Nov 29, 2022
The EU must build a new set of ambitious policies that treats Russia as a major threat to peace and stability in Europe, while continuing to engage with its people. A longer-term Russia strategy begins with a “Ukraine First” policy.
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022 has broken the post–Cold War European security order and completely rewritten the EU-Russia relationship that had formed over the last thirty years. For three decades, the foundations of those relations were economic and energy interdependence. Now, as Russia poses the biggest threat to peace and stability in Europe, all areas of relations have been securitized. Through eight comprehensive sanctions packages adopted by the EU, the union’s member states are systematically cutting all economic ties. Europe’s decoupling from Russian oil and gas ends fifty years of connectivity and mutually beneficial energy relations. This will put Russia’s economic model under pressure and push the country further toward China and Asia more generally.
The EU member states have shown unprecedented unity in their sanctions policy toward Russia. The decline in economic relations has already been huge. Because of the sanctions, Germany, Russia’s most important trading partner in the EU, recorded a 34 percent drop in exports to Russia in the first half of 2022 compared with the same period in the previous year. Russia thus slipped from fourteenth to twenty-fifth place in terms of destinations for German exports in that period. After years of conflict among EU member states over the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, the war in Ukraine led German decisionmakers to abruptly suspend their approval of the project. EU member states like Germany, which are heavily dependent on Russian gas, are developing alternative energy sources in the Middle East, Norway, and the United States, mainly for the supply of liquefied natural gas.
The war shows that the EU needs new short-, medium-, and long-term strategies for dealing with Russia in a completely different security reality, so as to change Russia itself and affect its ability to act in the common neighborhood. Such a policy shift was probably inevitable: a key reason for the Ukraine war was Russia’s perception of geopolitical competition in its shared neighborhood with the EU. The Russian leadership was not willing to lose what it feels to be Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, including de facto control of Ukraine. Despite weaknesses and contradictions in the EU’s approach, the union’s neighborhood policy and soft power had begun to foster transformation in the common neighborhood through its impact on societies. Russia’s elites, by contrast, could resort only to military power in a desperate attempt to prevent a further loss of influence in Ukraine. But the brutal use of force to subjugate another country is precisely what is causing the further decline of Russian power and has strengthened European unity against Russian aggression.
The EU now needs to maintain the unity it has forged in response to the Ukraine war to meet three big challenges with regard to Russia. First, the EU must build a foreign and security policy vis-à-vis Russia on the basis that the union is now a geopolitical actor and Russia is the major threat to European security. Second, the EU must devise more proactive policies to integrate the Eastern neighborhood outside Russia. And third, the EU must design a new Russia policy that is maximally tough on the regime of President Vladimir Putin while keeping alive the idea of a post-Putin Russia that is part of Europe.
EU-Russia relations worsened after 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine. Since that year, EU sanctions against Russia and Russian countersanctions, as well as growing Russian import substitutions, have led to a decline in trade. Yet, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, EU member states disagreed over how to deal with Russia in the future. The 2015 review of the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy underscored that relations with Moscow had badly deteriorated. At the same time, member states expressed the hope that “constructive cooperation” on some regional issues would be helpful “when conditions allow.” In the 2016 Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy, the union reiterated that it expected Russia to respect international law and the principles on which the European security order is built, in a reference to the 1990 Charter of Paris and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. However, the EU would be ready to cooperate with Russia “if and when [their] interests overlap.”
More concrete were the five guiding principles of EU policy toward Russia put forward by the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council in March 2016. Here, Brussels called for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements, which sought to end the war in Donbas, and underlined the EU’s readiness to further develop relations with the six post-Soviet countries in the Eastern Partnership (EaP). The foreign ministers also stressed that the EU wanted to strengthen its resilience regarding energy security and hybrid threats as well as support Russian civil society. At the same time, the union emphasized the agreement among member states to seek selective engagement with Russia—that is, cooperation in areas of common interest.
