EU-Russia relations: towards a pro-active agenda

Daniele Rumolo.jpg

Moving forward, how should the European Union re-think its approach towards Russia?



Nathalie Tocci
23 September 2015

Since the outbreak of the conflict over Ukraine, first with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and second by the ongoing separatist violence in the Donbas, the European Union has developed a two-track approach: a combination of sanctions and dialogue. This approach must be credited for maintaining European and transatlantic unity. Put differently, it has prevented internal divisions within the west from triggering political and policy paralysis.

But it does not add up to a vision or a strategy. Moving forward, how should the EU re-think its approach towards Russia?

Two track approach

The eruption and escalation of the conflict over Ukraine caught the European Union by surprise. And yet, when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the EU did respond promptly by condemning Russia’s aggression, suspending bilateral talks on visa matters and a new EU-Russia agreement, outlining possible restrictive measures in the absence of de-escalation.

As the conflict showed no signs of abating, the EU imposed its first travel bans and asset freezes by mid-March 2014. By the summer of 2014, restrictive measures had expanded to include import bans on goods from Crimea, restrictions on economic cooperation with Russian entities supporting actions against Ukraine, and, finally, full-blown economic sanctions covering such sectors as banking, energy and defence. These various layers of sanctions have been regularly renewed since then.

Alongside economic pressure, the EU has also repeatedly emphasised the imperative of maintaining open channels of dialogue with Russia. Dialogue was the premise underpinning the Minsk agreements between Russia and Ukraine brokered by Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande in September 2014 and February 2015.

Dialogue has been pursued by the European Commission in efforts to negotiate successive energy deals between Kyiv and Moscow. And dialogue has been the name of the game between the EU, the US and Russia on a number of global issues, of which the Iranian nuclear file, the Syrian civil war and the fight against terrorism are clear examples.

The two-track approach has had the value of securing European and Transatlantic unity. 

This two-track approach has had the value of securing European and transatlantic unity. This is more than many – no doubt Vladimir Putin included – have expected.

That Europeans have been divided in their approaches towards Russia has been no secret for years. Mobilising a united reaction, particularly when it would have impinged on member states’ economic interests in times of crisis, has value in and of itself.

Unsurprisingly, the first who has recognised such value is Petro Poroshenko, who has tirelessly insisted on the imperative of maintaining western unity throughout the crisis.

But what is equally clear is that the EU’s twin-track approach is inherently reactive in nature: it does not provide a compass to navigate the choppy waters ahead. So far the EU has latched onto this approach because it has maintained unity between member states pushing for a more decisive European reaction (notably eastern European countries) and those insisting on the need to find a compromise through diplomacy—notably in southern Europe.

Put differently, the concern is that by moving beyond the twin-track approach, Europeans would reveal the depth of their divisions on Russia.


Indeed, we are divided on at least three counts. First, there are divisions concerning the perception of what and where Russia is at the moment. Are we seeing the revival of Russian imperialism pursued through an expansionist agenda of political and territorial control? Or are we witnessing instead the final act of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, where, driven by an appreciation that it can no longer politically control its former Soviet satellites, Moscow has opted for second best, seeking to reconfigure the boundaries of the Russian-nation state? Depending on whether Russia is viewed as expansionist or in retreat conditions the threat perceptions of different EU member states.

Second, there are divisions concerning the reading of the status quo in west-Russian relations. Is the current spell of confrontation a mishap to be rectified in order to return to the normality of cooperation that marked the 1990s? Or were the 1990s an aberration, and we are back to the normality of confrontation that characterised the Cold War?

On a final (and related) note, there are divisions on what a European security architecture should look like: can we remain anchored to a model of concentric circles in which the EU would constitute the ‘core’ in terms of rules and values, to be gradually projected towards the ‘periphery’ reaching all the way to Vladivostok? Or is the realistic model rather one of two distinct entities, governed by different principles, rules and values, that would seek good neighbourly relations in order to provide peace, prosperity and security on the European continent?

Within the EU (and indeed the US), there is no agreement on the ‘diagnosis’ of where we are today. 

Within the EU (and indeed the US), there is no agreement on the ‘diagnosis’ of where we are today.

Consequently, there cannot be agreement on the 'prognosis' of where we should get to in future. At the same time, we cannot remain anchored to a reactive twin-track approach which hinges on Russia’s whims and behaviour.

Moving forward, the EU, through its efforts to develop a global strategy, needs to chart a way that lies somewhere in between the reactive twin-track approach governing the here and now and a brave new world of EU-Russia relations which we are unlikely to see in the decade ahead.

Proactive approach

What could a medium-run ‘protracted crisis management’ strategy look like? Building on the architecture of a dual approach, but reinterpreting this in a pro-active manner, two pillars may be worth exploring.

The first would focus on actively reducing our vulnerabilities and the vulnerabilities of our neighbours. When it comes to the high-end of military matters – notably territorial defence – the heavy lifting is unlikely to be done by the EU in the medium-term, although it is still Europeans that will need to become primarily responsible for their own security. Yet in an age of hybrid destabilisation, there is much more the EU can do to reduce the vulnerabilities of its member states and of its neighbours.

Notably, moving forward on the energy union and enhancing the state and societal resilience of its neighbours – foremost Ukraine – through far more significant commitments in terms of aid, cyber policies, mobility and institutional reform would do much to enhance security within the EU and beyond Eu borders.

A second pillar would see the EU actively seeking common ground with Russia on issues of convergent interest. In this respect, it is an illusion to believe that the EU can sustain an artificial division between a confrontational approach towards Russian in Europe and a cooperative one on other global issues. It is essential for the EU to explore areas of cooperation with Russia on European issues too, grounded on the premise that it is in the EU’s interest to see a stable, prosperous and secure Russia, and that Russia as a neighbor is here to stay.

There is no shortage of topics that could reflect both EU and Russian interests. One potentially fruitful avenue for conversation is infrastructure, notably in relation to the Chinese One Road One Belt initiative, which could foster a positive sum conception of wider Eurasia spanning from Beijing through Moscow to Lisbon.

It is almost two years since the conflict over Ukraine erupted. The writing on the wall had been there since the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, but it was only with Ukraine that the EU woke-up to the geopolitical consequences of its actions and inactions.

The fact that the EU has mustered and maintained internal consensus on its reaction to Russia should be commended. But almost two years on it is no longer sufficient. Building on its dual track approach, Europeans need to start urgently discussing how to change gears, from reactive to pro-active mode.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData