Call us

EU–Russia relations: Adding insult to injury

Amanda Paul , Ivano di Carlo

Date: 24/03/2021
Russia’s continued ability to disrupt and destabilise is a major headache for Europe, with no end in sight. The relations deteriorated further following Borrell’s humiliating trip to Moscow in February. While there should be no illusions about Russian policy changing anytime soon, the EU should make a greater effort to carve out a more robust and coherent policy towards the Kremlin.

Rock bottom

EU–Russia relations are at their lowest point since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The EU’s efforts to build a functioning relationship with Moscow have failed miserably, mainly due to Russia flouting international norms. Since 2008, the Kremlin has used its military to change internationally recognised borders in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). Disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, alleged assassination attempts domestically and abroad, election interference and crackdowns on political opposition are the norm. The poisoning and subsequent jailing of opposition politician Alexei Navalny is just the latest example. What is more, Putin’s disruptive tactics and revisionist posture in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood, the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa undermines the EU’s stability and security.

The COVID-19 crisis, with its health and economic consequences, seems to have deteriorated the relationship further. Russia used the pandemic to accuse the West of being “selfish” and of having a “desire to take advantage of the pandemic to punish ‘undesirable’ governments”. European leaders are set to have a strategic discussion on Russia at the European Council videoconference on 25-26 March.

No common approach

The blame for an inconsistent EU policy towards Moscow lies largely at the member states’ feet, which continue to view relations with the Kremlin through different national lenses. They range from Russia as an existential threat to an economic partner. An exception to this approach is the jointly imposed EU sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas War in 2014. Despite some member states’ complaints, unity has been maintained, and over the years, the sanctioned areas have expanded. However, sanctions are not a policy in themselves and become less effective when EU member states continue to consolidate economic cooperation with the Kremlin bilaterally.

The national economic short-termism of some member states is another major obstacle to a common EU approach. And Moscow continues to capitalise on these divergences happily. The Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Germany and Russia is the most obvious example. Berlin pursued the project regardless of the US labelling it a security threat and imposing sanctions, and strong opposition within the EU. Europe’s increasing dependence on Russian gas gives Moscow leverage, allows the Kremlin to weaken Ukraine by circumventing its pipelines, and undermines the green transition.

Humiliation in Moscow, embarrassment at home

Despite opposition from some member states (i.e. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania), the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, went to Moscow on 5 February to build bridges. Instead, he came back with a bigger wall to climb.

Travelling to Russia without the support of all 27 member states was a mistake. It laid bare the EU’s lack of unity and worsened the situation instead of improving it. Going to Moscow when the Kremlin was under pressure and feeling vulnerable from the Navalny protests was hardly conducive to dialogue. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s dressing down of Borrell and expulsion of three European diplomats on the same day should have come as no surprise.

Branding the visit as “ill-executed” and a “complete disaster”, 80 Members of the European Parliament demanded that Borrell resign. While he survived to fight another day, the incident left the Union with egg on its face, reinforcing the stark fact that while Russia speaks the language of power, the EU’s ‘principled diplomacy’ is still learning it. Borrell’s visit was so humiliating that it became a wake-up call for fresh thinking on EU–Russia relations, including greater EU–US cooperation. But will this actually be the case?

Time to face the transatlantic music

For the past decade, transatlantic efforts to reboot the West’s ties with Russia failed. Early on in Barack Obama’s presidency, the then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Lavrov with a ‘reset’ button. It was a flop. In Europe, the EU–Russia Partnership for Modernisation and Germany’s Meseberg Process also crashed, for example. More recently, French President Emmanuel Macron’s hope that he could build a new EU–Russia strategy through engagement has also run out of steam.

All these efforts failed because Putin does not want to reset his foreign policy. The Kremlin considers them as unacceptable interference in its internal politics. Like all great powers – or powers that consider themselves great –, Russia wants to shape, not be shaped.

The Biden administration brings a new opportunity to carve out a more robust transatlantic response to Russia. Unlike Trump, his successor does not have a soft spot for Putin. Rather, he advocates a much tougher policy. In this context, a more coordinated and consolidated Western approach would not only restore the steadiness and trust that has been missing over the past four years but also send a strong message to the Kremlin.

