concrete problems, gradual disappointments. On one hand, Europe had issues with the base and the quality of changes in Russia, with events such as the Chechnya Wars, troubles with democratization and so on. On the other hand, there was a growing sentiment among Russian politicians in which they felt that their country was not being taken as an equal partner, subject to their own right, but as the object of indoctrination or guidance towards some proper model.

Then this led to the second phase which was a kind of contradictory one where you had integration still on the agenda but increasingly lots of conflicts over specific issues. I think this second one probably ended in 2008 with the brief war in Georgia in which Russia basically abrogated the whole post-Soviet territorial settlement and eventually recognized the breakaway provinces of Georgia – after that, it was clear that the integration program had absolutely come to nothing. Even though one can still talk about the ambition for European intervention, it is clear that Russia instead is practicing its own re-integrationist projects in the post-Soviet space, the Eurasian Economic Union and so on and so forth. And I think we’re kind of at the end of this third phase now. People have been talking about how things have changed so much with Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, when in fact what happened in 2014 was just the enlarged version of what happened in 2008 with Georgia – so we are kind of still there. The only difference is that, while previously you could kind of say that Russia was in the early 2000s protesting that it was Europe and the West that was meddling in its affairs, right now we see the counter example of Russia trying to intervene in European matters with election interferences and so on. It is a kind of radicalization but it has all been there since at least 2008.

However, where does this radicalization come from? Why does it happen? Because as you said, there was already a tendency, but it increased… how come?

There are a number of reasons for that. First of all, I increasingly catch myself thinking about how Europe’s rather poor response in 2008 made 2014 possible. Before what happened in Georgia, Europeans were disappointed in integration but they knew how to deal with Russia and with Vladímir Putin. However, then this happened in 2008, and it was perceived as a sort of glitch in the machine – and, as much as Europe wanted to re-establish normal relations and pretend it had never happened, Russia saw a situation in which the costs had been low and the hypothetical reward high (including domestic popularity and so on). So they thought “ok, why not try something like this again?”. On that note, other reasons for Russia’s radicalization also have to do with its domestic politics. A lot of the popularity of the Putin regime earlier in the 2000s had to do with a very long comparative period of economic growth – an uninterrupted growth from the early 2000s until 2008-2009. However, with the global financial crisis the Russian growth slowed down considerably and in 2011 and 2012 protests sparked over elections that had been rigged as much as previous ones; but this time the corruption had taken place in a different socio-economic setting, making the protests quite impressive. This threatened the regime and one of Putin’s ways of dealing with this was to change – subtly at first but then more and more explicitly – his support base. He was losing votes in the big cities among the younger and professional middle class, to which his response was to go pick those votes up elsewhere – that elsewhere being rural and quite economically depressed areas, and thus the more conservative, nationalistic inclined electorate. So, this regime that was kind of technocratic and authoritarian but not very ideological became a regime which is very conservative, very oriented towards whatever calls for traditional values. Here, Europe began to play the role of a useful contrast. The answer to the question “what do we want?” has become “we want not to be the way they are in Europe”, which positions Russia against gay marriages, against whatever nontraditional expressions of sexuality, also against the influx of refugees, and so forth… This moreover helped dismiss the domestic opposition, because it could easily be accused of being pro-European and thus supporters of all those aspects of which Russia is not supportive. But, once you start going down that road it becomes very hard to turn off this process, because you cannot talk about European integration if your official discourse has defined Europe as a sort of moral evil, a moral panic.

Would you then define the invasion of Ukraine as offensive on Russia’s part? Because it has been regarded by some as a defensive action against Europe’s advancement, but after the context you have explained it seems that maybe it was a strategy.

When it comes to the Ukraine conflict, there are a number of reasons for what happened, obviously. But, I do not really buy the defensive accusation because, so to speak, I do not understand what exactly Russia is supposed to be defending itself from. Of course it is very good for somebody who makes an offensive move to say, “I am only making a defensive one” – this we are all familiar with. But, the actual reasoning behind it also had a lot to do with domestic, not only international, issues. What happened in Ukraine in February 2014 was a revolutionary change of a political regime and it was already the second time that it had happened – the first time had been in 2004. So it was like a double offense and, considering the protests that took place in Russia itself in 2011 and 2012 (which failed to change the regime) just two years before that, the protests that succeeded in Ukraine were very much seen as a threat by Russia’s regime – as if these protests could encourage the Russian opposition to make a revolution that would succeed like it had in Ukraine. For this reason, there was a very clear standpoint by the official governmental policy in responding to the Ukrainian revolution so that it did not succeed. The number of different possibilities that were contemplated had already been discussed since the first revolution –  in fact, you can see that a lot of the blueprints done already in 2004 were relied on in 2014. One of the possibilities would be to recognize the deposed Ukrainian president as the real one, with the government in exile in one of the Eastern regions of Ukraine. This did not work because there was very little support or mobilization in Eastern Ukraine itself and the only territories that Russia managed to acquire control of were quite few, so it could not really be said that this would be the alternative for the Ukrainian state; but Crimea was one of the immediate cases. It seems from what we now know that there were lots of plans made for something like this to take place; it was very well organized and it was definitely not an improvisation, as it is sometimes said. It seems that even if there had not been a revolution, there were already preparations for an intervention in case the president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, lost the elections that would have taken place in 2015. And then, as a matter of one of the contingency plans, that the case would be what eventually took place. So it was obviously an offensive move. You could say it did have a defensive rationale, but a domestic political one – Russia wanted to defend itself from the Ukrainian revolution, not from the hypothetical and completely unrealistic threat from NATO or something like that, as it is sometimes said. But the domestic revolution, the image of the Ukrainian revolution as a successful democratic revolution, would have hurt very much. So one of the solutions was to say “let’s make such a mess of things that the Ukrainian revolution will never be a success story, that it will be a nightmare story: look what happened as a result of this”.

