Now that the Cold War has been consigned to the history books, the USSR which vanished 21 years ago is the subject of interesting museum exhibitions... In 2012, the countries of the former communist bloc have little to fear from the enemy of bygone years, to the point where we can say that no one is really threatened by Russia. At least so it seems to Western Europeans, who have little time for what they see as a Eastern European paranoia with regard to Russia.
Nonetheless, on the eve of a presidential election that will almost certainly herald Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin, such fears still persist. At a recent colloquium Taavi Roivas, President of the Estonian parliament’s European Affairs Committee, remarked that “one of the reasons that led the Estonian population to enthusiastically embrace the euro in 2011 is the fact that it amounts to a further step away from Russian influence".
Whether we like it or not, Russia will remain a crucial partner for Europe whose importance should not be underestimated. As the EU's main gas supplier, it stands to benefit from an even greater influence once the South Stream and Nord Stream pipelines come on-line. But that is not all. It is also the home country of several wealthy entrepreneurs who have invested in European businesses (football, casinos, media outlets etc.), as well as being one of the EU’s creditors.
All of these factors will be reinforced by a further presidential mandate for Putin: Vladimir Vladimirovitch will have the means to achieve a number of projects that he has announced in recent years, like the creation of a Eurasian Union by 2015, the waiving of visa restrictions for Russians traveling abroad and a major increase in spending on the Russian military. The overwhelming likelihood is that Moscow's collaboration will be essential for future initiatives within the EU, as well as in neighbouring countries: the case of Syria, where a UN resolution has been effectively blocked by a Sino-Russian veto is a testament to this fact.
At the same time, the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s “divide and conquer tactics” is unlikely to be challenged by EU countries which have failed to agree a united response to the real or supposed military threat represented by Moscow while continuing to prioritise national energy interests over European ones.
In an article by Vladimir Putin, published by Ria Novosti at the end of February, the future president set the tone for changes to come: "Russia is an inalienable and organic part of Greater Europe and European civilization. Our citizens think of themselves as Europeans. […]. That is why Russia proposes moving toward the creation of a common economic and human space from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean — a community that Russian experts refer to as "the Union of Europe".
In response to such ambitions, Europe would do well to set aside the mistrust and disdain that have marked relations in the past. With Putin’s re-election, Europe will have to contend with an ambitious Russia which has the resources to realise its projects. With this in mind it should be treated as an equal partner.