In 2019, the European Union’s Russia policy was under a lot of pressure. The rapidly changing balance of power in global politics calls for Europe to reconsider its position and act more strategically. However, the EU member states do not agree on what this would mean for EU-Russian relations.
The Union’s new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has stated that the EU must take on a stronger role in its neighbourhood and in the Western Balkans. Without doubt, for Europe this is a crucial task in terms of its security and international influence. Meanwhile, it also creates tensions in relations with Russia, which is struggling for power in the same regions in the spirit of a zero-sum game. Russia is trying to undermine the EU’s position in the Western Balkans, not to speak about the Union’s Eastern neighbourhood, and has increased its influence in the Middle East.
Borrell has expressed clear support for continuing the EU’s sanctions on Russia as long as the Minsk Agreements on the conflict in Ukraine are not implemented. In 2019 France, Germany and the newly elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, made a new effort to end the war in eastern Ukraine. The only result so far has been prisoner exchanges between Kyiv and Moscow, which have involved difficult concessions from the Ukrainian side. Reinstating the constitutional power of Ukraine in the war zone of the Donbas and at the border between Ukraine and Russia is still an unattainable goal for now. A frozen conflict might be the best possible outcome in the next few years.
Moscow does not seem to be in a hurry to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, while some EU member states are showing impatience and a willingness to compromise. The most remarkable example of this last year was France’s initiative to find a new direction for relations with Russia. President Emmanuel Macron’s vision of mending the relationship with Russia to help strengthen Europe’s sovereignty and deter threats from the south has not convinced many other EU members or Moscow. Macron’s reckless style and disregard for his partners has created distrust on the part of other member states and is counterproductive to his goal of strengthening Europe. Poland and the Baltic states remember well how France’s and Germany’s historical attempts to strengthen their position with Russia’s help caused suffering in the countries that lie between those great powers.
At the same time, the future of German foreign policy is very uncertain. Germany is rich but weak, which makes it a threat for the security of Europe as a whole, as described by George Friedman in Flashpoints.1 Angela Merkel will soon step down from the German chancellorship, leaving an empty space in the middle of the EU’s Russia policy. Merkel’s strategic vision helped to maintain German and EU support for the sanctions on Russia. It did not, however, encompass the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to be completed this year.
In this project, Germany has acted in its own narrow national interest, disrupting the unity of the EU and refusing to take into account the wider geopolitical consequences. Germany has a habit of stressing how close economic cooperation with Russia has a positive impact on regional security. This logic is far more questionable than Germany wishes to believe, but nevertheless works to some extent. Yet Germany’s (and Russia’s) energy policy are set to undermine this logic in the case of Ukraine, which will most probably lose its position as a natural gas transit state due to Nord Stream. This will weaken Ukraine’s geopolitical position and remove certain constraints on Russia’s behaviour.
Nord Stream 2 has shown that the rules are different for large and small states, even in the EU, and even for Germany, which likes to lecture others on the importance of rules-based order. The pipeline project runs counter to the principles of the EU’s energy policy and has thus irritated both the Eastern and Southern member states. In 2019, Germany watered down a proposal to strengthen the position of the European Commission in regulating the EU’s energy market. Washington’s recent decision to impose sanctions on companies involved in Nord Stream 2 will exacerbate the divisive effect the project has on the EU.
In 2019, Macron stated emphatically that Russia belonged to Europe. However, Russia’s Europeanness is more doubtful today than it was during the post-Cold War era. Putin’s Russia has not aspired to follow the European model for years and is now leaning heavily towards the East. Like Nikolai Danilevski’s pan-Slavic writings from the second half of the 19th century, which Putin reportedly highly values, Russia is repeating the narrative of Europe’s moral decline and inability to protect its values. Russia regaining full membership of the Council of Europe in May 2019 at the initiative of France and Germany unfortunately confirms these assertions.
The EU, which is seeking to develop a more strategic foreign policy, should be able to formulate a more forward-looking approach to Russia, based on a realistic evaluation of its large Eastern neighbour’s authoritarian political system and geopolitical ambitions, which make Russia a strategic problem for Europe, as Donald Tusk, the former president of the European Council, said upon leaving office last autumn. Europeans together with the US have the capabilities to protect their values and interests and keep the tensions in relations with Russia under control. What is missing is a common strategy.
This article is mainly based on a column published in the Finnish newspaper Kaleva.
1 George Friedman, Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe. Melbourne and London: Scribe Publications, 2015.