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Nikolay Kobrinets

Director of Department of European Cooperation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Speech at the 11th Meeting in the “EU-Russia” Series held by the Russian International Affairs Council and the Embassies of the Chair Countries of the Council of the European Union

Speech at the 11th Meeting in the “EU-Russia” Series held by the Russian International Affairs Council and the Embassies of the Chair Countries of the Council of the European Union

Dear colleagues,

1. Regrettably, there have not been any conceptual improvements in the Russia-EU relations recently. The strategic dialogue in the European Council on Russia in June has produced nothing, but the reconfirmation of the infamous Mogherini principles—not the best ground to base relations on. Yet, do we need a change in doctrines to do something practical, especially as the EU itself proclaims “selective engagement” with Russia? In fact, not really.

The Russian strategy towards the EU has never really changed and is quite simple. We are open to equal and mutually beneficial relationship in areas of common interest. We are reasonably conservative, as President Putin just recently said at the Valdai club, on the 22nd October.

Together with the EU Russia used to have a multi-branch and multi-faceted architecture of bilateral dialogues—up to 17 of them—covering a whole range of sectoral issues, including energy. We used to have a strong political dialogue with Russia-EU summits held twice a year. We used this bureaucratic machinery to push forward the four common spaces, the New Basic Agreement, crisis management, visa-free regime, etc. And we were not the ones who all of a sudden stopped all this.

I was working in Brussels myself back then, and could witness that with my own eyes.

2. The Russia-EU political dialogue was designed exactly to promote greater understanding, overcome differences, find a common ground on regional issues. Breaking through the pandemic of COVID-19 we are now gradually resuming it at different levels.

President Putin and President of the European Council Charles Michel regularly talk over the phone, with four of such conversations having taken place this year. Minister Lavrov and High Representative Joseph Borrell met twice this year covering a wide range of topics.

We are in good contact with our Slovenian friends, presiding over the EU Council—on 6 May I conducted a video conference with the Director-General of the Directorate for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Mr Jernej Muller.

We had a frank and constructive exchange on the priorities of the Presidency and European security.

We are running a series of consultations on regional and other issues with the EEAS. We have already had meetings on Russia-EU relations, on the Caribbean and Latin America (COLAT), on the Middle East Peace Process, on OSCE and the Council of Europe (COSCE), on Asia-Pacific (COASI), and on Central Asia. We are now looking forward to the consultations on the Middle East and North Africa, on countering drug-trafficking, and on Western Balkans. Some more in the pipeline—on Africa and on counter-terrorism.

These meetings are useful for both sides. Apart from restoring the formats we had before the pandemic there are topics—like Afghanistan—that are new to the agenda. The beauty of the set of consultations we have with the EU is its evolving and flexible nature, allowing us to adapt and embrace new issues.

3. On a different track—regional cooperation.

Despite all political complications the interaction between Russia, the European Union and its Member States, as well as Norway and Iceland, within the framework of the Northern Dimension and its four partnerships—Environmental, in Public Health and Social Well-being, on Transport and Logistics, and on Culture—is developing quite successfully. Even the coronavirus pandemic has not prevented holding its annual key events—the Northern Dimension Business Forum and the Northern Dimension Cultural Forum. In a few months we hope to have a Northern Dimension Senior Officials meeting in Russia and to discuss there perspectives of a high level political dialogue in this framework. We see the interest of all participants in continuing and even building up this cooperation.

We assess positively the implementation of programs of cross-border and transboundary cooperation between Russia and its neighboring EU Member States, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, as well as Norway. This is an example of a successful, equal and mutually beneficial interaction. It was also almost not affected by well-known political issues. We are preparing similar programs for the period of 2021–2027 and working on expanding its geography by joining the multilateral programs “Northern Periphery and the Arctic” and “Black Sea Basin” basing on a fruitful interaction in the “Baltic Sea Region” program.

4. Neither should we forget the economic and sectoral interaction.

EU is still Russia’s main trading partner. The statistics show that in January-August 2021 Russia’s trade with the EU increased 42,2% and reached 174 bln USD. However, in parallel our trade with the members of the East Asian Summit grew at a bit lower pace—by 34%, but totalled 162 bln USD. Which is almost the same with the trade we do in Europe. Diversification works, also driven by unilateral economic restrictions from the European countries.

Russia is still the EU’s main energy supplier. Both the IEA and the European Commission confirmed that Russia has been 100% fulfilling its contractual obligations to supply the gas to Europe amid the current price spike. Obviously the price shock is a result of several factors, including the way spot trade in gas is organized. It’s important to bear in mind that spot market covers only a faction of gas trade in Europe, and prices in Asia are higher than in Europe.

Two aspects are also certain. One—there is no shortage of gas. Gazprom has increased its supplies to the EU (by 11 bcm), and can supply more gas if there are more bids. Prices under the Gazprom’s long-term contracts are also much lower than the current spot prices. Two—the gas transportation network from Russia to Europe is well diversified, which makes the supplies reliable. Even in case of accidents on the pipeline, as the one in Bulgaria halting supplies to Serbia and Hungary on 1 November, the shipments can be re-routed. The last piece of a puzzle in this diversified network is Nord Stream 2. Its physical construction has been finished, and the final commissioning will take place soon.

But speaking of the energy and climate policy of the EU, Russia is happy to be on the same page with Slovenia, France and the half of other EU’s Member States that develop nuclear energy. If one is serious about climate change, that one should not rely on wind and solar only. The physics prove it’s not going to be enough. A wise approach is to take a technologically neutral way, embracing all low-carbon and zero-carbon technologies. There is no silver bullet, it is smarter to have a mix.

5. To conclude. No policy or false narrative can change geography. Nor can we change the planet for another one. Systemic, routine cooperation in fighting transboundary threats like COVID-19 and climate change—to name just the most imminent ones—is a dire necessity. The good sign is the process of mutual recognition of vaccination certificates which is already underway, but still some issues to settle.

Developing together a positive agenda—instead of ideologically-driven confrontation—can be a viable option towards an open, fair and pragmatic relationship. This is what we are striving for.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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