Carmen ClaudínAssociate Senior Researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)
It has been for far too long. The references to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime as a “strategic partner,” repeated over and over again for many years, reveal as much. As if the insistent invocation of the title would turn European expectations into reality on the soil of the unreformed Russian political culture.
But it seems an understanding is evolving inside the EU, despite the persistent internal divisions that so delight the Kremlin. Even southern European countries like Spain have begun to recognize Moscow’s true nature and goals for what they are. The challenge now is less about the diagnosis than about what to do and how.
The crucial region where the EU can make a difference and where its values and security interests are being directly challenged is its eastern neighborhood, which the Kremlin considers its “area of vital interest.” These are the countries that should become strategic partners when they embark on democratization. And Crimea must not be forgotten.
As long as the political nature of the Russian regime remains unchanged, as long as a list of foreign agents is displayed on the Russian Ministry of Justice’s website, there can scarcely be room for real dialogue. Only for talks and negotiation.
Thomas de WaalSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
I don’t think anyone in Europe has any illusions about how dangerous Vladimir Putin’s Russia can be, as you see poison attacks in the UK, the seizure of Crimea, or Moscow’s support for Lukashenko. The threat this week to liquidate Memorial, the organization which for thirty years has done more than anyone to commemorate the victims of Stalinism, is chilling.
But Russia is not North Korea. You have to deal with it, whether it be on arms control, gas supplies, or managing the Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire. And the Kremlin has many towers—there are many faces to Russian foreign policy, some easier to interact with than others.
What’s more, this is a regime that thrives on the notion that it’s a “besieged fortress,” as Carnegie’s Andrei Kolesnikov puts it. Western belligerence merely reinforces its self-belief.
What is required is not a tougher Russia policy or a softer one but a smarter one, much of which is below the surface. The real Achilles’ heel of this regime is how corrupt it is. An effective Russia deterrence policy has to start at home, by targeting Russian money laundering, property purchases, and illicit financial activity that has been tolerated for too long.
Martin EhlChief foreign policy analyst at Hospodářské noviny
A short answer: yes, to a great extent. Some countries, like Germany, will increase their dependency on Russian gas because of the change of energy mix. Others are more focused on the South, which is natural. Some politicians now even believe they can make a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he is playing a different game on a field defined by him, not by Europeans.
It is easy to reject such arguments by blaming Poles, Czechs, or Lithuanians of Russophobia. But when you look closer at the roots of many crises, you end up with either Russian plans or domestic issues enhanced and misused by Russians.
To close our eyes and say we will solve the problem by calling the Kremlin is the same as pledging to cutting carbon emissions at COP26 in Glasgow and hoping it will somehow happen without any further delivery of commitments or change of policies.
As history has shown so many times, the EU plays its own game by its own rules that are not respected outside EU borders. Not only in the case of Russia but also with regard to China and the United States, there is a need for the EU to grow up so as to be able to play global power politics—and to avoid being played.
François HeisbourgSpecial advisor at the Foundation for Strategic Research
Russia’s objectives are anything but mysterious. At least since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, Moscow has made clear its dissatisfaction with the post–Cold War security order in Europe and expressed its desire to change it.
This revisionism is set against the backdrop of what Moscow considers to be a war waged by the West against Russian interests.
Repeated Russian statements on this score are unambiguous. Therefore, Moscow’s actions in Georgia and Ukraine, among others, not to mention its sabotage on EU soil and targeted assassinations involving the use of chemical weapons, are a natural extension of this positioning.
Russian bad will therefore has to be assumed prima facie and a correlation-of-forces approach should be the default mode of European states, whether or not they are EU and/or NATO members.
Yet the opposite tends to be the case: Europe acts as if good will were present until eventually proven otherwise, and as time goes on, Russia may feel encouraged to run risks it would have otherwise avoided. This is a dangerous posture.
We have unlearned the positive lessons of the Cold War’s successful combination of deterrence and détente.
Agnieszka LeguckaSenior research fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs
Robert Kagan once wrote that Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus, so they do not understand one another’s strategic culture. Russians are also from Mars but perhaps have landed on the dark side of the planet.
Europeans, functioning in a culture of dialogue and understanding, are unable to accept the state of bad relations with Russia. Over and over they try to offer Russia a solution to the problems that Russia itself creates—or does so with the help of spoilers, such as Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or the separatists in Donbas.
We need to understand that improving relations with Russia without preconditions is naïve, short-sighted, and dangerous. It is naïve because the Russian authorities are using confrontation with the West for internal—consolidating—matters. It is short-sighted because the Kremlin is counting on legitimizing Lukashenko in the EU and stepping up cooperation with Germany or France.
Finally, an unconditional dialogue with Russia is dangerous because it will strengthen the Russian authorities’ conviction that the annexation of Crimea, the energy crisis, and now the migration crisis in Europe do not limit Moscow’s actions in the long run. The fact that the West will not set preconditions does not prevent Russia from setting them.
Linas LinkevičiusFormer foreign and defense minister of Lithuania
Russia uses arguments of force, even military instruments of force, in its foreign policy. Instead of using its potential to manage crises, it causes conflicts and gains some weight and influence through them. That is why Russia cannot be considered a partner. Rather, it is a factor that must be taken into account.
Russia often denies its active role in the conflicts it has incited and often enjoys the role of a “back seat driver”. This is the case in practically all the frozen conflicts in Europe, including Georgia and Transnistria, the hybrid attack using migrants on the Belarusian-EU border, and the active conflict-aggression against Ukraine. Holding the levers in its hands, Russia even offers to manage those conflicts and act as a neutral mediator.
