Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Jean Monnet chair at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and D. German distinguished visiting char at Appalachian State University
No and yes. Ever since the end of World War II, European countries have been squeezed between the West (the United States) and the East (the Soviet Union, then Russia). Any foreign policy decision had to take into consideration—at least to some extent—either or both of these countries’ preferences. For Central and Eastern Europeans, the Soviet Union pretty much dictated any foreign (and domestic) policy decision. For Western Europe, the picture was more nuanced. Countries like Germany and Italy tried to find a difficult balance between Atlantic obligations and Eastern reality.
With the end of the Cold War, both Eastern and Western Europe gained a new freedom in terms of foreign policy—but with limits, given their geographical positions and energy dependence, enhanced by conflicts in the Middle East. Hence, the division between those EU countries who are expelling Russian diplomats and those who are not can be seen as a sign of division or as a smart move—the move of an international organization that on the one hand wants to send a strong signal to Russia (and a carrot to both the United States and the UK), but on the other hand wants to be cautious, especially considering there is no public proof yet of the Russian government’s direct responsibility for the poisoning.
Ian Bond Director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
Europe does not have a Russia policy—yet. On the positive side, the EU has maintained sanctions against Russia following its intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Eighteen EU member states have joined the UK, the United States, and others in expelling Russian spies in response to the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.
On the other hand, the rest have expelled no Russians, even where Russian espionage on their territory is blatant. Countries like Germany and the Netherlands back the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bring Russian gas to Western Europe via the Baltic Sea; others, such as Poland, see it as a ploy to enable Moscow to cut off gas to countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, above all Ukraine, without harming its main customers in Western Europe.
The leitmotif of Vladimir Putin’s new term of office is likely to be that only he can save Russia from the hostile powers besieging it. Europe will need a unified response to Russian information operations, cyberattacks, and other unconventional offensive action. It needs to strengthen its defence, deterrence, and resilience; but it also needs to reach out to Russians beyond the Kremlin, keeping communications open for the day when (eventually) Putin is no longer in charge.
Fraser Cameron Director of the EU-Asia Centre
Yes—the EU does have a Russia policy, even if the rhetoric by some member states would suggest otherwise. Few would have forecast that EU sanctions would have held firm for the past four years. But thanks to Merkel and Tusk, all member states have stayed in line. The solidarity with the UK after the Salisbury attack was welcome, but even more welcome was the decision by eighteen other EU member states (including Hungary!) to expel Russian “diplomats.” And this was in addition to the astonishing U.S. decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats. No one expected Trump to take such drastic action, and it should be a strong message to any EU member state (such as the likely new Italian government) not to go weak on Russia.
The EU cannot go back on its values nor reward Putin for his aggression in Ukraine. Putin only understands strength. Hence the need for the EU to adopt a much stricter control over Russian activities, from money laundering and purchase of property in London to raising awareness about cyber threats and fake news—which is already having a harmful impact on our democracy. This does not mean totally isolating Russia. Indeed, cooperation on foreign policy should continue, as with the Iran deal. The essential point is that the EU must maintain its current, rather fragile, unity on Russia if it is to stick to the fundamental values underpinning the union.
Thomas de Waal Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Russia is so big and diverse that states as different as Cyprus, Estonia, and Portugal will never agree a single “Russia policy.” That they can agree on maintaining the post-2014 sanctions regime is an achievement in itself.
Beyond that, the challenge is to deal with a Russia that shows multiple faces. At one extreme, we see a rogue regime. President Putin has licensed or empowered proxies who can do reckless and violent things, such as shooting down the MH-17 airliner or cyber hacking, knowing the Kremlin will grant them impunity. The poison attack on Sergei Skripal may well fall into this category.
Yet Russia is also still a source of legitimate trade and gas for Europe. It is now a more constructive partner on Iran than the United States. So Europe must pursue parallel policies of confrontation and engagement, all the while responding clearly and calmly to Russia’s campaign of state-sponsored sarcasm.
Expelling Russian diplomats is not terribly good policy. Closing consulates only hurts ordinary travellers and the relatively pragmatic foreign ministry. The time has come to start cleaning up the whole service industry—in banking, real estate, and the law—which feeds on dirty Russian money in Europe.
Liana Fix Program director of the International Affairs Department at the Körber Foundation
If there is one reliable rule in relations with Russia, it is this: whenever Europeans are at loggerheads with each other, they can count on Russia to unite them.
Until recently, Brexit alienation between the UK and the EU extended far beyond the English Channel. Now, Russia’s reaction to the Salisbury attack has rallied the majority of member states in solidarity around the Union Jack. Although the EU is not demonstrating the same level of unity as in sanctions policy, so far eighteen member states have expelled Russian officers. This is an unprecedented symbolic action.
