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Russia as a strategic challenge for the European Union

In 2003 Russian President Vladimir Putin described the European Union (EU) as 'our natural, most important partner, including in the political sphere'. However, Russia seems to have changed its mind about the kind of country it wants to be, and old questions for Europe are now being asked in a new context. Do EU leaders see it as part of their own task to bring about change in Russia? Should the EU seek a transactional relationship, based on pragmatic cooperation where there is mutual interest? Or should it insulate itself from the negative consequences of the actions of an increasingly estranged Russia?


Developing a united EU strategy towards Russia

Criticism aimed at the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Frederica Mogherini, over the tone and contents of an issues paper on relations with Russia (PDF) discussed recently by EU foreign ministers is, at least partly, misdirected. The paper did not claim to be comprehensive, but was just one part of the opening phase of a strategic discussion on EU–Russia relations that had been called for by member states. Relations with Russia will be guided mainly by intergovernmental cooperation, and identifying the key lines of action will be reserved for the European Council.

In this context, the new President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has noted that an adequate, consistent and united strategy towards Russia is a precondition for long-term solutions to a number of pressing security issues. Tusk’s intervention is timely and appropriate, and a good indication that he will try to meet the original objective behind the position he now holds—namely, strengthening the voice of the EU, and increasing its impact.

Tusk went on to emphasize the fact that the EU needs to think in terms of years, not months, when considering how to approach Russia; that the approach should be based on an assessment of Russia’s overall approach to Europe, rather than a response to specific developments in isolation; and that the EU’s assessment should not be too optimistic.

The approach suggested by Tusk is fully consistent with the way that EU leaders have previously outlined the basis for key policy decisions. EU leaders have recognized their responsibility to provide common strategic objectives and a clear common vision of what the EU collectively wants to achieve in any given region or on any given topic.

The current pattern of Russian behaviour has been labelled inconsistent with the norms, values and laws that make up the European security order—to the point where EU leaders stress that relations with Russia cannot be ‘business as usual’. However, it is not obvious how European leaders can come together around a positive, action-oriented approach based on a shared view of what they wish to achieve in the relationship with Russia, or how they intend to make any agreed strategy operational.


Future pathways for EU action

A case can be made for at least three future pathways. First, the EU could take the position that, in the present circumstances, it would be best to maintain the status quo. After the December 2014 Council meeting, Tusk was critical of EU policy, which has essentially been ‘event driven’. However, continuing to watch Russian actions, then reacting to them on a case-by-case basis, is the approach that is least likely to cause escalations in tensions with Russia or a further deterioration in the wider European security environment.

A variation—or perhaps a dimension—of this essentially reactive approach would involve preparing for the potential consequences of events that Russia does not plan or intend. For example, Russia’s current economic and political policies could, according to some analyses, be unsustainable. The EU has to be prepared for the consequences of unplanned changes that might, if recent history is a guide, unfold quickly and in unpredictable ways.

Second, a more proactive—and somewhat confrontational—approach might be called for. It is very unlikely that the present Russian leadership can be persuaded to behave in ways that conform to the EU view of what is appropriate within the current European security order. What could be labelled ‘Putinism’ might need to be confronted and overcome as the last major barrier to achieving a Europe that is ‘whole, free and at peace’. However, following this path means that things may well get worse before they get better. A Russian response and a further deterioration in the European security environment would be almost inevitable.

A third option would be to accommodate Russian plans for the wider European security order. A case can certainly be made that in a number of the countries ‘to the east of Vienna’, the current Russian worldview is broadly consistent with the perspectives of existing political elites. The EU could support the Russian proposal that the wider Europe should be seen as a space in which more than two or several geopolitical zones coexist, and focus its energy first and foremost on the internal dynamics of the EU and close associates. However, the critical response to the issues paper on relations with Russia has mainly been aimed at the parts of the document that seem to point in this direction.


The need for engagement with Russia

Each of these pathways leads in very directions and would, therefore, require a specific set of EU policies and actions. All of them would also require some form of engagement and dialogue with Russia—something that was sustained even in the most difficult periods of the cold war. However, the format and content of the engagement would be very different, depending on the chosen approach.

The problem for President Tusk in seeking to promote a united strategy towards Russia is that all three general lines for action mentioned above—react, confront, or accommodate—would have their supporters within the EU, and unanimity among member states is not only needed at the point of decision. The chosen path would have to be sustainable over the long term, and compatible with the choices made by states within the transatlantic framework.

In order to make meaningful progress it would appear to be inevitable that, step-by-step, EU member states delegate authority to the European Council to decide on the broad approach to be taken to Russia, while also accepting that decisions will mainly follow the recommendations from a sub-group of states—namely, those which will be most affected by the consequences of the decision, under the de facto leadership of the largest and most influential member state, Germany.



Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.