Russia has been a European power for centuries. In the eighteenth century, Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg as window on Europe. In the early nineteenth century, Russia defeated Napoleon as part of a broad coalition that reorganized Europe. In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union overwhelmed Nazi Germany and then occupied Eastern Europe for more than forty years.
Even when the Soviet Union emerged in 1917, its reference point remained Europe. According to Marxist theory, the Russian revolution occurred too early, before the proper creation of a bourgeoisie. Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin addressed this conundrum by coming up with the idea of socialism in one country, so as not to wait for Europe to catch up to the Bolshevik revolution.
Yet with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia has dramatically exited the European stage that it has dominated for so long. Just before the war, Russia demanded that NATO roll back its borders to post–Cold War levels, as well as guarantee that Ukraine would never become a member. Both of these calls were nonstarters and represented a clear sign that Russia was not interested in any substantive dialogue with the West. Instead, Russia has been expelled—or has resigned from—a series of European institutions, effectively constituting a new schism with Europe. The list of such bodies is long and continues to grow.
Leaving Europe, Step by Step
The first body that Russia left was the Council of Europe, which advocates for freedom of speech, assembly, and other civil rights. Russia quit the council at essentially the same time that it was expelled. As a result, Russia is no longer a party to the European Convention on Human Rights or subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The latter represented a significant blow, since thousands of Russians have taken advantage of this alternative venue to appeal domestic court decisions. At times, the two sides clashed, but the Russian Constitutional Court regularly cited Strasbourg decisions and enforced financial penalties imposed by the European Court for various human rights violations.
Russia’s entry into Europe in 1996 was always considered a gamble, especially from a human rights standpoint, since it had never observed Europe’s core human rights principles prior to its membership. Supporters of admission optimistically believed, however, that it would be better to have Russia on the bottom looking up rather than on the outside looking in.
Going forward, however, Russia will not be given the benefit of the doubt. On November 23, 2022, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) designated Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Furthermore, Russia has been condemned by the Venice Commission, has resigned from the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions, and has withdrawn from the Conference of European Constitutional Courts.
Russia’s application to the OECD, a multinational organization with deep European roots, has also been suspended. Ironically, Russia still remains a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), although it announced on March 10, 2023, that it will no longer be sending information on its conventional armed forces as required.
Knock-on Effects of the Growing Divide
Russia acts relatively unconcerned about these developments, but they clearly speak to the sharp new divide between Russia and Europe. Russia has been equally dismissive about the loss of its energy leverage in Europe. According to the economist Paul Krugman, Russia’s most important defeat in the Ukraine war has occurred on the economic front, not the battlefield. Analysts initially feared that the Russian gas embargo would push Europe into a recession, but that did not occur, and now Europe has diversified its energy flows while exposing Russia as a Potemkin superpower. Meanwhile, Russian gas exports to Europe have dipped below the levels of the Brezhnev era of the 1970s.
Russia does not appear worried about the loss of its most lucrative market, one that paid market rates and brought in hard currency for the Russian budget. It further has shrugged off sanctions and the end of most favored nation status (both U.S. and EU), which took years to negotiate. Instead, Putin continues to tout the policies of import substitution and greater Eurasian integration while highlighting the new economic business opportunities for Russian industry now that Western companies have abandoned the Russian market. Russia also is blatantly violating international trade practices by allowing knock-offs and other parallel imports to enter the country.
Russia’s influence on Europe has not been so negligible for years. Indeed, both Finland and Sweden have responded to the Russian aggression by immediately seeking NATO membership after years of neutrality. Europe is also leading the charge to hold Russia accountable for its acts of aggression and war crimes committed in Ukraine, proposing that the EU create an international tribunal since other institutions (most notably the UN) cannot do so because of Russia’s veto on the UN Security Council.
Indeed, Russia’s current European strategy boils down to one all-consuming objective, namely, to make sure that Ukraine does not become a full member of the EU or NATO. Ukraine’s aspirations looked unrealistic before the war, but Kyiv has now received candidate status for EU accession, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently announced that all NATO members have agreed that Ukraine eventually will become a member.
What does Russia propose as an alternative to the rules-based order that has unified Europe to a degree not considered possible since the end of World War II? Foreign Minister Lavrov talks about creating a new global order, but Russia is turning inward, not outward. The Russian Duma recently passed legislation to enforce the “purity” of the Russian language. Meanwhile, the Duma is debating a new law that would create a required university course on the foundations of Russian statehood. The curriculum would emphasize patriotism, Russia’s historical status as a distinct civilization, and the civilized character of Russian statehood. This new course further contemplates the presentation of a more unified Russian state as opposed to one built on national and ethnic grounds.
Putin Entrenches Russia’s Isolation, Europe Remembers Its History
As Putin embraces Russia’s imperial past and lays siege to Ukraine, he poses a direct threat to all that modern Europe stands for and has achieved: economic integration, the free movement of peoples, territorial integrity. Indeed, one year into the conflict, Europe remains united against Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
There are many reasons for this solidarity—Russia’s lies, brutality, war crimes, disinformation campaigns, and total disregard for the post–Cold War rules-based order. But one more factor must be considered: the scope of Russia’s imperial ambitions. The EU member states possess first-hand experience of the pitfalls that accompany imperial rule (and decolonization). The war in Ukraine seemingly appeared out of nowhere, a throwback to a historical era long thought buried and extinct. Ukraine’s spring offensive still awaits and will provide an important indication as to where this conflict is heading. It has become abundantly clear, however, that no matter the results on the battlefield, Russia will not be welcomed back to Europe any time soon.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.