The EU Needs to Commit to a Russia Strategy

, by Candace Huntington

The EU Needs to Commit to a Russia Strategy
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s chief diplomat, talks to the media as he arrives for a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday. Credit: Yves Herman/Pool/AFP/Getty Images ©

Nearly three weeks after Alexei Navalny’s sentencing and imprisonment, the EU has finally slapped sanctions on Russian officials. From the U.S., however, this seems like too little, too late. As EU-Russia relations hit historic lows, it’s time for the EU to rethink its approach to Russia.

The delayed sanctions follow statements of condemnation which came pouring out from across the West after Navalny’s sentencing earlier this month. The UK, France, and Germany quickly denounced Russia’s actions and called for Navalny’s release. Secretary Antony Blinken emphasized that the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by the move. The White House followed suite, echoing Secretary Blinken’s sentiments and calling for the end to Russia’s “concerning actions.” Besides an intelligence review of Russia’s actions, the Biden administration failed to announce any concrete steps to curb Putin’s recent actions.

Despite universally condemning Russia’s recent actions, EU members were divided on how to deal with this situation. Initially following Navalny’s arrest in late January, EU lawmakers passed a resolution urging for the halt of construction on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but Germany refused to budge on the issue. The U.S. has consistently opposed the pipeline’s construction, with Joe Biden calling it a “bad deal for Europe,” further complicating attempts to reaffirm the transatlantic relationship. Top EU representative Josep Borrell’s poorly-timed visit to Moscow only added fuel to the fire, triggering a flood of criticism from leaders across Europe. The visit proved to be diplomatic failing on Borrell’s part; while Borrell and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended a press conference, in which Lavrov labelled the EU an “unreliable partner,” Russia expelled three diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden for allegedly attending a protest in support of Navalny. Not only was the visit a bad look for Borrell, but it highlighted Europe’s lack of consensus regarding how to approach Russia.

The EU’s continued attempts to re-engage with Russia, despite the fact that their behavior hasn’t changed, have only spurred Russia to continue taking advantage of the EU’s willingness to talk. That’s not to say Europe hasn’t taken important steps in signaling to Russia that their actions have consequences—EU sanctions imposed on Russia following the Ukraine crisis had devastating affects on its economy, with estimates that Russia’s annual GDP dropped 0.2% each year from 2014 to 2018. But the EU must go beyond sanctions if it hopes to counter Russia.

In 2016, the EU developed “five guiding principles” on how to conduct its policy towards Russia under an increasingly tense security environment. Updated in 2018, the principles provide concrete actions for curbing Russian aggression while maintaining limited engagement, including: (1) implementing the Minsk agreements, (2) strengthening ties with Eastern European countries and others along Russia’s borders, (3) enhancing EU resilience to Russian threats, (4) selective engagement on foreign policy, and (5) aiding Russian civil organizations.

The principles are a remarkably hard-lined position that has yet to be seen from Brussels. Europe has made some marginal progress on these principles, but they remain wholly unimplemented:

1. The first principle is the full implementation of the Minsk agreements, an ambitious set of agreements signed in 2015 by French, German, Ukrainian, and Russian leaders to stop the war in Donbass. As of March 2020, none of the principles have been implemented. Russia has brazenly violated several of the agreements, most notably by their refusal to remove Russian-backed troops from the region.

2. In recent months, the EU has failed most notably in following its second principle, deepening relations with its Eastern partners. After much hesitation, the EU imposed sanctions on Lukashenka and other Belarusian officials for their harsh crack-down on protests this fall. Belarus’ disregard for human rights and political freedoms have made it difficult for the EU to establish strong relations, yet the absence of EU engagement in Belarus has left the country heavily reliant on Russia. Russia beat the EU to the punch in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by assuming the mediator role and facilitating a peace-deal, which included 2,000 Russian peacekeepers moved into the region. As a result, Russia has increased its influence and control over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, while the EU’s role has grown increasingly insignificant.

3. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is currently one of the most contentious issues among the EU member states. But if the EU hopes to become truly resilient to Russian threats, as its third principle states, it must find more reliable energy sources that don’t pose a major security risk. Russia is still one of the EU’s biggest energy suppliers, despite sanctions. Recent debates of Europe’s “strategic autonomy” have highlighted the EU’s need to decrease its reliance on Russian oil and gas, and these arguments aren’t without merit. Strategic autonomy doesn’t just mean independence vis-a-vis defense capabilities – Europe can enhance its autonomy in a wide range of sectors, including its economy, energy supply, and public health. Gaining more autonomy in the energy sector, even if dependence on Russia isn’t completely removed, will go a long way in strengthening Europe’s strategic position.

4. The fourth principle – selective engagement with Russia on foreign-policy – was relatively ambiguous when established in 2016 and thus has not seen much development in the years since. The idea was for the EU to only engage with Russia on issues that would be directly beneficial to Europe. But there hasn’t been much clarification on what issues would qualify or how the EU would determine this engagement. With the state of EU-Russia relations following Borrell’s visit—Russia even threatened to sever ties with the EU when sanctions were considered—engagement with Russia doesn’t seem like it will be a frequent occurrence for the near future anyway.

5. The EU’s final principle, supporting Russian civil society, is one of the most critical, especially given the momentum of the protests following Navalny’s arrest. The EU has made efforts in this sector, but Russia has installed several barriers that have blocked any substantial support. Various Russian laws passed over the last decade have kept foreign NGOs from operating in Russia and blocked foreign funding from Russian NGOs. What the EU can do is support civil societies in states along the Eastern flank, mainly Belarus. The EU has provided support for the Belarusian people in the past, but the recent protests and subsequent crackdown from Lukashenko’s regime have strained its relationship with Belarus. In December of 2020, the EU launched a new assistance program called EU4Belarus, which included €24 million of assistance to target civil society and independent media, young people, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and health resilience. Keeping up this momentum of support towards the grass-roots efforts in Belarus will go a long way in maintaining protesters’ morale and combatting the authoritarian tactics of the Lukashenko regime.

The EU’s hesitancy to push back against Russia only serves to further weaken its strategic position and divide its members. Internal fragmentation will only make the EU more vulnerable to Russia exploitation. Borrell’s visit to Moscow made clear the fact that European attempts at bilateral dialogue will not change Russia’s behavior. The European states should recommit to following the principles of their Russia policy—particularly strengthening ties with Eastern Europe, enhancing EU resilience to Russian threats, and supporting Russian and Belarusian civil society wherever possible.

The EU doesn’t have to go at it alone, either. An important first step is actually re-investing in the transatlantic relationship. Biden has made clear his attitude toward the Alliance. While it’s reassuring to hear Biden recommit to engagement with Europe, it’s up to European countries to take him up on this offer. Like many commentators have already pointed out, despite initial enthusiasm from European leaders following Biden’s election, European states have failed to take substantive action in re-establishing a strong bond with the U.S. It will be up to the EU on how it chooses to proceed, but history has proven that one of the most valuable assets to American and European security against Russia is the transatlantic relationship.

Your comments

Warning, your message will only be displayed after it has been checked and approved.

Who are you?

To show your avatar with your message, register it first on (free et painless) and don’t forget to indicate your Email addresse here.

Enter your comment here

This form accepts SPIP shortcuts {{bold}} {italic} -*list [text->url] <quote> <code> and HTML code <q> <del> <ins>. To create paragraphs, just leave empty lines.

Follow the comments: RSS 2.0 | Atom