The EU also noted that there were few points of contact for cooperation with Russia and that Moscow was not willing to compromise. Nevertheless, the union articulated the hope that the Russian leadership would be more open to compromise in the future. This ambiguity revealed the member states’ lowest-common-denominator position until the 2022 war and reflected the desire of some states—especially France, Germany, and Italy but also Austria and Hungary—to improve relations with Russia. Contradictory signals from the member states weakened the EU’s position vis-à-vis Russia and made it difficult to distinguish between willingness to compromise and appeasement. Here, Germany, with its growing energy dependence on Russia since 2015—as much as 65 percent of Germany’s gas came from Russia in 2020—and its support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, held a particularly problematic position.
The Russian leadership exacerbated this uncertainty by creating confusion in the EU through influencing the information space and strengthening those actors and narratives that weakened a common EU position. Cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns against politicians, and fake news by Russian media against EU member states reinforced Russia’s alienation. The European External Action Service stated in a March 2021 report that Germany was the main target of
Russian disinformation in the EU, meaning that in Moscow, Germany was seen as one of the most vulnerable countries to Russian influence. Russia’s defamation campaign against German state institutions, politicians, and media increased again after Alexei Navalny, a leading opposition politician who had been poisoned in Russia, was evacuated to Germany in August 2020.
The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, warned in his June 2021 report on a new Russia strategy against a further deterioration of relations with Moscow. He called for the EU to push back against Russian aggression and limit relations to what was feasible while cooperating with Russia where possible. This should, Borrell wrote, better protect EU member states and stop the downward spiral in relations. The high representative argued that the EU should be willing to improve relations with Russia again when it is ready. And Borrell underlined the importance of selective engagement with Russia in areas such as counterterrorism and people-to-people contacts.
Overall, as the EU tried to formulate a new Russia policy in light of the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, disunity among the member states on how to deal with Russia limited Brussels’s ability to devise a clearer and concrete policy. The EU kept the sanctions that had been imposed because of Russia’s aggression in 2014 and afterward but avoided actions that would damage major energy projects or economic cooperation, which were still held to be valuable for both sides.
The 2022 war rendered this policy—and most of the conceptions that underpinned it—bankrupt. This applies especially to Germany, whose post–Cold War policy toward Russia, an updated version of the Ostpolitik of the 1960s and 1970s, was dominated by the concept of a partnership for modernization. The idea of changing Russia through economic interdependence or trade did not prevent war but instead led Putin to believe that because of the energy interests and economic opportunism of big EU member states, the union would not sanction Russia in a serious way. As a result, dependencies and vulnerabilities increased. Even after the 2014 events in Ukraine, the German government agreed to sell several gas stores, including one of Europe’s biggest, to Russian gas giant Gazprom in 2015. Because of Germany’s growing dependence on Russian gas after 2012, the Russian leadership did not expect Germany to be prepared to endure a cut-off of Russian oil and gas.
The Kremlin expected a lack of resolve not only from Germany but also from other EU member states, including Austria and Italy, that depend on Russian gas. Yet, the EU response has been robust. In particular, European Commission has played a key role since February 2022 in preparing and implementing eight sanctions packages against Russia as of this writing. In drafting the measures, the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has proved the Kremlin wrong in its belief that Brussels is not a relevant player in conflict with Russia.
The Russian leadership has understood neither the EU as a multilevel actor nor the interplay between EU institutions and the member states. For the Kremlin, giving up sovereignty to a transnational organization and integrating with other countries are signs of weakness, not strength. Moscow has always tried to affect EU decisionmaking through the big member states—in particular, France, Germany, and Italy—while sidelining the smaller, more hawkish states like Poland and the Baltic countries. Russia has not understood that the EU is a compromise machine, in which the big member states must take the interests of smaller ones into consideration.