What next? An introspective analysis

Since the conflict over Ukraine began, EU–Russia relations have continued to nosedive. The silver lining in Borrell’s visit to Moscow is that it made clear that Russia has no intention of changing course. Moscow is not only uninterested in building a more constructive relationship with the EU, but it also has no interest in anything the EU top brass have to say. Moscow knows from experience that EU foreign policy depends on decisions taken in national capitals. This reflects the political beliefs underpinning Russia’s foreign policy that views the world as polycentric and dominated by nation-states. As such, the Kremlin will continue to focus on cultivating individual European countries and exacerbating divisions within the Union.

The upcoming Council discussion on Russia on 25-26 March should focus on crafting a credible and proactive policy towards Moscow, beyond the rather vague ‘push-back, contain and engage’ slogan recently elaborated by Borrell. The EU must identify a more robust and holistic way to respond to challenges from Russia, both internally (i.e. hybrid threats) and in its immediate neighbourhood. Instability in the neighbourhood risks spilling over into the Union. But cooperation with Russia on a transnational basis should also not be ruled out if it is mutually beneficial. This includes cooperation on the Iran nuclear deal, climate change, arms control, Libya, Syria and the Artic. Whatever the new EU strategy that eventually emerges, it should be coordinated with Washington as much as possible.

There should be no illusions about Russian policy changing anytime soon, not least because of Putin’s opposition to the post-Cold War order. Nor should the EU postpone concrete actions simply because it believes that it is dealing with a chronically ill patient crumbling under the weight of a stagnant and dysfunctional system. Despite the socio-economic challenges that Putin and his cronies face, they are resourceful and resilient and could remain in power for years to come.

Realistically, the EU will not be able to resolve its most pressing disagreements with Russia, including the Donbas War and the Kremlin’s crackdown on domestic opposition. While there is little chance of overcoming internal divisions over how to handle the Kremlin, it is crucial that what European unity there is, such as on sanctions, remains intact. While sanctions may not have brought about a major change in Russian behaviour, they remain important, particularly when applied with other international actors. They send a strong political message that disruptive activities and violation of international law will never be accepted and that the EU can still stand united. The fact that Russia sought to exploit the COVID-19 crisis to have the sanctions lifted, claiming that “unilateral coercive measures” were affecting their ability to respond to the pandemic, demonstrates that this punitive approach is irritating Russia. 

There are also other things that the EU can do, such as crack down on Russian money laundering schemes. Scandals like the ‘Russian Laundromat’ scheme demonstrated how easily inflows of money could find their way into the European banking system. Closing these pathways should be a priority. Member states should also enhance their support to Russian civil society organisations with a less restrictive visa regime and increase scholarships for educational and cultural purposes. Close people-to-people dialogue should never be the victim of tense political relations.

Strengthening deterrence to alleged Russian subversion, disinformation and other hybrid threat activities remains vital. More should be done to prioritise further efforts to push back against disinformation and increase cyber capabilities. This also applies to the Eastern neighbourhood, where the EU should continue to support the Eastern Partnership countries to address these threats and other internal fragilities.

When it comes to Nord Stream 2, discussions between Washington and Berlin are ongoing, with the hope of reaching a creative compromise solution, such as a snapback mechanism. Germany could shut down Nord Stream 2 if Russia pressures Ukraine by cutting supplies arbitrarily via Kyiv’s transit system. In any case, the internal and transatlantic friction this project has created makes evident that the EU and its member states must think twice before including Russia or any other global actor in projects of strategic importance. Or, at least, if the EU is to achieve credible strategic autonomy. If no conciliation is found, Berlin and, by extension, the EU risks souring its relations with the Biden administration from the onset. It would also provide member states greater discretion to implement their own strategic projects without considering the EU’s broader interests.

EU–Russia relations are in a highly precarious place. Ultimately, when discussing geopolitics, the EU should talk unanimously. The time for empty statements is over.

Ivano di Carlo is a Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme.

Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten