Opinion & Analysis

Policy Insight | It’s time to rethink the EU’s Russia strategy

Anti-regime protests in Belarus and the poisoning of Alexey Navalny have brought EU-Russia relations to their lowest point since the 2013-14 Ukraine crisis. High Representative Josep Borrell’s trip to Moscow last month, aimed at re-establishing common ground, instead led to the expulsion of three European diplomats and a joint press conference in which the EU was accused of being an “unreliable partner”.

Borrell has concluded that Russia is no longer interested in constructive dialogue with the EU. Even the more dovish member states will now face pressure to adopt a more assertive stance towards Russia. In developing a more robust approach, however, member states must remain conscious of the fragile state of continental security in Europe.

The five guiding principles: between toughness and engagement

The Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) of 22 February discussed how the EU’s relations with Russia could evolve within the context of the five “guiding principles” laid out by Borrell’s predecessor Federica Mogherini. Following the Ukraine crisis, which marked the failure of the Lisbon-Vladivostok vision of a ‘Greater Europe’, these principles aimed to carve out a new equilibrium between toughness and engagement with Russia. This equilibrium now appears to have collapsed. Although they will not be jettisoned, changing circumstances point to the need to de-emphasise certain principles and firm up others.

Two of the principles – demanding full implementation of the Minsk agreements as a precondition to lifting sanctions and cooperating selectively with Russia where interests align – were evidently rooted in the lowest common denominator among member states that favoured engagement and those that preferred a more hawkish stance. Borrell’s more recent calls for a European “language of power” have failed to transcend this reductionist approach, as the term can satisfy both those who interpret it as a push for more autonomy from the US and those who see it as calling for a firmer approach towards Russia.

These intra-EU divisions have damaged the cause of Europe’s strategic autonomy. The Minsk agreements, the German Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and Emmanuel Macron’s proposed Russia reset have solidified the attachment of many smaller member states to NATO. The result is a vicious circle: Moscow continues to believe that the EU has effectively outsourced its security to Washington and therefore prioritises the dynamics of its rivalry with the US, which in turn has a deleterious effect on EU-Russia relations. This trend has also reinforced the illusion that Moscow can pursue cooperative relations with individual member states without engaging with the rules-based framework that ties those states together.

It has become increasingly difficult to square the other three principles – pursuing closer relations with Russia’s post-Soviet neighbours, enhancing EU resilience to Russian threats, and increasing support for Russian civil society – with selective engagement. As great power relations have worsened and Russia has drifted towards authoritarianism, ties between Brussels and Moscow are in danger of becoming fully adversarial, on a par with the US-Russia relationship. A prolonged confrontation, while undesirable from the standpoint of preserving a stable European security order, is now perhaps inevitable. With little prospect (or appetite) for meaningful strategic engagement with Moscow for the foreseeable future, member states should recalibrate their collective approach to Russia in a manner that balances toughness and restraint.

Towards a new approach: balancing toughness and restraint

For the first time, ministers at the recent FAC agreed to make use of the EU’s Global Human Rights Regime to impose restrictive measures against individuals responsible for prosecuting Navalny and repressing the protests that followed his arrest. (The US followed up with measures of its own.) This move allows Brussels to claim a win without imposing more wide-ranging sanctions that might have invited a more serious reprisal from the Kremlin. Yet while human rights promotion will remain part of the EU’s DNA, reflexively resorting to sanctions has become a poor means of addressing the problem of Russia’s divergence from European norms.

With the liberal international order seemingly in crisis, Russia has come to view Western humanitarian measures and pronouncements not as expressions of universal values, but rather as weapons aimed at destabilising its regime. Moreover, a survey released by the German database Statista last month shows that Vladimir Putin remains the most trusted public figure for 29% of the Russian population, compared with just 5% for Navalny. Although support for Putin has declined from its post-Crimean high in 2014, the regime remains resilient and the legacy of the disorderly 1990s has not yet faded from public memory. Taking aim at what Moscow sees as its internal affairs will only convince Russian authorities that they have little to lose by cracking down further on protestors and perceived opponents. It also risks escalating the regional security dilemma when paired with a US-led Euro-Atlantic security order that Moscow perceives as exclusionary and threatening.

Moreover, the EU’s demand that the Minsk agreements be implemented as a precondition for restoring ‘business as usual’ reinforces the misperception that the pre-2014 status quo was rosy. EU-Russia ties throughout the post-Cold War era suffered from a fundamental asymmetry of aims, with Brussels envisaging a rapprochement based on shared values and Moscow emphasising its desire to be treated as an “equal”. The latter embodies a centuries-old tendency in Russian foreign policy and should not be derided as a mere feature of the Putin ‘system’, which in any case pursued a relatively liberal foreign policy in the early 2000s. Russia’s initial desire to join the West after the Soviet Union’s collapse was more a reflection of a brief turn in European and global history than a permanent shift in how Russia interprets its interests. In short, the conflict over Ukraine is a symptom and not the cause of the European security order’s current malaise.

A more strategically minded approach would focus on buttressing the other two non-engagement-related principles. Working with Washington to enhance resilience to external challenges is an obvious interest that the EU shares with the Biden administration. That said, with Brexit and Donald Trump in the rear-view mirror, the EU’s deteriorating relationship with Russia will become an even more central driver of European strategic autonomy over the coming four years. This threatens to deepen existing fault lines between the transatlantic alliance and the Sino-Russian entente, which would undermine the EU’s efforts to strengthen the rules-based foundations of interstate relations.

Member states must therefore demonstrate that a more robust EU approach towards Russia will balance transatlantic cooperation with a strong autonomous component. To that end, the forthcoming EU Council meeting should launch a process aimed at exploring forms of differentiated integration for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova that would include some of the benefits of membership. Such a move would add a political and strategic dimension to the Commission’s goal, expressed in last month’s Trade Policy Review, of supporting the greater alignment of these three countries with the EU’s regulatory model. With no resolution to the Donbass conflict in sight, this could also provide a path for the EU to enhance its commitment to Ukraine while simultaneously reducing the Ukraine-centrism of its Russia policy.

Placing emphasis on the neighbourhood rather than on developments within Russia would send a balanced signal to Moscow. By providing greater incentive for the Association Agreement countries to deepen their alignment with the EU’s political and legal criteria, member states would affirm that the EU regulatory order is an established fact of Europe’s security architecture and should not be derided as a mere economic arm of NATO. At the same time, it would make clear to Moscow that the door remains open to cooperation on areas of shared interest. If Russia comes to see the EU as a more sovereign actor, then this may open space not only for sharper adversity but also more effective dispute resolution.

Strategic inaction is not an option. Moscow will likely remain able to sustain lofty geopolitical ambitions for decades, despite its economic and demographic challenges. Alternative sources of liquified natural gas and the gradual greening of Europe’s economy threaten to remove one of the few remaining areas of complementarity in EU-Russia relations – oil and gas imports – leaving military deterrence and coercion as the primary means for Moscow to advance its interests in Europe. Simply waiting for the Kremlin to crack is not a recipe for ensuring the EU’s security.

Since the Ukraine crisis, the EU and Russia have appeared content to live indefinitely with the reality of a fragmented European security order. Moscow sees the liberal international order as undergoing an existential crisis, while the West believes that Russia is in irreversible decline, leaving neither side prone to compromise. It was naïve to assume that such a situation could continue indefinitely without a sharper breakdown in relations. Seven years after the annexation of Crimea, it is no longer possible to continue muddling through.

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