Is Russia a European state?

In the XVIIIth century, the official geographer of Peter the Great, Vassili Tatichtchev, defined the Ural river as the limit to Europe, as to include Moscow as a European city. Until then, Europeans placed it in Asia. This border now belongs to common beliefs, but knowing if Russia is a European state in the geopolitical and cultural sense remains an issue.

Since the apparition of the Rus’, the question of Russia’s two identities raised, what Marie-Pierre Rey named “the Russian dilemma”. As the Russian territory was not clearly defined, the different leaders of the country went after expansion projects based on an imperial universal ambition, such as Ivan the Terrible in the XVI th century. The Russian expansionism is inspired by two contradictory ideologies, “the will to impose itself in the European concert, by adopting European mores, and by the will to extend Moscovy’s borders as to protect the Russian heart and to isolate it from foreign influences”, according to Thom Françoise. Even during Russia’s isolation periods and when the country was under foreign discrimination – like during the Romanov reign- the fascination for occidental technique remains, Europe being a symbol of modernity. It is under Peter the Great, at the end of the XVII th century, that the modernisation policy through Europeanism is the strongest. Peter the Great believes that Russia is a European state et wishes to compensate Russia’s backlog by importing occidental savoir-faire. The symbol of the assertion of Russia’s European identity is the construction of the city of Saint Petersburg in 1703, based on European cities’ model. In the XVIII th century, Catherine II widens this Occidentalising process, that is no longer only technical, but making Russia a power, fully dedicated to the European concert. If the failure of the Crimean war from 1853 to 1856 forced Alexander II to withdraw from Europe to focus on modernization, it is nonetheless thanks to the import of capital and techniques from Western European countries that this modernization succeeded. Moreover, according to the pan-Slavic ideology stating that Russia has to defend its Slavic brothers under the control of the Ottomans and the Austrians, theory defended by Danilevski, Russia turns to Central Europe as to increase its influence in the Balkans. As regards internal policy, political oppositions were rising, period during which the gap widens between a society entering capitalism and the archaism of a political model that refused a constitution or to go towards a parliamentary regime. Hence, from the XIX th century on, as Russia affirmed its independence by claiming a full Russian identity, an argument raised between Westernizers, for whom Russia needs to catch up on the West, and Slavophiles, who reject western values and base their argument on an ideal of brotherhood, symbolised by the rural community, hence promoting specifically a Russian path.

Between fascination and repulsion, the Russian identity and power thus built themselves as regards Western Europe. The “Russian dilemma” still influences Russia-Europe relations, with the eastern borders not being strictly defined, the need to understand representations is necessary to determine the belonging of Russia to Europe.

From the Russian revolution to the end of the second world war (1917-1945)

Of the failure of a revolutionary Europe to a “pacific coexistence”

Military alliances in 1914. Source : Wikicommons

Russia, an ally of the great European powers during WWI, went through two major revolutions in February and October 1917 that triggered a revolution rage all over Europe. Insurrectional movements started but failed, like in Germany or Hungary. A major turnover then happened, the Russian ideological and cultural model then frightened western Europe. The regime of Lenin, from 1917 to 1924, is marginalized by European countries whom have all crushed communist seditions.

Drained by a “war communism”, the soviet regime postponed the global revolution to consolidate itself. Thus, it was soon understood that this could not happen without western capitals and technologies. As a result, the “New economic policy” (NEP) is launched to allow some foreign capitalist investments in a socialist economy. Consequently, Georgy Chicherin, People’s commissar for foreign affairs, promotes until 1929 a “pacific coexistence” with the capitalist West. The Soviet Union then became an economic and even diplomatic partner, despite major suspicions from both sides.

The Stalinist period, breaking with Europe and influential games

When accessing the USSR leadership, Joseph Stalin liquidated the NEP and closed the country to Western influences. According to him, a war with the Western capitalist block is inevitable. Stalin then chose to use the communist parties abroad – especially the French and the Italian ones- to spread propaganda and execute his orders.

