Push back, contain, and engage: How the EU should approach relations with Russia


Взаимоотношения Евросоюза и России сегодня сложно назвать безоблачными. С начала конфликта на востоке Украины в 2014 году общение соседей по континенту проходит под знаком расширяющихся санкций. Россия пытается вести активную внешнюю политику, будь то вмешательство в кризисы в Сирии, ЦАР или Сербии. На фоне усиливающегося военного присутствия России попытки Евросоюза вовлечь её в многостороннее сотрудничество не увенчались успехом. Вместе с тем её жители остаются самыми частыми получателями шенгенской визы в мире — каждый третий такой документ выдаётся в России. Европейский совет по международным отношениям подготовил статью, рассказывающую о перспективах взаимодействия России и Евросоюза

Since the start of the war in Ukraine in 2014, the European Union’s policy on Russia has sought to balance sanctions with selective engagement. But the EU should now move beyond this bichromatic approach. In light of his recent trip to Moscow, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has argued for a new policy triad when it comes to dealing with Russia: push back, contain, and engage. But how can the EU turn yet another round of Brussels slogans into concrete policies? This paper outlines several ways in which the bloc can try to adapt its Russia policy to these new imperatives and develop the concepts into concrete policies.

The EU’s strategic accommodation of Russia

In recent years, media headlines on EU-Russia relations have been dominated by news of sanctions, cyber attacks, the use of chemical weapons, and exchanges of jibes at the highest levels. What rarely made it into the news was a rather profound accommodation by the EU, and partly by the United States, of Russian strategic interests and sensitivities. NATO has de facto suspended the accession processes of Ukraine and Georgia. Meanwhile, humanitarian intervention has fallen out of favour among Western governments. While this did not happen because of Russia, it has removed a major irritant in the EU’s relationship with the country for a decade now. Russians continue to be the biggest recipients of Schengen visas in the world: almost one-third of such documents are issued in Russia. The country receives some of the most lenient treatment of any state whose citizens still need visas to enter the EU: 82 per cent of visas issued to Russians are multiple-entry, and most are multiannual. Most Western sanctions on Russian entities target individuals rather than the Russian economy, and have been deliberately designed to send signals of disapproval to Russia rather than to significantly weaken it. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline was built in 2010-2011, while Nord Stream 2 is nearing completion. In 2019 the Russian delegation was accepted back into the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. And the US and the EU tiptoed respectfully around Russian sensitivities about large-scale popular protests in Belarus and the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the EU’s accommodation of Russia’s sensitivities on numerous foreign policy issues, relations between the two have deteriorated.

Judging by Russian policies on Ukraine, Libya, Central African Republic, and Serbia, one cannot say that similar self-restraint has informed the Kremlin’s foreign policy calculations. Russia’s military and security partnership with Serbia surpasses that of any EU member state, even though Serbia is an EU accession candidate. Recently, Russia started calling on the EU to stop interfering in the domestic affairs not just of post-Soviet states (as it long has) but even Western Balkans countries, which happened to ask for such ‘interference’ in the form of EU accession.

The EU has supplemented this strategic accommodation with periodic diplomatic overtures. However, all these efforts failed – in large part because Moscow does not want to reset its own foreign policy or domestic political system. Rather than investing in resets with the EU or the US, Russia has looked for ways to weaken and circumvent European and American influence in key areas of the world – from the Balkans to the Middle East, to sub-Saharan Africa.

In many areas, Russia is satisfied with its current level of practical cooperation with Europe. Russian gas sales to the EU have hit record highs. Somewhat paradoxically, the worse the political relationship became, the more Russian gas the EU bought.

On the diplomatic front, confrontation has not disrupted EU-Russia dialogue. On some issues, this dialogue has even intensified. Kyiv, Moscow, Berlin, and Paris hold regular summits at the level of heads of government in the Normandy format, while country representatives permanently liaise with each other – on issues related to the war in Donbas – within several working groups in the Minsk process. In the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), there are working groups on security and confidence-building measures (such as the modernisation of the Vienna document), frozen conflicts, human rights, and so on. The EU itself has been mostly excluded from these discussions by its member states – a trend that is increasingly apparent.

Since Borrell’s ill-fated trip to Moscow in February 2021, two countervailing trends seem to be affecting EU member states’ thinking. Some trust Brussels even less when it comes to EU institutions’ ability to handle Russia. Others are worried that Brussels will become even more marginalised in the EU-Russia relationship, leaving medium and small-sized member states with even fewer channels through which to affect the relationship. It remains to be seen whether there will be a slowdown in the procession of visits to Russia by delegations from EU member states. But, from Moscow’s standpoint, systematic engagement with member states and the relative marginalisation of EU institutions suits Russia well.

The EU’s past attempts at pushback

The EU’s strategic accommodation of Russia’s sensitivities, and its continued engagement with the country, has been balanced by periodic pushback from the bloc on various fronts. The EU adopted in 2009 its third energy liberalisation package, drastically reducing Russia’s power to use Gazprom as a foreign policy tool against much of the bloc. And there is an increasing desire in the EU to attribute cyber attacks by Russia. In an unprecedented development, Germany sought last year to indict Russian cyber operatives. Countries such as France and the Netherlands have adopted a more aggressive cyber posture (and raised the prospect of so-called ‘hack-backs’) in response to Russian cyber operations. Following the poisoning in August 2020 of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the EU became more forceful in signalling concern about Russia’s domestic political dynamics than it had been at any time in the preceding decade.

The EU’s use of sanctions to push back against Russia has been reasonably successful. These low-intensity sanctions might not have reversed Russian policies in Ukraine, but they have significantly constrained them. The measures have probably limited the scale of Russian military involvement in Ukraine and thereby reduced the size of the warzone in the east of the country. Sanctions on the defence sector have contributed to significant delays and cost increases in many of Russia’s next-generation weapons platforms, decreasing the need for Europe to rapidly develop and purchase systems to provide deterrence along NATO’s eastern flank. Sanctions slow down Russia’s military modernisation, and thereby make it less urgent for the EU to accelerate the growth of its defence spending. Another side-effect of the sanctions has been to limit the financial resources that Russia can use to project power abroad. Russia still has significant financial reserves, but it has been saving them for domestic projects and even rainier geopolitical days.

In recent years, Russia’s military spending has stagnated and its financial aid to foreign partners has either begun to dry up (as in the cases of Belarus and Armenia) or not materialised in significant amounts (as in that of Syria). Such growing mercantilism in Russian foreign policy is not an immediate and direct result of EU sanctions, but rather a response to Russia’s lacklustre economic performance in the last decade. But, of course, sanctions are among the factors that affect Russia’s economic outlook and its capacity to mobilise financial resources for foreign policy.

The EU’s balancing of pushback, engagement, and respect for Russia’s sensitivities has been quite geopolitically minded but not very systematic. The bloc still finds it quite uncomfortable to behave geopolitically vis-à-vis Russia, even if Moscow has seemingly done its best to nudge the EU into the adoption of harder-nosed policies. A recent non-paper circulated by an EU member state called on the EU to structure its Russia policy along the following lines: support the implementation of Minsk II and stronger reactions against the violation of the sovereignty of the EU’s neighbours; increase cooperation on resilience building with the bloc’s eastern neighbours, not least in combating hybrid and cyber threats; increase the EU’s own resilience, including by boosting green policies and fighting disinformation; continue to engage selectively with Russia on Middle Eastern and environmental issues, as well as through dialogue with the Eurasian Economic Union; and support civil society in Russia. These approaches resonate with Borrell’s three suggested actions: push back, contain, and engage.

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