ISSUE 3-2015
Павел Вензера Seray Özkan Ahmad Alili
Igor Yakovenko Bogdana Kostyuk
Bogdan Oleksyuk
Tomáš Strážay
Stepan Grigoryan

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Tomáš Strážay | Senior Fellow, Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA), Slovakia | Issue 3, 2015
Ivanov, Igor, S. (Editor-in-Chief). Russia and the Visegrad Group: The Ukrainian Challenge. Moscow: Spetskniga, 2015. – 72 p. ISBN 978-5-91891-448-9

Though the Visegrad countries have maintained quite intensive bilateral relations with Russia, the V4 has never established any type of cooperation with Russia on the group level. The V4+ format, which has been successfully used with increasing number of countries, seems not to be applicable on the V4-Russia case. Despite the fact, that some Russian diplomats, scholars and students have showed their interest in the V4, for “official“ Russia the Visegrad Group simply did not exist. Russia always focused on bilateral relations with individual countries, considering the V4 as a weak entity with almost no power to make decisions. In addition, since 2004 the V4 was incorporated fully in the EU (and NATO), so from the Russian perspective there was no need to develop a regional approach towards the V4 countries. The recently published report Russia and the Visegrad Group – The Ukrainian Challenge, published by  Russian International Affairs Council in June 2015, shows that Russia´s interest to develop closer ties with the V4, and especially with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, is increasing. The question is why this happens now, when EU-Russia relations are on the very bottom and what are the benefits of this intensified interest for both sides.

In 2013, half a year before the Vilnius summit, Polish embassy in Moscow organized a workshop with the aim to analyze the status quo and identify possible areas of cooperation between the Visegrad Group and Russia. The results of this workshop were quite modest, since each of the panelist took into consideration the reluctance of Russia to develop more intensive ties with the V4. The logic on the side of the V4 was that since Russia maintained quite intensive relations with all V4 countries, it might be worth to look for common grounds and possibly foster V4-Russia cooperation. The V4 analysts also tried to convince Russia that the Eastern Partnership project was not designed against Russia. It was still the time, when the V4 analysts, including the Polish ones, thought that Russia could change in order to become a predictable and reliable partner for cooperation.

Since December 2013, however, the situation changed dramatically. Ukraine opted for its “European way“ of development, while Russia annexed Crimea and started openly supporting separatists from Eastern regions of Ukraine. The approach of Russia towards the V4 changed, too. In the course of a few months the V4 became an interesting tool for spreading the influence of Russia and Russian propaganda in the European Union. The report openly refers to the split in the Visegrad Group on the role of sanctions against Russia and differences in attitudes towards Moscow in the four V4 capitals. Taking this into account, it does not come as a surprise that Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are considered to be somehow better prepared for the intensification of cooperation with Russia than Poland, which holds much more critical positions on Russia. The “V3“ is exactly what Russia would prefer to have as a tool for spreading its influence throughout the EU. There are no doubts that other EU members might be willing to join this deformed regional initiative, perhaps with Austria being on the first place. And Poland, left alone without its traditional partners, would then be in much weaker position...

However, the Report forgot to mention Visegrad declarations, adopted on the highest political level, which openly condemned the aggression of Russia and supported European ambitions of Ukraine. Though leaders of the V4 countries differed in their individual positions (i.e. on the role of sanctions), they were able to reach joint position that was not in accordance with the Russian interest. They clearly showed that the V4 is still a coalition of four countries and that variable geometry does not apply on Visegrad. Also, they declared that the V4 countries continue to back the Eastern Partnership, an initiative highly disliked by Russia, while not hiding that the concept as such has to undergo significant reforms. What is even more striking is the fact that the authors of the report seem to forget a simple fact that all V4 countries voluntarily became members of the EU and NATO, which also brought certain amount of responsibility on their shoulders. In other words, though Russia is considered to be an important economic partner for the V4 countries, the real allies can still be found in the transatlantic space. And due to still tense relations between the EU and Russia, not speaking about the NATO-Russia relationship, it probably not the right momentum to start thinking seriously about the V4+Russia format of cooperation. The attempt of Russian experts to publish a report mapping the V4-Russia relations – though only from the perspective Russia – should nevertheless be appreciated. From a long-term perspective it can be considered as a step in right direction. However, let´s wait for the peace in Eastern Ukraine first.

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Bogdan Oleksyuk
Stepan Grigoryan
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