Yet, you talk about Ukraine as an escalation of a tendency that was already there. However, do you not think it was a turning point in the perception that Europeans have today of Russia? Now I hear claims both in the media and by the people around me that, if Russia invaded Ukraine, why not for example Finland as well? For instance, Finland and Russia also have a history together. Do you think these claims are realistic or do you think they are paranoia?

One of the reasons why only Ukraine was a wakeup call was that, precisely, the Georgian case in 2008 ended too quickly and with relatively little bloodshed, with a few hundred dead altogether on both sides. It was over in five days and it did not make a very lasting impression; plus, Georgia might have been thought of as further from Europe than it actually is. Of course, what you had in Ukraine was much more pronounced, visible, lethal (over 10,000 dead already) and right at the heart of Europe, and it very clearly threw into disarray the whole post-Soviet territorial settlement. When Russia made historical claims such as “well, we are taking Crimea because it was originally given by the Soviet government from Russia to Ukraine by Khrushchev, without proper legal authorization”, it basically meant that now Pandora’s box was open. Because there is not a limit to how far back in history you can go, you can delegitimize pretty much every square centimeter of every boundary of every state, if you want to go that way. The problem was that in 1991, when the Soviet Union was disintegrating, there was a different line of thinking, which was meant precisely to avoid the opening of the Pandora’s box. Precisely, the territorial settlement made in December 1991, the so called Belavezha treaty, said very simply that as much as there might be problems with it, the internal administrative boundaries of Soviet republics now became the borders of the new post-Soviet states – period, no exceptions, that is it. This was intended to be a way to avoid something that was very much in the news back in the day: The Yugoslav War. So, as ridiculous as these new borders might appear (because inside the Soviet Union they had been mere internally administrated borders which did not mean much), they now had to be respected. One could say that there are historical arguments for Crimea returning to Russia but, if you go down that road, there are also historical arguments for Chechnya’s independence for instance, independence of Tatarstan, or for playing, as I said, with every inch of every territory.

So, despite the fact that there was criticism within the anti-liberal opposition in the 1990s which deemed this post-soviet settlement as problematic and illegitimate, at the time of Borís Yeltsin’s presidency and for the first eight to ten years of Putin’s presidency, Russia more or less stuck with it and played the role of a conservative, stabilizing force in the region. Now it does not do so anymore. This means a tremendous shift, which has not yet and probably will not in the near future take a definitive shape. There is a new order but it is kind of whatever Russia decides every morning, which is why the neighbors are quite jumpy – not because of aggressive intentions, but because there is no norm they can appeal to if the old norms have not withheld and the new ones have not yet been invented. So, I would not say that this is paranoia in any way: I would say that this is quite a legitimate concern. What is the situation? If the boundaries are kind of sacrosanct, as they were at the end of the Cold War, then it is one situation. You might think “ok, this is the stable territorial order in which we live in and we do not except anything to happen”. But if you say, “it is all up in the air, and everything is negotiable and everything is in principle viable”; then yes, of course it is worrisome. If you can have a Russian-led people’s republic in Donetsk, why can you not have a Russian-led people's republic in a region of Estonia, instead, for instance...Which would be a very similar set, the difference being that Estonia is a member of NATO, so that would escalate the situation even further. So that would be an example of the same thing, but in a slightly different context and more explosive for that reason. However again, not a different process in substance.

In Europe, there are currently in the rise a number of political parties with a rhetoric of extremist anti-establishment and anti-Europeanism. The most prominent example of this is France’s National Front. How would you say the rise to power of these kind of parties would affect Russo-European relations?

