At odds but bound together, Europe and Russia struggle over Syria

The war of words over Syria – including accusations of Russian war crimes in Aleppo – has relations between Moscow and Brussels at their worst in years. But both sides recognize that nothing can be done without the other.

Alex­ei Nikolskyi/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to French television in Kovrov, Russia, on Tuesday.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warns that Russia is becoming a "pariah nation" for its bombing of civilian targets in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to cancel a visit to Paris next week. European diplomats are discussing the possibility of imposing fresh sanctions on Moscow over the bombing of Aleppo.

These are grim times for ties between Russia and the European Union.

“Relations between Russia and the European Union are the worst they have been since the end of World War II,” says Stefan Meister, an expert on Russian affairs at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. “There is a fundamental loss of trust on both sides.”

European leaders will meet next week for a strategic re-think of their links to their giant neighbor. But while Europe and Russia exchange barbs over thorny topics like Syria and Crimea, both sides seem concerned, beyond the rhetoric, to keep the relationship under control. For while there may be no grounds for a partnership in Syria or elsewhere, neither is there any possibility of ignoring each other.

'Not the best moment'

Both French President François Hollande and Mr. Johnson suggested this week that the airstrikes on Syrian civilians constituted war crimes, and the EU is anxious to keep its distance from the Russian bear. European leaders will meet next week for a strategic re-think of their ties to their giant neighbor.

Since last March, Brussels has framed its relationship with Moscow in a set of five principles, including “selective engagement” on topics where the EU has an interest, such as the Middle East, migrants, and terrorism.

In that spirit, Mr. Hollande made it clear that if Putin came to Paris next week to open a Russian Orthodox cathedral and cultural center, he would meet him only to talk about Syria. Putin then abandoned his trip.

“This is not the best moment for official meetings, given the lack of mutual understanding, to put it mildly, that we have over events in Syria, particularly the situation in Aleppo,” Mr. Putin told French TV. “But we are always open, of course, to any consultations and dialogue on this matter.”

The incident suggests, says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris, “that selective engagement is at an impasse at the moment.”

Although French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault stressed that “Russia is a partner, not an adversary,” this could be a hard line to hew to. Russian jets continue to pound Aleppo with no regard for civilian casualties, while Russian military forces support separatists in eastern Ukraine and Moscow shows no sign of reversing its forced annexation of Crimea.

Moscow’s links with Washington are in no better repair. Mr. Putin has said he would withdraw from a 16-year-old bilateral agreement on destroying weapons-grade plutonium; the US government has accused the Russian authorities of using cyber-attacks to disrupt the presidential election.

There seems little prospect of any concessions from Putin, argues Dr. Meister, because “he has no interest in resolving the crisis with the West; he is using it to legitimize his government.”

In Moscow, observers are equally gloomy. “There is little chance of restoring full-fledged regular cooperation,” predicts Natalia Evtikhevich, who monitors Russian-European relations at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow. “The points of contention in this document [the five EU principles] significantly outnumber any avenues for cooperation.”

The Kremlin’s goal, Ms. Evtikhevich says, is to “gradually work on a new model of relations, built on a more sovereign, pragmatic, and equal basis.”

If that means Europe accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea, regarded in the West as a violation of a fundamental principle of the post-World War II order, “that is impossible,” says Meister. “Russia has crossed red lines … they have gone too far.”

Keeping channels open

There seems little Europe or anybody else can do to reverse that fait accompli, however; Western sanctions have had little impact, and Russia and Europe are still tightly bound by trade. EU members depend on Russia for 30 percent of their natural gas, and the EU is still Russia’s largest market.

At the same time, European diplomats acknowledge that neither the crisis in Ukraine nor the war in Syria can be resolved without Moscow’s cooperation. “If we believe there won’t be a solution without Russia on board, accusing Moscow of war crimes does not mean we should outlaw Russia,” says Mr. Lafont Rapnouil.

Although Washington has suspended bilateral discussions with Moscow about Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Saturday, along with officials from Middle East countries.

A few days later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to host Hollande and Putin to discuss ways of reviving the sputtering peace process in eastern Ukraine.

Whatever else next week’s EU strategy session comes up with, continued dialogue with Moscow, however reluctant, seems sure to be part of the policy.

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