In one key area of contestation, however, Russia was successful in its Europe policy before 2022. While a would-be normative policy of transferring the rule of law, transparency, and accountability from the EU and its member states toward Russia failed, Moscow had successes in its economic influence operations. Russian elites were able to undermine institutions and stakeholders in Europe through corruption and money laundering. European banks and financial businesses played a crucial role in transferring corrupt money into the real economy and the real estate market. The energy sector was central in providing funds to bribe decisionmakers in member states and fund supporters of a Russia-friendly political and economic environment that would benefit the Putin system. EU member states and institutions were not effective in countering the vested interests of these hostile actors in the member states.
In planning its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian leadership calculated that the EU was a weak regional and global actor, while Russia’s main Western adversary, the United States, was focused largely on China. The war in Ukraine compels the EU to prove Russia wrong by reinventing itself as a geopolitical and security actor in its Eastern neighborhood, rather than acting only as a normative and technocratic player.
Russia’s own policies are heavily influenced by traditional notions of geopolitics, spheres of influence, and the balance of power. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Russia is a great power only if it keeps its hegemony in the post-Soviet space. Putin’s assertions that Ukraine has no right to be an independent state with its own society and that “Russians and Ukrainians [are] one people” form part of a Russian colonialist and imperialist tradition. This worldview is shared by a large part of Russian society.
Responding to projection of power by Russia is a big challenge for the EU. French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to fill the gap left by a lack of German leadership in the war, but without much success. Although the leaders of France and Germany still communicate with Putin, neither is able to influence him. By default, the United States remains the leader of Western countries, including European ones, in this war. Without U.S. military and financial support, there would no longer be a Ukrainian state. Similarly, NATO—and the United States as its most powerful member—is the main guarantor of security in Europe in this situation. There is no security in Europe outside NATO anymore.
Even though there is European unity on imposing sanctions and supporting Ukraine—with some exceptions, such as Hungary—there is, as yet, no common approach on how to deal with Russia in the future. Some member states continue to talk to Putin and want to prevent a further escalation. For others, only Russia’s complete defeat can stop the war and further aggression against European countries, and negotiations with Putin make no sense.
The challenge of responding to Russia is unavoidable. As a revisionist declining power with nuclear weapons, Russia needs to be managed as a major global security risk. The war against Ukraine accelerates the disintegration of the post-Soviet space, which is both a danger and an opportunity for the EU. Russia can no longer provide authoritarian stability in the region, as can be seen in the South Caucasus since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There, Azerbaijan used its military superiority, supported by NATO member Turkey, to press Armenia into a so-called authoritarian peace. Third powers like China, Iran, and Turkey are likely to play increasing roles in various post-Soviet regions. That means that unless the EU becomes more active beyond its support for economic and political transformation through more engagement in security and regional conflicts in the Eastern neighborhood, other players with undemocratic governance models and authoritarian methods of conflict management will challenge Russia’s role in the region.
In Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the EU’s normative approach has borne fruit over the last decade. The Kremlin was wrong to downplay the possible transformative power of the EaP, with its association agreements and deep and comprehensive free-trade areas in these three countries. Only in 2013 did the Russian leadership realize that association agreements would change the nature of the EU’s relations with the signatory states and, in the long term, weaken Moscow’s ability to influence these countries. While Russian politics and business impact Russia’s neighbors through informal ties and corruption and benefit from a lack of rule of law and weak institutions, the EU supports transparency and the rule of law and seeks to strengthen institutions. Thus, the Russian leadership was able to prevent Armenia from signing an association agreement with the EU in 2013 and force the country to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union, later the Eurasian Economic Union. But the same tactics failed with Ukraine: forcing the Ukrainian leadership not to sign an association agreement was the trigger for the 2013–2014 Euromaidan demonstrations, leading to the downfall of then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas.
The EU’s decision in June 2022 to grant Moldova and Ukraine the status of EU candidate country and Georgia that of potential candidate country, in response to the war in Ukraine, was a recognition of the union’s geopolitical competition with Russia. Similarly, the establishment in October 2022 of a European Political Community reflected an attempt to cooperate more closely with European countries that do not support Russia in the current war.
