(Re)Mapping the EU’s Relations with Russia: Time for Change?

2021 / 05 / 24

Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributor policy analyst, Central and East European Studies Specialist, M.A. from the University of Glasgow (UK)


The EU’s support for anti-regime protests in Belarus and the sanctions imposed on Russia upon the poisoning and the detention of the Russian opposition activist, Alexey Navalny, have led to a severe deterioration of EU-Russia relations, something unseen since 2014. During a visit of the EU’s high representative, Josep Borrell, to Moscow in February, Russia made it clear that it has no interest in engaging in a constructive dialogue with the EU. Subsequently, Russia increased its military build-up near the Ukrainian border. Moscow’s power demonstration and readiness to ignore the EU’s interests have laid bare some systemic faults within EU foreign policy. Thus, while member states have discrepant interests towards the Kremlin, shaping a common position towards Russia has become paramount for the EU in order to remain an important geopolitical actor in the region.


A Backlash of EU-Russian Relations

Following Borrell’s visit to Moscow, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) discussed the development of EU-Russia relations within the framework of the five guiding principles. These principles were outlined by the Council in March 2016 in order to shape the EU’s external policy vis-à-vis Russia. Even though the Council agreed to act tough on Russia’s infringements of international law and contain its hybrid warfare, it agreed to selectively engage with Moscow on issues of interest to the EU. The Union’s principles aimed to create some balance in relations with its eastern neighbour. Nonetheless, the recent developments have shown that there is a clear need to remap these relations.

Despite the EU’s attempt to find a common ground of interests with Russia, Moscow always responds that the EU’s selective engagement nowhere near complies with the Kremlin’s interests. Some of the EU’s foreign policy principles that aim to promote deepening relations with former Soviet states and support Russian civil society have always caused grievances in the Kremlin. Moscow has frequently fueled accusations at the EU for its attempts to foster regime change and even adopted stricter laws on foreign funding of ‘undesirable’ NGOs and opposition activities. Due to this development, Moscow has always preferred to cooperate with individual member states of the EU rather than the institutional framework uniting the countries. However, the incompatibility of interests once again manifested itself after the EU’s non-recognition of the 2020 Kremlin-supported election results in Belarus and subsequent sanctions on Lukashenko. The situation was further exacerbated after Navalny’s alleged positioning which led to the EU’s harsh stance toward the Kremlin. Thus, the EU-Russia relationship has seen its lowest point since 2014. Nevertheless, the division among member states still hinders the coherence of the EU’s Russia policy. This gives Russia a hand to continue its aggressive politics and largely ignore the bloc’s interests.


United in “Too Much” Diversity?

There has always been too much inter-state division in the EU regarding its common foreign policy toward Russia. The issue has been largely driven by the largest member states for which the lowest common denominator in relations with Moscow has always been engagement for the sake of economic benefits. This has constantly led to the lack of a consensus within the Union. Despite the ambitions of EU leadership to boost the “EU’s geopolitical role on the world stage,” the organisation’s foreign policy still largely remains dependent on intergovernmental bargaining that is more like a ‘melting pot’ of different opinions on Russia rather than a united stance.

Some member states have favoured engaging with Moscow, whereas another group of states, including the Baltic countries, Poland and Romania, see it as unacceptable. Their rhetoric towards Moscow is harsh and draws from historical experience as well as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Georgia. For instance, apart from the US, the Baltic states, Poland and several other Central European countries were the only EU member states that showed support to the Czech Republic in the tit-for-tat diplomatic clash with Moscow regarding the alleged involvement of Russian spies in the 2014 explosions at a Czech munitions depot.

Figure 1. ‘A Diplomatic War’ Between Russia and the Czech Republic  and Subsequent Diplomatic Expulsions (Source: Financial Times)

Meanwhile, France, Italy and Germany have been seeking new opportunities for cooperation with Russia. At the 2020 Munich Summit, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, advocated more dialogue with Moscow in order to “resolve differences.” Subsequently, in a ‘non-paper’ Germany urged its Western partners to opt for “selectively engaging” the Kremlin. While an unsigned document voiced several accusations against Moscow, it noted that the EU should have a “vital interest” in stable relations with the Kremlin on issues, such as conflicts in the MENA region, global environmental and various economic challenges. The statement for “structured” cooperation, however, contrasted with the EU’s new sanctions on Russia over the Navalny case and the crackdown on protests.

Apart from that, Angela Merkel seems to have prioritised the acquisition of economic benefits over geopolitical concerns and despite the objections of several EU member states, Germany remains immersed in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, designed to import gas from Russia. Hence, some of the aspirations of influential EU member states to cooperate with Russia have somewhat compromised the EU sanctions imposed on Moscow and are leading to further fragmentation within the organisation. This also undermines the EU’s performance as a geopolitical actor and encourages Russia to largely overlook it and keep pursuing its destabilising and aggressive politics in the region. This deep-rooted issue of the EU was manifested at the press conference in Moscow where the European Union’s Chief Representative, Josep Borrell, was unprecedentedly humiliated. Apart from that, in the past few years, Russian gas exports have seen a record high, encompassing roughly 40% of the EU’s supplies. Once completed, Nord Stream 2 will double Russian gas exports to the EU and boost the Kremlin’s leverage over the energy policy.

Map 1. The Nord Stream 2 Pipeline (Source: Finnish Broadcasting Company)


Future Prospects for Change?

Even though there are almost no signs of shifts in EU foreign policy towards Russia, member states face a dire necessity of solidifying their stance. Seeking new links with Moscow by some influential member states, especially in the energy sector, can only undermine EU unity and security in the long run. Although supranationalisation of foreign policy might not be realistic for the organisation, for the time being, recent developments have shown that its foreign policy towards the Kremlin should be recalibrated. EU leaders should adopt a more robust and coherent collective approach instead of having divided positions and soft rhetoric.

Even though Russia is a declining power by economic and social measures, it has proven to be able to remain the chief security challenge for the EU and its partners for decades to come. Thus, instead of appeasing hostile Moscow, the EU should commit itself to upgrading the integration with its Eastern Partners. These states, especially Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, inter alia, should be offered, more tangible incentives underpinned by the conditionality of democratic reforms. In addition to alignment with the EU’s regulatory model, the opportunities for more enhanced political integration and eventual membership should be made available as well. It seems that a new confrontation between the Kremlin and the EU seems to be inevitable. Yet, Russia has a long history of employing its assertive measures against the EU’s partners as well as the EU per se. The recent revelation of Russia’s alleged complicity in the explosion of a warehouse in the Czech Republic is solely one of a myriad of examples.

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