For more than two decades, the main goal of the EU’s Russia policy was to help the country transform: from autocracy to democracy, from planned economy to market economy. The guiding vision was the “common European house”―the idea that Russia would gradually integrate into the structures that the EU had built over decades. The EU and its member states designed many bilateral and multilateral initiatives with Russia to create a whole web of relations. The bloc helped Russia become a member of the G8 group of leading economies, supported Moscow’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and set up a host of programs to foster Russia’s transformation. Russia was at the center of the EU’s activities in the region; other post-Soviet countries (besides the Baltic states) received considerably less attention.

Ulrich Speck
Speck was a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the European Union’s foreign policy and Europe’s strategic role in a changing global environment.
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This approach to the post-Soviet space has failed. Russia today is more autocratic internally and more aggressive toward its neighbors than at any time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Official propaganda paints the West as an enemy and actively tries to undermine unity in the EU and coherence in the transatlantic alliance. Russia has attacked Ukraine and even annexed a part of its territory, in violation of the agreements that underpin today’s international order and to which Moscow has signed up. At the same time, many other post-Soviet states are still very weak, which provides Russia with opportunities to endanger stability. In light of this changed context, the EU should shift its focus from Russia to other Eastern European countries.

Understanding Russian Behavior

There are two schools of thought that seek to explain Russia’s behavior.

For one school, Russian aggression is a reaction to the refusal by the United States to treat Russia as an equal power and to grant it an exclusive sphere of influence. According to this school, Russia never really gave up its imperialist mind-set―the view that Russia has the right to control its neighborhood in a world that Moscow perceives as multipolar and dominated by a small number of great powers. Having consolidated internally, Russia is now trying to rebuild a kind of Soviet Union lite. For two decades, Russia has been pushed around by an aggressive West; now, the country is on its feet again and is pushing back.

According to the second school of thought, Russia’s attack on Ukraine is defensive: the desperate move of a kleptocratic regime facing an existential threat, trying to keep democracy away from Russia and to regain legitimacy by rallying the population around a nationalist cause. In this view, the nightmare scenario for Russian President Vladimir Putin would be a color revolution in Russia like the popular uprisings of the early 2000s. By actively undermining democratic forces in neighboring post-Soviet countries, the Kremlin is building a buffer zone against Western influence.

There is evidence of both interpretations, and they do not contradict each other. Russia’s attack on Ukraine can be seen as an act of forward defense. If Ukraine became a successful liberal democracy with a market economy, living in harmony with the West, this would demonstrate that there is an alternative form of governance in a neighboring country that many Russians consider very similar to Russia. A liberal-democratic Ukraine would undermine Moscow’s claim to have the right to control its neighborhood as a sphere of influence.

The EU needs to design a new Eastern policy that puts #EasternEurope first instead of Russia.
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The EU and its member states need to design a new Eastern policy that puts Eastern Europe first instead of Russia first. That policy should comprise several elements. To start with, the EU must push back against Russian aggression and stabilize neighbors that are under attack or under threat. But Brussels should also continue to work with Moscow on issues of common interest and keep the door open for Russia to return to a constructive relationship. The EU needs to cooperate with the United States on Russia and Eastern Europe, protect the EU’s integrity, and strengthen EU foreign policy.

Pushing Back Against Russian Aggression

The immediate priority in the EU’s overhauled policy toward the region should be to counter Russian aggression. The EU is not going to do that through direct military engagement. The tools of choice are economic and personal sanctions, which the EU and the United States have imposed on Russia since March 2014. They serve two purposes.

First, the sanctions signal the West’s readiness to confront Russia. They demonstrate that all 28 EU member states agree on joint measures and that the EU and the United States have a common approach. The sanctions also show that the West is ready to pay a price in terms of the partial interruption of its economic interaction with Russia. Unity is key here, to communicate to Moscow that a Russian game of divide and rule in response to Western pressure won’t work.

Second, the sanctions are meant to change Russia’s behavior. As a minimum goal, they are designed to prevent Russia from escalating the situation in Ukraine further. In the best―but very unlikely―scenario, the measures are meant to force Russia to go back to the status quo ante and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Another way for the EU to push back would be to respond to Russia’s attack on Ukraine by helping the country defend itself. But the EU as an entity has ruled out sending weapons to Ukraine. The main argument against providing arms is that Ukraine has no chance of winning against Russia if Moscow decides to escalate the conflict. But if Kiev had a stronger army, it would be harder and more costly for Russia to advance farther into Ukraine.

In any case, Europe and the United States should be ready to confront Russia as soon as it puts unacceptable pressure on countries in the neighborhood. They should communicate clear messages to the Kremlin about the exact price Russia would have to pay for every future escalatory step it takes. A lack of clarity on the side of the West could lead the Kremlin to miscalculate, which could in turn force the West to react much more harshly than anticipated.