With the current regime in Moscow, there will be no reset of EU-Russia relations. Only deep regime change in Russia will create the opportunity for a fundamentally different EU policy toward the country. Russia itself has changed rapidly—and for the worse—since the war started. It is becoming more closed and more repressive of civil society and any kind of opposition. A key precondition for political change in Moscow—but no guarantee of it—is a Russian defeat in Ukraine, meaning the ouster of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory.
The integration of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine into the EU, which would help create successful examples of transformation, democratization, and reform in post-Soviet countries beyond the Baltic states, is crucial for change in Russia. If Ukraine wins the war, is reconstructed, and, at the same time, is integrated into the EU, this will have a major impact on Russia. It would counter the Russian leadership’s argument that there is no alternative to authoritarian rule and would confirm that democratization and successful reforms can take place in post-Soviet countries and would also be possible for Russia.
Beyond the ongoing war in Ukraine, European countries need a long-term vision and strategy for a different Russia in Europe. A crucial element of a new, common European policy toward Russia is making the EU member states and their societies more resilient against Russian influence. Better coordination among the member states is especially important. Self-protection against disinformation and hybrid attacks, military deterrence, and economic and energy decoupling to decrease vulnerabilities will be the main elements of the EU’s policy toward Russia in the short and medium term.
The proposition that Germany should not lead a new Russia policy because Berlin’s approach failed in the past needs critical reflection. A balanced approach is required between the interests of bigger and smaller member states, meaning that countries like France and Germany should not dominate the EU’s Russia policy and should learn lessons from the past. Yet, the EU can have a more effective Russia policy only if the bigger member states change their approaches and become less vulnerable to external influences, such as Russia’s role in gas supplies or China’s huge market and role in supply chains. For this, the EU needs to account for the failures of the past so it can redefine its policy for the future.
If the EU is to become a global actor, its foreign policy toward powers like China and Russia needs to show more ambition. Those member states that have historical and societal ties with Russia will always have an influence on EU-Russia relations. At the same time, Europe’s energy and economic decoupling from Russia will make it easier to formulate a common European policy toward Moscow. The economic component in several member states’ approaches to Russia will decline. But different traditions in dealing with Russia will persist. It is also important for the EU to coordinate its Russia policy with Washington while keeping a European profile in dealing with Moscow and countries in the Eastern neighborhood.
In conclusion, here are seven principles the EU should follow to form the basis of a new EU strategy toward Russia.
Put Ukraine first: Working in Russia’s neighborhood means having an impact on Russia. But the EU should not pursue a Russia First policy and instead put its energy behind reforms and transformation partnerships with states in the Eastern neighborhood that aspire to democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy. While the EaP has focused on transformation without integration, this new policy should concentrate on reforms with the goal of integration into the EU. The expansion of the European democratic and legal space into the Eastern neighborhood is now even more important. The aim should be political change in Russia itself, supported by successful democratization and reforms in other post-Soviet states. Because of its size, location, history, and dynamic civil society, Ukraine must play the key role in this systemic competition with Russia. Therefore, in the medium term, the EU should prioritize a Ukraine First policy, not only to help secure Ukraine’s survival as a state, but also to promote the country’s reforms and EU integration policy as an example to others.
Upgrade the EU’s neighborhood policy: With the Russian war against Ukraine, the EU’s neighborhood and enlargement policies need an upgrade. The EU requires a strategy to strengthen its role and goals in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans, the South Caucasus, and the Black Sea region. This involves bolstering the connectivity and security of trade routes and promoting the resilience of partners, especially in the wider Black Sea region, at a time when Russia is massively engaged in Ukraine. To this end, the EU should promote connectivity between the Black and Caspian Seas and onward to Central Asia, also to further diversify sources of oil and gas for the EU. The union needs to be more engaged and impose stronger conditionality to prevent important but currently difficult partners in the region, such as Georgia, from drifting away from Europe toward a third way and to help Armenia preserve its sovereignty and stay on its path of democratization and reform. Because of its geographic location and reform-oriented government, the integration of Moldova is a top priority in the context of the integration of Ukraine.