But is it enough to be called a European Russia policy? Hardly. The EU must and can do better. The five guiding principles of what is supposed to be at the core of Europe’s Russia policy—drafted by Mogherini and agreed upon by EU foreign ministers in March 2016—are not being sufficiently enacted. Four years after the annexation of Crimea, the implementation of the Minsk agreements is still far away. Relations with Russia’s neighbors are stalled. Selective engagement has failed in Syria. Against this backdrop, the last principle—supporting people-to-people contacts—becomes even more important. The EU has an ace up its sleeve: visa-free travel for Russian citizens. The time may come when it is wise to use it.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves Former president of Estonia
The EU has no Russia policy whatsoever. Instead, the union is divided between national mercantile interests and positions of principle. The decision by eighteen EU members (at current count) to expel Russian spies is for some a statement of solidarity. But the explicit refusal to do so by others—most vocally by the Austrian chancellor and echoed by Greece and Slovakia—shows the limits of any EU common foreign and security policy (CFSP). Greece is especially an interesting case: failing to support the UK after a chemical weapon attack, while benefiting from repeated Eurogroup bailouts in the name of EU solidarity.
There is nothing new in this lackluster response. After the Salisbury attack, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker congratulated Vladimir Putin for having “won” a farce of an election. Ukraine, a neighbor to four EU member states, just received the first visit from the EU’s High Representative since 2015. No action has been taken on spies at the hypertrophied Russian Representation to the EU. The Magnitsky Act stands no chance of passing in the European Parliament.
Meanwhile, Germany continues to push for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which clearly benefits the Kremlin while subjecting EU member states and Ukraine to potential risk. Putting an end to the project would hit Russia. But that is not in the cards. The end result of the Salisbury attack will be tit-for-tat expulsions by Russia for each sanctioning country. Those not participating in the solidarity action will be the beneficiaries of continued Russian deals.
In other words, no EU Russia policy is possible. Though, some of those refusing solidarity today might need it themselves in the future.
Dominik P. Jankowski Head of the OSCE and Eastern Security Division at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs
There is a perfect German word to answer: jein.
The ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the illegal annexation of Crimea have changed European policy toward Russia. New sources of tension have emerged: Russia’s military backing for the Assad regime in Syria, Russian interference in EU member states’ electoral processes, and the recent nerve agent attack in Salisbury. More often Europeans consider Moscow part of the problem rather than solution.
The current European approach toward Russia is based on three key pillars: non-recognition of the illegal annexation of Crimea, full implementation of the Minsk agreements, and economic sanctions linked to two previous elements.
What considerably deteriorates the European stance is still a considerable economic dependence on Russia, predominantly in the energy sector. Projects like Nord Stream 2 undermine European unity and weaken the EU’s joint leverage on Russia.
How one can create a better European Russia policy? The EU should consider the following steps: strengthen its tools to counter Russian disinformation and propaganda; invest in capabilities to counter Russian hybrid warfare; build resilience both at home and in neighboring states; and enhance its operational engagement in Eastern Europe, including by establishing a mission to Donbas.
Matthew KaminskiExecutive editor of POLITICO Europe
Sure. Europe, such as it is, has a Russia policy that reflects European realities. The 28 (soon-to- be 27) of the EU, with a couple NATO-only countries thrown in, have held—to my slight surprise—the lowest-common-denominator approach taken after the Crimea annexation and Ukraine war in 2014. Sanctions are in place, held by a mix of inertia and Merkel muscle—notwithstanding impotent grumbling in Greece, Hungary, and Italy and discomfort among much of the French and German political class. NATO, which I view as the other great European institution, has put down red lines along its frontiers that may not be bright red (will Trump really defend Tallinn from a Russian column? Will many of the others?). But they’re bright enough to deter Putin, who isn’t as much of a risk-taker as many assume. His own red line is simple: do nothing to imperil the survival of his regime.
But Europe’s Russia policy, such as it is, is woefully inadequate to the time. For over a quarter of a century, Brussels has dithered about whether Ukraine belongs on this or the other side of a new divide between democracies (however imperfect) and dictatorships. As frustrating as Ukraine’s political elites have always been, its people have repeatedly and courageously made their choice. A more robust Ukraine policy is the key to having a robust Russian one. And for the past four years in particular, Europe hasn’t risen to the strategic, political, and moral challenge of Putin and Putinism. Blame a lack of confidence and imagination—and leadership. Given the European realities, it’s hard to imagine how that might change.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
It’s getting there. Europe’s response to the Skripal affair was effective, showing Moscow that Brexit may hamper business but not—at least yet—the union’s shared values or security. Even Italy (which is always lukewarm on anti-Russian sanctions and with a caretaker cabinet led by the unflappable Mr. Gentiloni) expelled two diplomats linked, according to local sources, to the GRU, the Kremlin’s military intelligence. Will Italy’s pro-Russian political leaders—including the Five Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio and the Nothern League’s Matteo Salvini, who are starting talks about forming a new government—change course? We’ll see.