There’s clear evidence that Russia is supporting the National Front party and Marine Le Pen in the election, especially now that the other candidate of the so-called moderate but not very moderate right, François Fillion, appears to be a bit behind and not likely to make it to the second round – because he probably could have been acceptable to Russia as well. [This interview was carried out before the first round]. But there is a very strong negative campaigning against Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate who is kind of neck and neck with Le Pen. So it is clear where Russia’s sympathies are; but this has been the case in many countries. Even before Crimea’s annexation, Russia has tended to support the parties on the far-right, plus in some other countries also the parties on the far-left (including, for instance, the left-party in Germany or at least some of the candidates from said party). There are different perspectives on what this is: is this a matter of ideological proximity? Does the Russian government feel solidarity for these people and for that reason wants to support them? This is possible in a certain sense but it assumes that Russia’s conservative turn that I mentioned a few minutes ago was actually genuine – that this whole traditionalist, homophobic and racist image is actually genuine and not contrived. However, there is another perspective on this. If you go back to the 1930s, the Soviet Union, very clearly, if not supported at least advanced the far-right nationalist and fascist parties in Europe because it was interested, not in having a particular party coming to power, but in the destabilization of Europe. Hence, in this sense it is a rational strategy which is based on the idea that if we have Euro-sceptic parties triumphant in a few European countries, the European Union as a project is severely destabilized or harmed – for example if, hypothetically, France under Le Pen would leave, the EU is then pretty much over as a project. So, it is not a matter of even ideological sympathies: if in country A it is a far-right party that takes up on the anti-European initiative then that is where Russia lays its support, and if in country B it is a far-left party that does so, then so be it, Russia will probably also support it. This is a new phenomenon within the post-Soviet period; but, if you look at the history of the Soviet era, there is abundant evidence about how Russia tried to influence European politics starting from day one, from 1917. Later on, this started being terribly ineffective because it was done through formal institutional channels, the Western communist parties which, you know, few supported and were very clearly client parties of the USSR. But, then, in the post-communist period it was rather Russia that was saying to the West or Europe that “you intervene in our affairs by supporting our NGO’s and oppositional groups and helping progressive educational institutions – we do not interfere in your affairs, do not interfere in ours”. Today, Russia is no longer saying that interfering is what it does not do, while it has also effectively removed Western interference during the last ten years. Hence, this is a second change within the post-Soviet times: the first one was the instability of boundaries, the second one is the interference in the affairs of others.

It seems that Euro-Russian relations are a vicious circle. What could be done to break it? For example, what would be Russia’s ideal outcome of this? And what about Europe’s ideal outcome? On the other hand, what would be a feasible solution to mend Russo-European relations as a whole?

The ideal outcome for Russia would be some sort of recovery of democracy. It has been abrogated gradually since the early 2000s and I think to recover it is an ultimate condition to advance forward with the relations with Europe and with everything else. There is a very clear problem with authoritarian regimes, especially after a few years of their existence; they become gradually more and more ineffective because they are centered on one person. For that reason, they become unpredictable and erratic and it is difficult to envision any kind of lasting shift in relations unless it is based in something more than individual agreements and deals. Then, when it comes to Europe, the ideal outcome would be some sort of re-appreciation of democracy, while in Russia it is already lost and has to be recovered completely. Basically this means coming to terms with this current crisis of European politics more generally, because I think that all of those things – the far right parties, Trump, Brexit – are a symptom of a certain problematic status of democracy in contemporary times. Why is that? Well, to put it briefly, the problem for the last decade – or more, maybe two decades – has been that when democracy is working normally or smoothly, it quite paradoxically produces a situation where the two main competing forces are practically identical: which is not much of a point because the whole ideal of democracy is the alternation of different forces and power through peaceful competition and peaceful change of who is in the government. If everything is peaceful but there’s no difference between the parties, then the model works but is not really worthwhile. But then, when you have sufficient difference, the whole thing stops running smoothly and becomes a crisis of almost existential proportions. When you have different forces, one of them tends to be anti-democratic and it tends to express itself in a more explosive, anti-systemic way. Hence, when democracy becomes meaningful, it is always at the risk of breaking down. When it is working smoothly it becomes meaningless. So the trick is to achieve meaningful political difference without this difference becoming the end of democracy itself. This is basically a matter of re-invigoration of politics, not only on the fringes but also in the center. So we have a new right on the right, and on the left we have the rise of different new lefts or populist left parties (such as SYRIZA and Podemos). Then actually the one thing that remains in the center is the center itself. Which is why Macron in France is such an interesting phenomenon; you have a centrist which is not radical at all but he presents himself as a kind of revolutionarily option within the system. Finally, when it comes to Russian-European relations as a whole, provided those two ideal outcomes are reached, this is when you can start the dialogue again. Ultimately, the question is still there. The question of whether the Common European Home that Gorbachev dreamed of can be achieved and if it can, how. But it is quite clear that domestic politics are what define how we approach this matter. When you are talking about a common European home, about integration, about Europe as a single political entity, it quite simply cannot work if you have completely different political regimes. It is not only a question of Russia, actually Turkey also has the same problem. You cannot build a single home without a single political order, and this is exactly where there are evident limits. So, in terms of a feasible solution, ironically, the current panorama is a scenario that Russia would have been happy with five years ago. The only deal that Europe might be prepared to offer Russia right now, is basically saying “look, within your boundaries you can do what you want; but do not cross and do not interfere beyond them” – which is precisely what Russia was asking for in, let’s say, 2009-2011 and before Ukraine, before the whole thing spilled over and made it into an international mess.