Stabilizing the EU’s Neighbors

The most important longer-term answer to Russian aggression is the stabilization of threatened countries through reform. The EU should move from a Russia-first policy to an Eastern Europe–first policy. That is because weakness invites Russian meddling and, potentially, aggression, while strength deters these actions.

A major factor in the current crisis is the weakness of the Ukrainian state. The country’s eastern border is wide open; its military is weak; and parts of the population are distrustful of the central government, which has been hugely corrupt and inefficient for many years. Ukraine is not a failed state, but a weak, badly administered one.

There are many internal reasons for that. But Ukraine, like many other post-Soviet countries, has also not received enough support from the West. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the West’s focus was on Russia. Western nations implicitly treated the post-Soviet countries (besides the Baltic states) as Russia’s sphere of influence.

It was only with the color revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, and with the Russian-Georgian War of 2008, that the West started, very slowly and reluctantly, to pay more attention to Europe’s East. Pushed by Poland, the EU set up the Eastern Partnership, a framework for relations with six Eastern European countries. But the Eastern Partnership was a weak policy by design: most EU member states did not want to take up the burden of investing in stabilizing these countries, and they were afraid to enter what they saw, at least implicitly, as Russia’s sphere of influence.

#EaP was a weak policy by design: most EU member states did not want to invest in stabilizing these countries.
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Events on the ground forced the EU to engage more in the region. In November 2013, the Euromaidan movement began, a popular uprising in Ukraine that pushed for reform via closer association with the EU. And in early 2014, Russia started to undermine the European peace order by annexing Crimea and attacking eastern Ukraine. The EU had no choice but to react.

In hindsight, the EU’s biggest failure was to accept Moscow’s definition of the region as a Russian sphere of influence. Strengthening statehood and helping build well-governed democracies in the region should be the priority now. The EU must invest in reform in Eastern Europe; this is the way to long-term stability. Only if countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have democratic governments that can deliver to their citizens, including skeptical minorities, can these states build the sense of citizenship necessary to make themselves resilient against Russian attempts to undermine their sovereignty.

Maintaining Cooperation Where Possible

Despite the conflict, the EU and Russia will―and should―still pursue a broad range of relations. In some areas, such as Eastern Europe, there will be strong disagreement; in others, constructive ties will be maintained.

European economic cooperation with Russia will continue. Energy will dominate Russian exports as it has in the past, and the EU will remain a very important customer for many years to come. Russia needs Western technology and consumer goods. The two sides’ economic interdependence will inject a healthy dose of interest-based realism into the relationship.

And if there is a chance to achieve some practical agreements between the EU and the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the sides should attempt to identify areas of possible consensus. But if Russia continues to see the EEU as a political tool to reintegrate post-Soviet countries under Moscow’s dominance, the chances are low that the EU and the EEU will find mutually beneficial agreements that follow an economic logic.

The EU should continue to welcome Russian investment, and it should be interested in economic exchanges with Russia. However, the bloc must make sure that these economic activities fully comply with EU norms and that they are not used as tools of Russian foreign policy against EU interests. Economic interconnectedness is the goal, but not at the price of compromising on core principles.

EU & Russia should pursue interest-based cooperation on political issues, but with no illusions.
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The EU and Russia should pursue interest-based cooperation on political issues as well. But there should be no illusions: on many international issues, there is disagreement with Russia. In Syria, Russia insists on supporting President Bashar al-Assad―militarily, diplomatically, and by shielding him from condemnation and from action authorized by the UN Security Council. And on Iran, Russia continues to work with the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany (the P5+1), not because Moscow wants to please the West, but because there is a lot at stake for Russia.

Although EU-Russian cooperation in many areas will continue, the vision of a broad, comprehensive partnership will have to be laid to rest for a while. How long that pause lasts will depend on internal developments in Russia. The general expectation is that Putin is going to stay in power for some if not many more years, and most experts agree that he is unlikely to change his attitude toward the West.

Keeping the Door Open for Russia

Even as comprehensive partnership is on the back burner, the EU should uphold its vision of Russia’s modernization. The EU should keep the hope that one day, Russia might welcome its full integration into structures of European and global governance. A Russia that joins the European house would be very much in the EU’s interest; after all, this is what the EU has worked toward for more than two decades. The current conflict with Russia is a major setback for the EU, a result of years of failed efforts to encourage the country’s modernization and integration.

The EU should be cautious not to frame the confrontation as a conflict with the Russian people.
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The EU should be cautious not to frame the confrontation as a conflict with the Russian people. While pushing back against the regime through sanctions, the EU should work hard to engage with Russian civil society through measures such as exchange programs and visa facilitation.

The EU should not dismiss the possibility of Russia making a U-turn and should prepare for that. But the incentives the EU may lay on the table to achieve such a U-turn cannot include any compromise over the sovereign rights of other countries. After all, ignoring the rights and interests of the countries in between the EU and Russia is one of the mistakes the bloc has made in the past.