Do not abandon Russian civil society: Working systematically with progressive Russians who have left their country in light of the war should be a focus of relations with Russian civil society. In Russia, the government has used so-called foreign agent laws and restrictive measures to ensure that any civil society exchange with external actors, including from the EU, is cut off. Without forgetting those civil society actors who are still in the country, the EU should devise an integrative, values-based, and strategic policy for the people who have left Russia and are trying to adapt to the situation or build a new life in Europe. Creating platforms in science, education, the media, and political advice to develop concepts for a different Russia in Europe and to influence the Russian-language information space is a policy geared toward sustainable change. In the process, the EU must support Russian emigrants in developing a Russian vision for a peaceful Russia in Europe. This is all the more important because many Russians are still influenced by their country’s imperial and colonial past and share the values of their political leaders.
Devise a smarter visa policy: While more and more Russians are emigrating to the EU, the member states are divided as to whether these refugees are a security risk or should be supported. Russia’s direct neighbors, like the Baltic states and Finland, want stricter rules on entering the Schengen area of passport-free travel than do member states like France, Germany, and Italy. In response, EU countries have agreed to suspend the EU-Russia visa facilitation agreement in place since 2007, increased restrictions on tourist visas, and begun to reassess currently valid visas. EU member states now rarely accept applications by Russians for visas in third countries.
Yet, a restrictive EU visa policy and Russia’s complete societal isolation work against change in the country. There is a need for a common European visa policy toward Russia that is transparent and does not change constantly. This policy should be linked to clear and less bureaucratic solutions for obtaining residence in the EU. Besides humanitarian visas, which are issued in limited numbers, tourist visas are key for those who need to leave Russia quickly, and this issue will become more acute as the regime becomes even more repressive. The EU should establish a European system of checking the backgrounds and possible security risks of migrants. Border countries, like the Baltic states and Finland, need more support in managing the new arrivals, and the EU could develop alternative routes via a limited number of third countries with a greater capacity to check people and provide entry visas.
Resist full disengagement: The complete economic and technological isolation of Russia is not expedient in the long term. A certain level of financial and technological integration with Russia is in Europe’s interest. If Russia becomes completely dependent on Chinese technology and disconnects itself from the global banking and financial system because of Western sanctions, Europe’s possibilities for influence and information will dwindle. As the example of sanctioning Iran shows, the complete isolation of an authoritarian state does not necessarily lead to a change in policy. On the contrary, it strengthens isolationist security elites and weakens the liberal parts of the elites and society. That said, the EU must reduce its dependencies on Russia and deprive Moscow of the possibility of using energy as a weapon against European states and the common neighbors.
Strengthen European energy security: The integration of energy and electricity networks between EU member states and the Eastern neighbors strengthens energy security in Europe. Gas and oil supplies are major targets of Russian influence through corruption. The EU needs to devise, implement, and monitor common European rules to minimize this possibility. An EU policy of energy integration with Ukraine and other Eastern neighbors as well as reforms and investment in the framework of the 2020 European Green Deal—a set of initiatives with the aim of making the EU climate neutral by 2050—is an economic, development, and security project.
Become a peace actor: Finally, the EU should both define itself more as a geopolitical and security actor and work to strengthen multilateral institutions, which are based on international law. Linked to this should be a willingness to organize more EU peace and monitoring operations in conflict zones in Europe’s neighborhood and beyond and to strengthen institutions for prosecuting war crimes and international corruption by boosting personnel, funding, and information sharing among the member states and partner countries. A values-based foreign policy does not exclude pragmatic partnerships with nondemocratic states. However, the EU must avoid the types of compromise and appeasement it has pursued in the past with Russia. Securing Europe’s legal and democratic space internally and expanding it externally requires a proactive and strategic EU foreign and security policy as well as a more comprehensive set of instruments that include peace-building measures.
Stefan Meister is head of the Program for International Order and Democracy at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.