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The European Union and Russia: A Halting Relationship

Commentary, 21 May 2009
The European Union’s summit with Russia, which begins today, will achieve nothing substantial. The relationship between Moscow and the rest of the continent is stuck in a time-warp, largely of Russia’s making. And, until European leaders are prepared to rebuff Russia’s old imperial inspirations, no serious dialogue can be expected.

The European Union’s summit with Russia, which begins today, will achieve nothing substantial. The relationship between Moscow and the rest of the continent is stuck in a time-warp, largely of Russia’s making. And, until European leaders are prepared to rebuff Russia’s old imperial inspirations, no serious dialogue can be expected.

By Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director, Department of International Security Studies, RUSI

The European Union (EU) – represented by its rotating Czech presidency – begins today a new summit with Russia. The EU leaders - Czech President Vaclav Klaus, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton - are expected to work hard even before the real discussions begin. For the summit is taking place in Khabarovsk, a Far Eastern Russian city, just 20 miles from the border with China.

The venue was selected by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev as a means of showing just how vast his vast country really is. According to Medvedev, this is supposed to give the EU leaders ‘a better feel for Russia’. Perhaps, but apart from a lesson in geography – and ample frequent-flyer air miles - the summit is unlikely to result in anything substantial, for the EU and Russia are still talking past each other, rather than to each other.

Urgent Problems

Officially, the summit will focus on common ways to tackle the current economic crisis, discuss energy policy, and raise broader security and co-operation issues between Moscow and Brussels. There is no question that these matters are important and urgent. Although the Russian currency has now stabilised and Moscow is no longer having to dip into its foreign currency reserves to bail out failing national enterprises, Russian banks are still tottering on the brink, and the financial crisis is far from over. Lower prices for oil and gas – Russia’s main sources of revenue – are also hitting the country’s economy. And an intemperate political dialogue – made worse by tensions over Georgia, the EU's involvement in former Soviet states and disputes over oil and gas pipelines - render a serious discussion even more urgent. But there is no evidence that the EU has fresh ideas on how to deal with Russia, or that the Russians are prepared to change their stance towards Europe.

A Feeble European Presence

First, the Czech EU presidency is hobbled. The Czech Republic is being represented at the summit by the country’s president, a man who is both mistrusted by other EU governments, and has limited powers at home, in Prague. Mr Klaus is also quirky: alone among the Czech political class he is a Russophile, a believer in some mythical notion of Russia’s Slav identity, and its close links with ‘brotherly’ Slavs throughout the continent. Mr Klaus also represents a fading, weak EU presidency. And he is complemented by an EU Commission which is on its way out, as EU parliamentary elections are scheduled for next month. In short, this is a summit which takes place because it has to take place, rather than a gathering of politicians either able or willing to reach hard decisions.

No Energy Policy

To make matters worse, Russia is beginning to dismantle - single-handedly - some of the EU’s most cherished policies. The Energy Charter - a document which is supposed to regulate oil and gas exports between Russia and Europe, signed but never ratified by the Russians a decade ago - has now been officially discarded by Moscow. The Russians have suggested a new energy agreement which, no doubt, President Medvedev will present to the visiting EU representatives. But the EU cannot accept this, and it has no other framework in mind. So, on the most important item on the agenda, the EU has no workable policy, and Russia has no intention to compromise. A deadlock is, therefore, assured.

Strategic Disputes

Russia, in turn, has its own gripes. The EU recently concluded new ‘Eastern Partnership’ agreements with the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Brussels claims that these arrangements are purely technical, merely replacing former structures which have failed to produce concrete results. But the Kremlin views them as interference in what it considers as a Russian sphere of influence. The EU can hardly be expected to dilute its cherished new policy in the East; and Russia can hardly be expected to relent on its opposition to these partnership. So, yet again, deadlock.

Financial Gibberish

Discussions on the current financial crisis are unlikely to be very substantial either. The EU is far from united about what needs to be done, and is much more concerned with stabilising the former communist countries of Eastern Europe (which are now full members of the Union), rather than offering a helping hand to Russia. The Russians are not crucial to the reform of the International Monetary Fund, or other discussions about the overhaul of global financial institutions. And Russia’s quest to join the World Trade Organisation has been stuck for years. There is no doubt that the two sides will ‘exchange views’ over the global economic crisis. But it is virtually certain that, apart from some pleasantries, nothing will be achieved on this score either.