As a clear border between Europe and Russia was never put forward, the USSR leader cannot understand why the country is set aside from the Munich conference in 1936. He then believe that Britain and France were trying to reach an agreement for Hitler. Poland’s refusal to cooperate added to the behaviour described previously led Stalin to sign with Hitlerian Germany a pact of non-aggression, coupled with a commercial agreement. Even though Europe seems divided in two parts, Russia and the rest of Europe face the rise of totalitarianism with Mussolini’s fascism in Italy, Hitler’s Nazism in Germany, Franco’s regime in Spain and USSR’s Stalinism.

Russia and Europe during the Cold War

A divided Europe

Carte post WWII
Europe during the Cold War

Russia is devastated by the second World War, however it also gave the country a brand-new power. The USSR then owned an impressively vast territory, extending to central Europe by annexing neighbour countries such as Baltic states, the Belarus, Ukraine and Moldavia and by making liberated country satellite states. Even though WWII united Russia to Europe through alliances, there was a clear distinction between the battlefield of the East and the one in the West, with two distinct memorial dynamics. In the USSR, WWII is referred to as the “Great patriotic war” and Victory Day is celebrated on the 9th of May, according to Russian time. What is still put forward is the unity of the Russian people facing imperialism. Russia is the only so-called European power getting out of the war with positive outcome, like the legitimacy of the communist parties, credited with the Soviet victory.

At the same time, the USSR faces an increasing monopoly of the USA over Europe on the military, economic and political aspects, making it the great rival. The topic of the rivalry is not as geopolitical as it is ideological, to determine which of the two systems would prevail over the Europe to come. Germany’s fate remained the core issue of this strategy. The division of Germany in 1949 between the GFR and the GDR was both the cause and the consequence of Europe’s division. The GDR was not only the economic gravity center of the socialist community but also the politico-military border of the USSR walk within Europe.

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The USSR and the Marshall Plan – 23rd of March 1948, the British cartoonist Leslie Gilbert Illingworth enlightens how badly Moscow views Central European and Eastern Europeans countries benefiting from the Marshall Plan. On the right side stands the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. (Source : CVCE)

Thus, two ideologies confronted each other in Europe from 1947 on, represented by the Truman doctrine and the Zhdanov doctrine. Sovietisation is based on the “big brother” control of the local communist parties, by the integration of their planned and state systems in the council for mutual economic assistance from 1949, and by the military structures within the Warsaw pact from 1955 on.

Consequently, the fate of socialist regimes in the Eastern countries was inextricably linked to the USSR’s fate. This explains how strongly the latter crushed any attempt to deviate from the soviet ideology, sometimes using military forces like in the GDR in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 or in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Only Yugoslavia, Albania and sometimes Romania escape repression.

Towards a thaw in Russia-Europe relations

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« The diplomatic torpedos » 1961, Fritz Behrendt .  (Source : CVCE)

Those factors can explain the ambiguous attitude of the USSR towards European construction. Moscow tends to hesitate between the hope to turn Western Europe against the United States, and the fear that a prosperous and democratic Europe may become an attraction pole for the satellites in Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, the 60s and 70s are marked by a thaw with Western Europe. Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated destalinization, wanted to replace a strictly military rivalry by a political and economic one. He was certain of the superiority of the socialist model, that would necessarily supplant the capitalist word. As a matter of fact, the progress made by the USSR, in the scientific sphere for example, were impressive: Sputnik was the first satellite launched into orbit in 1957, Yuri Gagarin was the first man sent to space in 1961. This policy was built with a pacific and pan-European rhetoric to keep the United States away from the continent. In Europe, the idea of a European community going from the « Atlantic to the Ural » presented by Charles de Gaulle did not find a positive echo with the French European partners and Europe seemed to build itself in response to the fear of the USSR in the Cold War context. The major fracture happened in 1968, with the Prague Spring. The countries that still believed in cooperating with the USSR understood the autocratic nature of the regime and the emancipating potential of the newly created community.

