Inclusiveness, not compartmentalisation should be EU’s Russia policy

  • Petr Boháček
  • 4.12.2017 15:15

Compartmentalisation of EU-Russia relations looks set to gain traction, but the best way to confront Moscow is to make progress in Eastern Partnership countries and confront East-West division in the EU.

EU unanimity on sanctions towards Russia represents one of the collective foreign policy successes of the 28 states. It is far from a common position on relations with Russia. Progress in fulfilling the Minsk Agreements will slowly uncover different Russia policies, despite the persistently aggressive behaviour of Moscow in e.g. Crimea, Syria, air incursions, disinformation campaigns or violation of an arms control treaty.

With the return of pragmatism to EU foreign policy, articulated in its new Global Strategy, calls for compartmentalisation of relations are likely to grow. Picking some areas for cooperation and preserving conflict relations in others can be temporarily beneficial. However, without consequences, Putin would have much less incentive to change the way he conducts business. The geopolitical and value clash at the core of the conflict, wouldn’t cede this way. To confidently confront Moscow, Eastern Europe should be turned into a major success story.

Reasons to cooperate
Economically, the sanctions have particularly harmed the liquidity of Russian banks, opening a way for Chinese credit. But make no mistake, China is a much more complicated economic partner and cannot substitute for Europe.

With growing concerns about security in Europe preoccupying its leadership, cooperation in counter-terrorism is being increasingly pushed forward. This trend is worth deconstructing. Information-sharing is already a sensitive and problematic issue within the EU; sharing information with the same intelligence agencies that planned the capture of Crimea, operations in Ukraine or disinformation campaigns in Europe is very hard to imagine. Any added value is also doubtful here, as Russia’s terror threats emanate principally from Central Asia and former Muslim-dominant regions. Cooperation in Syria against terrorism is even harder to imagine, after Moscow’s rescue of the Syrian regime under the pretext of counter-terror action. Reasons to engage in genuine cooperation now are very difficult to identify. 

Europe’s weakest internal link is its energy dependency. The Union has long tried to address this, making diversification and vulnerability central topics of its energy strategies. EU funding has been floating into new LNG terminals in Cyprus, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, with the aim of reducing dependency on Russia. The US President has also offered American gas as an alternative. Supply diversification options also include Norway, Qatar and the Caspian region, through the Southern Gas Corridor. But the lack of complete LNG infrastructure, Russia’s low prices and mammoth volumes (247 out of 606 billion cubic meters in 2016) are unlikely to be easily phased out. Alternatives are simply not as economically appealing; Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece remain heavily energy dependent on Russia. The profitability and benefits of the Gazprom-financed Nord Stream 2 pipeline only confirm it, forcing Germany to disregard the loud criticism of other member states in going against the EU’s energy goals. Russia, too, is dependent on Western technology in gas exports, has never cut gas transfers trough Ukraine and Europe’s diversification represents a significant threat to Russia’s economic stability.

Sure, cooperation with Russia in various areas would be beneficial but waters down the repercussion for the Moscow regime. Compartmentalisation of relations could be justified by the EU’s return to pragmatism and realpolitik in its Global Strategy. But the primal source of rivalry – EU’s neighbourhood policy – will likely continue to fuel new tensions and conflicts.  

Say geopolitics three times
The EU’s expansion to the East occurred during a time when Russia was geopolitically weak, amid a complex internal political and economic transformation. Russia’s rise in the 21st century has sparked a myriad of new conflicts.


Russia’s disinformation campaign to discredit the European Union has a strategic importance in countering EU expansion, especially since Russia does not have any other tools - economic or political


The European Neighbourhood Policy (concretely, the Eastern Partnership (EaP), remains at the core of the geopolitical problem between the EU and Russia. The democratic extension of the EU dents Russia’s traditional sphere. Russia’s disinformation campaign to discredit the European Union has a strategic importance in countering EU expansion, especially since Russia does not have any other tools - economic or political - to challenge the EU’s offer or propose an alternative. Propaganda and military aggressions remain its only viable tactics, in countering EU expansion through former CIS countries and denting trust in the EU among Eastern European member states.

Moscow rejects the EaP as a failed exportation of the EU political model, calling for alternative forms of cooperation in the region in coordination with Russia. Yet, any EU cooperation model will be based on the basic principles of liberal democracy, rule of law, economic liberalisation, market and legislative synchronisation (as agreed on in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements) and growth of active civic society. These preconditions do not suit the current Russian regime, leaving little scope for cooperation.

Any convergence of the two spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space remains very unlikely while Russia views liberal democracy as a threat. This perception doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon: as perfectly summed up by the Economist, “The point of the [Russian] election is not to provide an alternative to Mr. Putin, but to prove that there is none.”


The fight against the division, internal inconsistencies and success of the EaP have geopolitical importance for the Union and should be regarded as such


Arguably, there is no pressure to rush: it is among Europe’s historical missions to deal with Russia. The best strategy would be to help gradually transform Eastern European countries from oligarchic-based regimes to full-spectrum liberal democracies. This task is not only for EaP countries, but for EU members in the East. The challenge is formidable: from Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s illiberal democracy, the attack on judicial independence in Poland, ‘Berlusconisation’ of the Czech Republic by media-baron populist billionaire Andrej Babis, to the continuing grip on power in Romania by corrupt former Communist apparatchiks. The much-debated East-West division, or ‘multispeed Europe’, is an easily exploitable topic for Russia’s sophisticated disinformation industry.

The fight against the division, internal inconsistencies and success of the EaP have geopolitical importance for the Union and should be regarded as such. A compartmentalisation of Russia relations risks sending the wrong signals and ignores the core conflict with Moscow.

About author: Petr Boháček


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