Wider Problems

Be that as it may, the EU recites a familiar argument: Moscow may be misbehaving and some of its actions are objectionable, but there is no alternative to ‘engagement’. Even a substance-free summit is preferable to no talks, and a possible confrontation.

The argument, however, is fundamentally misconceived. For Europe is not facing the danger of a new Cold War. Instead, it is being targeted by a Russian policy which seeks to undermine the very foundations of stability in central Europe. And, until the EU reaches a consensus on how to respond to this challenge, holding summits with Russian leaders can only deepen the current security predicament.

What the Europeans rightly consider as one of their biggest historic achievements - the successful integration of the former communist countries in the heart of the continent - is now being viewed in Moscow as a calamity. Vladimir Putin, who publicly claimed that the demise of the Soviet empire ‘was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the twentieth-century, knows that he has no chance of regaining control over Moscow’s former colonies. Nevertheless, his entire policy is designed to make sure that the new EU members will remain marginal players, and that the continent’s security will continue to be decided above their heads, and often at their expense.

In theory, Moscow’s fears about the East Europeans are understandable. Individually, none of them are particularly powerful or influential. But they all share a deep sense of resentment against their old colonial master and, over time, they could turn the Union into another anti-Russian bloc, indistinguishable from the NATO military alliance which is still Russia’s bigger bugbear.

Russia’s best way of avoiding this danger is to engage its former satellites in a friendly dialogue. But, failing that, even a correct, business-like diplomatic relationship could have gone a long way. Sadly, Russia chose to do neither. Instead of respect, Russia has continued to treat the East Europeans with contempt, as subjects - rather than the object - of its policy. For a while, Moscow dreamt about forging close relations with major western countries, in order to render the new East European members of the EU irrelevant. And, when this strategy amounted to little, the Kremlin opted for direct measures. It has conducted a trade war with Poland, an oil war against Lithuania and a diplomatic offensive against Estonia. And, while dismissing the East Europeans as economic ‘parasites’ – as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin once put it, when he was still head of state – Russia seeks to build new oil and gas pipelines which bypass them altogether, with the explicit intent of making the region even more vulnerable to economic blackmail. As Sergey Karaganov - a Russian security expert close to the Kremlin - once famously remarked, the new EU member states from Eastern Europe ‘can be ignored altogether. They are not independent’.

Refusing to Understand Russia’s Policies

Far from rejecting such policies, bureaucrats in Brussels - eternally optimistic about what they can do with Russia - have also treated the East Europeans as a nuisance. The EU Commission would not have dreamt of launching negotiations on a new EU-Russia treaty if any western country was subjected to a Russian trade embargo. But this is precisely what the Commission repeatedly tried to do, despite the persistent Russian trade wars with Eastern Europe. For years, the EU has said absolutely nothing about the blockage of an oil pipeline to Lithuania. And, when Estonia was recently subjected to intimidation after relocating a Russian war memorial, the EU had to be begged to show solidarity with one of its member-states. More recently, when violent demonstrations erupted in Moldova – a former Soviet republic where the Russians are aiding a secessionist movement precisely in order to re-impose a sphere of influence - the EU also did nothing, but it did privately blame Romania - a member state - for being unhelpful. At every stage, the EU has given the indication that it is prepared to compromise over the interests of its new members in order to maintain good links with Moscow.

No Cold War but No Warm Friendship Either

If the policy worked - by making Russia more malleable - a good case could have been made that, however unattractive it may be, it should continue. But all the indications are that Europe’s strategy has merely encouraged Russia’s worst imperial instincts: a rejection of all proposed co-operation agreements, and a determination in the Kremlin to dictate the substance of its talks with Brussels.

It is time to own up to the bankruptcy of this approach. By conducting a weak, confused policy which often consisted of nothing but meaningless noises towards Russia, the EU has ended up with the worst of both worlds: it has encouraged further Russian obstruction, and alarmed the East Europeans at the same time.

The time for some straight dealing with President Medvedev should no longer be postponed. The EU must make it clear that Russian attempts to intimidate and divide Europe have no chance of success. True, the East Europeans must also be persuaded not to goad Moscow into further confrontations. Yet this objective cannot be achieved until the new members of the EU are reassured that their interests will always be paramount. The real challenge is not to avert a Cold War, but to prevent Russia from transforming the EU itself into a Cold War relic.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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