From the end of the Cold War to nowadays

The assertion of the “Europeanness” of Russia

After the Cold War ended, Russia-Europe relations did not answer to a logic of blocs, the question of the USSR belonging to Europe raised again. Russian Europeanism is then affirmed on multiple occasions by Russian and European leaders, starting with Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary General of the Communist Party. In the context of the “New thinking”, Gorbachev preached for a real cooperation between states, based on the interdependence of global issues, asking for a “Common European Home”, based on a natural commune fate for the USSR and Western Europe. Gorbachev also counted on the emergence of new and peaceful relations with the popular democracies and Western Europe. The European belonging of Russia was claimed, based on which the “common statement” was formulated in 1988 to establish official relations between the European Economic Community and the Comecon. At the end of 1988, Gorbachev was even favourable to a common commitment to respect freedom, human rights and political pluralism, motivated by a “return to Europe”. On December 31, 1989, François Mitterrand, who though this pan-European unity as natural and legitimate launched the project of a European confederation based on the Helsinki agreements, that would unite “all the States belonging to our continent in a common and permanent organisation of exchanges, peace and security”. The aim is to bring all the former communist countries together when those would have a representative political system. Despite signing the Charter of Paris for a new Europe in 1990, that brought the USSR to agree to the Western values of democratic pluralism, of freedom and human rights, this dream was a failure. As soon as the USSR officially collapsed and the popular democracies were given independence, all of them clearly break off their relation to the USSR and socialism. Thus, the confederation project failed facing this hostility.

The collapse in 1991 of both the USSR and of the communist regime in independent states and in the Russian federation brought to a new chapter of the relations between Russia and Europe. Dominique Moïsi wrote in 2003 in Foreign Affairs that the end of the Cold War would be the sign of a transition from “a world with two Europe and one West” to a world with “one Europe and two West”.

The Euro-Asian turnover

Under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, the question on whether it was better to orientate Russia’s foreign policy towards the West or to look for a “Russian path” and install a policy in favour of the Muslim world and Asian countries opposed the liberal “Atlanticists” to the supporters of the Eurasian doctrines. According to Françoise Thom, the Atlanticists on the one hand wished to see a progressive withdrawal of Russia from Central Asia and good neighbouring relations with Ukraine and the Baltic states, that are the outlets of Russia to Europe. On the other hand, the pro-Eurasian considered that Russia should turn its back on the western model by creating a continental bloc around itself, including Germany, Iran and China, that would be able to defy the United States and to defend the Russian hegemony in central Asia and in the Caucasus.

After the fall 1992, Yeltsin seemed to like the idea of finding a “Russian path”, saying that Russia would not “neither socialist nor capitalist, but Russian”. Thus, Russia intended to strengthen the links with the countries of its former zone of influence. In 1994, a free-trade zone was announced to be created, including twelve countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). On January 20, 1995, a custom union was signed by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, becoming the nucleon of the future Eurasian economic union proclaimed by Vladimir Putin in 2000. This Eurasian watershed in Russian foreign policy led to the signing in Shanghai on April 26 of 1996 of a treaty on regional security by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kirghizstan, the Shanghai cooperation organisation. This Eurasian policy was strengthened by the Russian minister of foreign affairs Primakov, who emphasized on the relations with countries of central and eastern Europe, the Middle-East, Southern Asia and the far East. On top of it, diverse events such as the bombing of Yugoslavia or the new Chechen war led by Vladimir Putin affected the relations with the West.

Russia and Europe: partners or competitors?

