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Russia and Europe always had their differences, more so during the Cold War, but even before the two World Wars. Given the globalised world that we live in, one would have thought that Russia and the West may finally put to bed their historic hostility towards each other and cooperate together to ensure the development and progression of both regions. Not so. Or at least not quite so.  It is true that Russia and the EU have an excellent trade relationship. In 2012, trade turnover between Russia and the EU grew by 4.1%, or more than 410 billion dollars.

However, despite decent trade cooperation, the EU and Russia can seem miles apart.  Differences in opinion, particularly concerning the conflict in Syria still remain. Additionally Russian authorities’ treatment of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has also caused friction between Brussels and Moscow. Russia also has its grievances with the EU, especially as Europe is trying hard to not only free itself from the shackles of dependency on Russian oil, but also to influence former Soviet Union republics to join the Western world, rather than to continue to be the butlers of Russian government. Understandably, the Kremlin is not impressed.

Some parts of the EU are especially quite keen to have Ukraine on board, and with good reason. If Ukraine could be drawn closer to the EU, Ukraine would be a great prize, with its population of 46 million as well as big energy and agricultural resources.

Eastern Europeans see a titanic contest between Moscow and Brussels for Ukraine. Yet, having turned inward, most of Brussels is barely aware of it. The decisive moment may come at the Eastern Partnership summit which will be taking place in Vilnius in November 2013 between the EU and the six members of the “Eastern Partnership”: three countries bordering the EU (Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova) and three from the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). Ukraine has negotiated an “association agreement” on political co-operation, including respect for democratic norms and the rule of law. It has also agreed on a “deep and comprehensive” free-trade agreement that would extend a large part of the EU’s body of law eastward. Moldova, Georgia and Armenia are close behind. The hope is that at the summit Ukraine will sign and the three will initial the deals. Senior European visitors to Kyiv say that, for all Ukraine’s thuggish politics and corrupt economy, Ukrainian President Mr Yanukovych is leaning towards Europe, though he may not understand quite how much it requires him to change. Germany, in particular, has set a firm demand that he release his arch-rival and former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, jailed on charges of abuse of office. She has said she favours an EU-Ukraine deal. Some of her allies have already been released. The option is to have her go to Germany for medical treatment.

Ukraine undoubtedly wants to be part of the European club, rather than be tied up to Russia, but the Kremlin will not give up the fight easily. Russia once denounced NATO’s expansion but claimed to accept the extension of the EU to its “near-abroad”. Now Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, seems to regard the EU as hostile. Russia is making a rival offer: a “Eurasian Union” to counter the European one, starting with a customs union that already includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The deal would bring cheaper gas and, according to one source, perhaps a big loan for Ukraine. It will be fascinating to see whether Russia will be able to persuade Ukraine to stick with its old Soviet friend.

Another interesting example of the battle between Russia and the EU is the case of Lithuania. The small country is anxious to keep Moscow at arm’s length, especially since joining the EU in 2004 – but remains almost entirely dependent on Russia for energy, very much like most other Eastern European countries.  Should Lithuania risk trying to further distance itself from Russia, such a move could aggravates the Kremlin and lead to shutting down gas and oil supplies to Lithuania, exactly what Russia did to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009. As long as the EU remains dependent on Russian energy supplies, Russia can use that trump card to its advantage on many issues and occasions.

Concluding on a positive note, despite the many conflicts between Moscow and Brussels, Russian citizens appear to appreciate relations with the European Union. Many can even imagine becoming a member. Those are some of the results of a Deutsche Welle survey. 60% of Russians – and 72% of 18 to 29-year-olds – view the European Union as an important economic and strategic partner for their country.

Despite the friendly feelings towards the EU from the Russian public, the Kremlin may not feel as warmly towards Europe, especially if the EU continues to try and steal former Soviet nations from Russia’s influence and even worse, if the EU finds a way to end the energy dependency on the Russian state, which would hurt the Russian economy badly. The battle between Russia and the EU goes on.

BY: Alex Clackson

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