And within that, specifically in the case of Ukraine, what would be a possible solution? Is it also a domestic solution, as it is with the general case of Russo-European relations?

Actually I precisely think Ukraine is an international problem. Ukraine is such a difficult question because there are so many things in politics that you cannot turn back. For example, can Russia return Crimea to Ukraine? Sure, they could – with proper media control it could be spun to look like a major success. But what exactly would they be returning? They would be returning a territory with two million Russian passports. So Russia could return it to Ukraine but then what? They deprive those people of citizenship? That would create a terrible mess. It is the same as with the Donbass regions, the so called people’s republics. They are such a pain in the neck for Russia now that it would gladly return them – but of course they cannot be returned under these conditions. This is why the Minsk agreements made this a frozen conflict, they are almost by definition impossible to implement. There is no agreement on both sides which tells them what to do. On one hand, Ukraine says: “we need control of the border so we can then have local elections in which everybody can participate, but first we need control of the border”. By large, this means that Ukraine needs to establish sovereignty over its territories first. But for Russia, what is the point? “What is in it for us?” they ask. Russia’s proposition would be to have elections which they could manipulate, to have the regime legitimized under Ukrainian law, and maybe then Russia would allow Ukraine control of its borders. For the Ukrainians, this is of course completely unacceptable. Moreover, I insist on the nature of the Russian regime: Russia can implement such a proposition because its parliament would fully support it, but whoever takes such a deal to the Ukrainian parliament will probably be deposed just like the former president. Hence, it makes no sense to even conceive this idea. For that reason, the conflict tends to freeze even if nobody wants it to – it is a cul-de-sac situation. Unless there is a major escalation perhaps elsewhere or a tremendous political change in Ukraine itself, then one cannot know what can happen. There are periodic resumptions of conflict which then settle down, there are rumors of large scale invasions but then they do not happen – partly because if they did happen they would create a new situation. The same goes for Crimea: Russia is not about to return it and nobody is going to accept what happened because that would mean to throw away international law. Therefore, the conflict will probably continue to go on as it is unless a major conflict makes the issue possible to deal with because there is a bigger thing happening.

About said potential bigger conflict I have one last question: do you think the increasing militarization of both Russia and European countries is building up to a major future clash?

Well, hopefully not… So, let’s say that, if 2015 was enabled by 2009 – in which Europe pretty much let the whole thing slide and then you had the repetition of the issue on a larger scale, with more casualties and so on – if that is true, then, by the same logic, it would be precisely an inaction in Ukraine (for example some sort of deal in which sanctions are removed without proper resolution first) which would show that Europe cannot manage the situation, like in 2008, and that Russia can get away with whatever provocation it wants. In that sense, if that happened, it would be perceived as an invitation to upscale the conflict. When it comes to militarization, on the Russian side it has been going on precisely since 2008, since Georgia, and after in a non-interrupted manner, through all of these years.  Then you have a much more modest scale within the NATO and European countries, which is in many ways a response that does not have any sort of strategic rationale, as I see it: it is more of a question of trying to understand the other side, trying to understand what might actually convince Russia that we mean business. This has been an interesting question that has been raised in the discussion. We can for example see an unease or wonder about this question in Barack Obama’s policy on Russia. Obama’s strength and weakness was that he was a rationalist. He was always trying to explain both to Putin and to the world at large that “listen, you are not a superpower, you can pretend all you want and puff it up, but you are not – you are a regional power, your economy is not doing well, and the way you are behaving is not even going to make it better”. He was almost like a teacher explaining to a bully that his behavior rules out his chances in life later on. But I think the matter is precisely that world politics is not exactly a rational scene, it is also possible to completely interrupt the conversation. Without there being any kind of necessary shared platform on the basics, different sides cannot talk about and understand what is rational and what is not. So the idea is just how Europe should respond to Russia so that it can make its intentions clear. Should it do tit-for-tat military moves? “We make an exercise, you make an exercise, and so on” … or should it be asymmetric; for example, to reply to whatever military provocations by economic sanctions, where the question is whether such a tactic would send a mixed signal of weakness. So, it is a perception and interpretation game – which again indicates how, politically and culturally, the two sides are very far apart, making their integration extremely difficult.