The EU uses a so-called dual-track approach: engagement (dialogue) and pressure (sanctions). Sanctions are ineffective because they are too slow and often half-hearted. Dialogue usually makes little difference and Russia uses it as a smoke screen to continue its aggressive policies and even give the impression of business as usual.
Stefan MeisterHead of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
There are several member states in the EU, including Germany, that do not want to see the reality of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s politics.
We are in a new game with Russia, which is not about engagement and compromise but about growing internal repression and how to weaken the EU on different levels. The aims are to increase Moscow’s bargaining position with regard the West, discredit the EU in the common neighborhood, and show the EU’s inability to act.
Ukraine is at the core of Russia’s strategy to maintain its sphere of influence. Since the United States shifted its focus toward Asia and domestic issues and the EU lacks any vision for its neighborhoods, the Kremlin sees a chance to change the geopolitical situation in the shared neighborhood with the EU to its advantage.
All the policies, from supporting Alexander Lukashenko in creating a refugee crisis at the Belarus-EU border to the military buildup at the Ukrainian border and Nord Stream 2, are stress tests for the EU member states and make it even more urgent to find agreement on how to deal with Russia.
The more the EU tries to imitate a Russia policy, the more the Kremlin will exploit its weaknesses and gain in the geopolitical game.
Barbara von Ow-FreytagJournalist and board member at the Prague Civil Society Centre
Yes, many Europeans are still in denial about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In Germany, France, and other EU member states, too many ignore the fact that the Kremlin is waging a war against the EU, which really is a war against Russian society. The sole aim of the confrontation with the West is to keep Putin’s regime in power—that is, suppress the demand for democracy, change, and progress in Russia itself.
Since 2017, the famous social contract between Putin and Russian society has been defunct. Amid economic and social stagnation, the regime has run out of resources and uses legal pressure, arrests, beatings, and torture to stifle dissent. Increasing military—and hybrid—aggression against the West is a reflection of the mass crackdown and growing use of physical violence at home.
Europe must stop treating Putin and Russia as one. With social discontent rising, more and more Russians want a different future for their country. Many are actively engaged in civic activism, volunteerism, and philanthropy.
While decimated by repression and emigration, the civic sector continues to be alive, innovative, and resilient. This “other Russia” that is working for change and development in the country is Europe’s real partner. The EU should finally give it the support it deserves.
András RáczSenior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
Are we in denial? Less and less, I think. We need to look at this in perspective. Back in 2014 there were European decisionmakers who seriously argued that Ukraine’s Crimea belonged to Russia, so the illegal annexation was not that illegal. That is why the initial, Crimea-related EU sanctions were very weak, even though Russia violated the most fundamental principle of the post–World War II European security order.
However, now, seven years later, Europe understands Russia a lot better. It comprehends the coordinated, hybrid nature of Russia’s actions. It is increasingly resilient to cyber attacks and information operations that were so puzzling in 2014, and Russia has lost much of the advantage of surprise and denial that it had a few years ago.
Russia denies its involvement in the crisis created by Belarus on its Western borders. Regardless, the EU seriously considered sanctioning Aeroflot for its role in transporting migrants to Belarus. Back in 2015–16, when Moscow weaponized migration against Norway and Finland, albeit on a much smaller scale than Belarus is doing now, no one even thought about sanctioning Russia. But now we do. We keep learning.
Of course, there is no perfect security or impenetrable defense, and we shall not stop upgrading our resilience efforts because Russia is unlikely to stop. But we fare a lot better than we did in 2014.
Kristi RaikDirector of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
The EU’s post–Cold War strategy on Russia—in short, the aim to extend EU norms and values to Russia and foster cooperation—has failed, but no new strategy has been created to replace it.
The EU is struggling to adapt to a world where great power rivalry and antagonism prevail over cooperation. A lot of European discussions on Russia still focus on efforts to increase cooperation and improve the relationship. Yet there is no sign that today’s Russian regime would be willing to have a more cooperative relationship. On the contrary, confrontation with the West seems to suit Russian President Vladimir Putin well. The space for cooperation has become narrow.
There are fundamental disagreements between the EU and Russia regarding the European security order that are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Normative competition between democracy and authoritarianism is growing.
What the EU and European states should focus on is how to defend and protect itself and its partners such as Ukraine from Russia’s malicious actions and how to make sure that Russia’s aggressive behavior comes at a price for Moscow.
Such an approach—putting limits to Russia’s actions and being clear about red lines—would be a better way of managing tensions than ambiguous talk about the need for more dialogue and cooperation.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS)
The EU is not in denial about Vladimir Putin’s regime or Russian foreign policy, but it is in denial about the need to formulate a more coherent and realistic EU Russia policy. The Kremlin uses every opportunity that presents itself to pursue bilateral relations with individual EU countries rather than dealing with the EU as a whole.
Part of a more coherent EU Russia policy is the realization that China rather than Russia is now the priority for the United States, but that the perspective from Brussels, Berlin, or the eastern border of the EU looks different.
A realistic EU policy would shed illusions about regime change in Russia, recognize the security risks Russia poses, and reframe the rhetorical juxtaposition of sanctions versus dialogue into concrete negotiations over selected issues of shared interest. These types of negotiations would have to draw clear lines but also build a degree of trust.
With the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French elections looming large, it is hard to see where the necessary momentum for such negotiations and a coherent EU Russia policy more generally could come from in the months ahead. One thing is sure: lost time benefits the Kremlin.