Stepping Up EU-U.S. Cooperation

While EU capitals have taken a lead in the West’s response to the Ukraine crisis, the United States is a welcome and needed partner as the EU develops a strategic response to the new challenges in Eastern Europe. The United States is the most powerful player on the global scene and shares many of the EU’s values. Only by joining forces do Brussels and Washington stand a chance to influence Russia’s international behavior. And only if the United States backs up EU soft power with credible hard power can the two set clear joint redlines for Russia.

Only by joining forces do #EU & US stand a chance to influence Russia's international behavior.
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Whether on sanctions or on support for Eastern European countries, a coordinated Western effort is much more effective than leaving individual players to pursue their own specific priorities. Keeping a joint approach therefore remains vital, and cooperation and coordination with the United States must be one of the top priorities for EU policymakers.

So far, both sides have worked well together, thanks not least to a tightly coordinated approach between leaders in Washington and Berlin. Both the EU and the United States have an interest in bringing cooperation on Eastern Europe as well as on other issues to a more durable, broader, strategic level. Revamping EU-U.S. summits by involving representatives not only of the EU institutions but also of the EU member states could be a promising way ahead.

Unifying the EU

The EU must rise to the challenge of Russian aggression by putting its house in order. To do so, the bloc needs a stronger foreign policy. That requires more engagement from the member states, especially at the level of the leaders. Foreign policy should be on the agenda of each summit of EU heads of state and government. The European Council, which brings together these leaders and is headed by Donald Tusk, may become a driver for a more united and coherent EU foreign policy.

The EU must rise to the challenge of Russian aggression by putting its house in order.
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In addition, the EU must make sure that direct Russian influence in member states cannot undermine the integrity of the bloc. Russia is very active when it comes to spying and uses various tools to gain influence over officials, policymakers, and the media in the EU, with the goal of weakening EU and transatlantic coherence. There is a growing risk that Russian influence might compromise the integrity of the EU’s political processes. To guard against this risk, EU member states should be more active in preventing espionage.

The response to the Kremlin’s propaganda, however, must to a large extent be left to civil society actors. While the Kremlin can directly use the media to spread its message, democratic governments cannot dominate the gathering and dissemination of news. But they can and should take measures to level the playing field by supporting independent media and by helping civil-society efforts to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda activities.

Ensuring the integrity of policymaking also affects the issue of energy. Member states that are highly dependent on Russian gas and oil are vulnerable to Russian pressure. The EU needs to build a common, integrated energy market, and it needs to further diversify its energy supply. Energy policy should no longer be driven predominantly by considerations about price and environmental aspects, as it has been in the past. Geopolitical factors must fully enter into the equation as well: the fact is that energy dependency can be used as a political weapon.

Maintaining the International Order

Russia today sees itself in opposition to the system of European and global governance. The EU must accept that reality and learn to live with a confrontation that it almost desperately tried to prevent. There is no way back to the status quo ante.

Preparing for a more adversarial relationship with Russia is very difficult for the EU. The union has no appetite for conflict; indeed, avoiding conflict is at the core of the European integration project. The entire postmodern order that the Europeans have built, under the umbrella of U.S. protection and strategic leadership, is meant to end power politics and conflict and to replace it with a system of interconnectedness, economic exchange, open borders, and win-win policies of compromise. Russia has refused to enter this postmodern EU sphere and has rejected the many invitations that Berlin and Brussels have given Moscow to engage with them.

If Russia successfully manages to undermine the system of rules that have governed globalization, other countries are likely to follow its example. Once a multipolar order―one in which a small number of powerful countries force weaker ones into submission―becomes the new norm, China may use this newfound space to redouble its efforts to dominate its own neighborhood. Some regional powers such as Turkey or Iran could also be encouraged to push harder for a recognized sphere of influence.

The EU, together with the United States, needs to push back against Russia to maintain and strengthen the multilateral system enshrined in the UN charter and many other international agreements. The basic principles of that system are sovereignty and territorial integrity; and its main feature is that smaller states have the same rights as stronger states. In the EU, where multilateralism has become especially strong, tiny Malta can in many cases block mighty Germany.

Europe’s Biggest Test

Bringing the post-Soviet space closer to the postmodern multilateral order is the #EU's biggest test.
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The easiest way for the EU to get out of the confrontation with Russia would be to disengage from the post-Soviet space and seal NATO’s external border. But that would be shortsighted. In such a scenario, there would likely be permanent, low-level conflict and warfare in Eastern Europe, as the countries in the region are not ready to accept full submission to Moscow. They have developed their own identity and aspirations since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia, for its part, would likely turn into an even more revisionist, imperialist-minded, aggressive, and militarized power. It would be an illusion to think that the EU could be safe and prosperous in such a neighborhood.

Only by stepping up engagement, by helping countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia to stabilize, and by enlarging the sphere of liberal democracy and market economy can the EU bring the post-Soviet space closer to the postmodern multilateral order that has proven so beneficial for Europe. This is a generational task―and the EU’s biggest test so far.