As of today, Europe has kept the line united. Timid analysts fear this may embolden President Putin’s nationalist crusade at home: nonsense. Putin could always whip a pan-Russian frenzy, betting on weaknesses as well as strength. The real question hangs over Trump’s America: will the U.S. president keep pressing Moscow or will he relent, pressured at home by Russiagate? Macron and Merkel are checking the daily political pulse in Washington, and they (rightly) worry.
Angela StentDirector of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies and a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University
This week’s coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomatic personnel from many EU countries in response to the Skripal poisonings shows that Europe can pursue a punitive policy toward Moscow in response to hostile Kremlin actions—but only up to a point. This was clear when several EU members declined to participate in the expulsions. The EU has also managed to maintain solidarity over the post-Crimea economic sanctions on Russia, although many members grumble about them and questions their utility. But beyond that, Europe remains deeply divided over how to deal with a range of Russian activities, including military provocations in the Baltic area, cyberattacks, and manipulation of social media in support of euroskeptic groups on the left and right.
When the USSR collapsed, the West believed—mistakenly, it turned out—that promoting Russia’s integration into the global economy and Russian economic interdependence with Europe would have a beneficial political impact on Moscow’s interactions with Europe. Now, European economic and energy interdependence with Russia is a reality, but it has not so far moderated Russian behavior. The economic stake that many EU members have in relations with Russia has made it difficult to come up with a coherent, coordinated Russia policy.
Stephen SzaboSenior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
The concerted Western reaction to the attack in Salisbury is impressive and encouraging. It demonstrates that the West still exists and can act when sufficiently provoked. Even Orbán went along with these actions. This is an act of solidarity and of deterrence. It shows that Europe—and the broader West—will defend itself and has serious red lines. While the Russian government would like to portray this as a provocation, it is the Russians who are being provocative; their expected counteractions will only deepen Russia’s isolation.
Europe has had a Russia policy since imposing and maintaining sanctions and uniting behind the Minsk agreements, as well as supporting NATO deployments in the Baltics. This is remarkable given the great variety of interests within the 28 member states and must continue. The question is whether this solidarity will translate into further concerted action on sanctions and other measures. Much will depend on the leadership of Germany and France in shaping a consensus on how to proceed. This will require breaking with a business-as-usual approach. Germany will need to take the lead and reexamine the continuation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a first step in this direction.
Dmitri Trenin Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center
The European Union is not yet a strategic unit, and the most of what it can do in terms of traditional foreign policy—economic relations are excluded—is to coordinate the actions of its members on a particular set of issues and for a limited period of time. This fully applies to the EU’s approach toward Russia. Moreover, Russia for Europe is also a military security issue, and this falls under the mandate of NATO, where leadership has always belonged to the United States. While all-round, all-time policy coordination is not possible, EU members go for displays of solidarity with one another.
Russia presents a special challenge to the EU countries. Those countries’ national interests, historical experience, and emotional attitudes toward Russia vary widely. Those with the least interest in and the most grievances against Russia, such as Poland and the Baltic States, are pitted against those with stronger interests and historical affinities linking them to Russia, like Italy or Greece. The countries between those two extremes—including France and Germany—find it hard to lead on formulating a long-term Russia strategy and forging a common approach beyond successive rounds of sanctions. This is also how it is likely to be in the future.
Pierre Vimont Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Yes, Europe has a policy when it comes to Russia. And it has survived so far, not least in these last days with the decision of eighteen member states to expel Russian diplomats after the nerve gas attack in the UK.
Yet it is a policy that has not led to much improvement in the bilateral relationship, which the expulsions will not make better. This should not come as a total surprise. A policy based on the dual track of sanctions and dialogue needs to walk on its two feet. So far, sanctions have been delivered to the disbelief and displeasure of the Russian leadership. Dialogue has not—despite several attempts from the EU side.
In the aftermath of the Salisbury attack, dialogue seems even further remote. Europeans cannot be entirely blamed for this deadlock. In truth, Moscow does not consider the EU as a serious partner for any substantial geopolitical bargaining. When discussing Ukraine or Syria, it looks to Germany, France, the UK, or Italy. For Russian leaders, the EU is a stooge for American interests. The current confrontation can only confirm Moscow’s conviction of European alignment with the United States’ position.
Europe should not backtrack on its Russia policy, but it needs to leverage its own way into a more substantial relationship. From that perspective, an invitation to Moscow to discuss the many recent incidents over the use of chemical weapons could lay the ground for Europe to play a leading role—and start convincing Moscow it is a serious partner.