Besides all those facts, Russia keeps working on bilateral privileged relations with European states such as Germany and France. Cultural exchanges are a prominent share of this collaboration since the 2014 crisis, with the opening of an orthodox cultural centre in Paris for example. The founding act of cooperation between Russia and Europe was the Agreement on partnership and cooperation, valid for ten years and renewable, signed in June 1994 in Corfu, applied the 1st of December 1997. This agreement reaffirms the respect of common values in its preamble and establishes an institutional and political framework for economic and commercial exchanges, supposed to ultimately lead to a free-trade zone. The goal then was to intensify political relations and to allow common position on international stability and security through a market economy. Russia committed to harmonise its legislation with the one of the European community as regards the judiciary. Cooperation was also intensified in some privileged sectors such as transports and energy. However, even though Russia was admitted to the G7 in July 1994, this agreement failed to meet its goals and soon became obsolete.

With the nomination of Vladimir Putin as the head of the State in 1999, Russia seemed to claim again for a unique identity, fully Russian. Céline Marangé believes Russia now has a degrading complex, coupled to a post-imperial syndrome. The idea of a “sieged fortress” gained a credibility when facing the expansion of the EU and of NATO, followed by discussions with those organisations and Ukraine and Georgia in 2008. Moreover, a project of an oriental partnership is launched in 2008 and is meant to include all the former soviet states in the direct neighbourhood of Europe, except Russia. This led to the feeling of Russia of being encircled by penetrating its close neighbourhood. Jean-Robert Raviot also stated that Russia is now dedicating itself to strengthen the State sovereignty, rejecting any supranational construction. The next step of this stronger Russia is of course to maintain its influence in the post-soviet states. The case of Ukraine would be the perfect example of the Russian ideology fighting the European ideology on a post-soviet soil.

The Crimean crisis

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Which empire will dominate Ukraine? – Source : Carlos Latuff, caricaturiste brésilien.

In February 2014, the Crimean crisis started, following the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula by pro-Russian troops and groups of the Russian army next to the Ukrainian border. According to Françoise Thom, the annexation of Crimea is the continuity of the Russian policy started at the beginning of the 1990s. At the time, according to her, Russia encouraged secessionism and created instable focal points to keep leverage on its former satellites.

Putin’s foreign policy would then be animated “by passion, by revenge” over the humiliation under which Russia would have been put since 1991. The theme of Russian pride is highly broadcasted and used by Putin himself during his campaign, calling on anti-Western xenophobia in 2011-2012. In his 2016 article on the historical background of Russian foreign policy, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressed on Russia’s evolution based on its unique agenda. However, he does not reject the idea of cooperation, if described as a “serious and honest cooperation between the leading states and their associations in order to address common challenges”. For him, there must be an equal and mutually respectful basis to ensure a cooperation between Russia and the West.

As a conclusion, it seems impossible to answer this question without nuances. Russia can be considered European on some aspects. Russia and Europe share common grounds and exchange in the intellectual, economic, technical spheres. Even though Russia is now leading an independent foreign policy, its identity has always been built in the context of an interconnectedness with Europe, either in opposition or following the model.

Clairelou LÉCUREUR

Translation by Apolline LEDAIN


DANILEVSKY Nikolai Yakovlevich. 1895 Russia and Europe. A look at the cultural and political relations of the Slavic world to the German-Roman

IVANOV, I. 2002 An Overview of Russian Foreign Policy. In The New Russian Diplomacy. Brookings Institution Press and Nixon Center. (pp. 7-37). eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost).

LAVROV Sergey, Russia’s Foreign Policy: Historical Background. 2016

MARANGÉ Céline, « La Russie et l’Europe », Commentaire, 4/2015 (Numéro 152), p. 787-794.

MOÏSI Dominique, « Reinventing the West », Foreign Affairs, novembre-décembre 2003, http://www.

REY Marie-Pierre, Le dilemme russe. La Russie et l’Europe occidentale d’Ivan le Terrible à Boris Eltsine, Paris, Flammarion, 2002

RIASANOVSKY Nicholas Valentine, A history of Russia, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, New York, 1984.

THOM Françoise, « La politique étrangère de la Russie », Commentaire, 3/2012 (Numéro 139), p. 725-734

TSYGANKOV Andrei P. (2016) Russia’s Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 4th edition



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