In this article I will argue that EU’s relations with the Russian Federation are at a crossroads, with the latter gaining leverage while the former has trouble finding an adequate response to this challenge.
The differences between two actors stem from two quite different perceptions of world politics and diplomacy. Russia sees international politics from a realist perspective emphasising power politics and strategic cooperation while the EU is advancing a post-Westphalian agenda of international politics based on shared norms and values. These different approaches and understandings of the international system have lead to an impasse in EU-Russian relation.
This impasse has become more evident in the last two years when a number of points of contention have arisen between the EU and Russia. These are: the Russian use of its huge energy supplies to reverse its demise as a great power after the end of the Cold War, the rollback of democracy in Russia, divergent views regarding Central and Eastern Europe and perceived Western encroachments in the Russian sphere of influence – more explicitly the case of Ukraine. The souring of relations between EU and Russia, as well as the West in general was evident in February 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, when President’s Putin speech on international security did not go very well with the representatives of EU member states present there.
However Russia has for now the upper hand when it comes to bilateral relations with the EU. Russia is no longer dependent on Western aid due to its revenues obtained from the energy market and the dependence of EU member states on its supplies of gas. Actually now Russia, as a result of its assertive energy policy, holds the world’s third largest holdings of convertible currency and gold – these financial and economic resources can be easily transformed in political and military resources. Moreover over the last years the Kremlin was able to renegotiate to its advantage extraction deals with foreign partners and has put under government control the oil and gas industry. The Kremlin and Russian companies are coordinating their efforts in order to open up markets in many EU member countries for Russian capital that can be turned into political influence when the time comes. All in all Russia is in the midst of a diplomatic offensive to re-establish itself as a major actor in world affairs.
Despite recognizing the assertive character of Russian diplomacy, the EU has yet to develop a coherent answer to this challenge. The EU’s soft approach in terms of diplomacy and security is largely responsible for this situation and unfortunately this is not likely to change. With the failure of the Constitutional Treaty a coordinated EU foreign policy is out of the question. Moreover foreign policy is the hallmark of sovereignty of all EU member states and it is unlikely to change, even if a new a Constitution is negotiated and adopted, making a coordinated EU foreign policy unlikely. Furthermore the responsibility for this incoherence does not rest wholly with the EU as an institution; member states following their national interest in terms of energy have actually increased the dependence on Russian gas and energy supplies. The best known example is the underwater gas pipeline that links Russia and Germany and bypasses Poland, an issue which has become emblematic for the divisions regarding energy security and Russia among EU member states. Another incident reminiscent of the Russian-German pipeline happened this year when Hungary decided to opt for the BlueStream pipeline, putting in doubt its participation in the Nabucco project, which would have diminished EU dependence on Russian gas supplies.
In order to deal with Russian assertiveness and aggressive tone, as well as to avoid being placed in a strategic disadvantage by energy dependence, the EU and its member states must take immediate action. EU must place more pressure on Russia on sensitive issues such as energy supplies and the security of Central and Eastern Europe. Member states must be aware of Russian interests and counter them effectively whenever these interests become liabilities for them in terms of security and foreign policy. Cooperation with Russia in terms of soft security (anti terrorism, illegal trafficking and securing dangerous substance) must continue, but must be framed within a larger policy which takes into consideration the differences between EU and Russia. Furthermore member states should avoid acting unilaterally in terms of their relation with the Russian Federation and must put aside petty squabbles. Europe should be afraid of using its transatlantic partnership in order to deal with an assertive Russia. All in all the new challenges Russia raises to Europe must be dealt coherently and effectively.