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- Polar Power Plays: Is the EU’s Arctic Policy Still Relevant? - December 2, 2022
With Russia’s on-going offensive in Ukraine having now reached a year and a half, the European Union (EU) has responded with unprecedented sanction packages against Russia and has displayed unwavering support for Ukraine (European Commission 2023, European Council 2023). The current geopolitical situation has overthrown the engagement between Russia and the EU and calls into question the potential of establishing any future relationship. However, the EU has no yet formally amended its Russia policy, which is officially still based on the “five guiding principles” first laid out in 2016 by the former High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (European Parliament 2018). In addition, the European External Action Service (EEAS) cryptically mentions that “[i]n view of Russia’s war against Ukraine, all our relations and cooperation programmes with Russia are currently under review” (EEAS 2023).
The fact that the EU is so vocal in condemning Russia’s actions – with eleven sanctions packages announced to date, the European Parliament adopted a resolution declaring Russia as a “state sponsor of terrorism” and European Council President Charles Michel vowed to hold Russia accountable for the destruction of the Ukrainian Nova Kakhova dam – raises questions regarding the bloc’s inability to formally amend the policy governing EU-Russia relations (European Commission 2023, European Parliament 2022, Michel 2023) . It is clear that the 2016 principles no longer reflect the current geopolitical reality and are in dire need of revision. Even in 2021 prior to the offensive, the EU was called on to amend its Russia policy (Paikin 2021).
However, in November 2022, a leak to the press made aware that the EU had started reviewing the principles governing its relations with Russia (Brzozowski 2022). Josep Borrell, the current High Representative, allegedly presented a new draft document regarding the EU’s engagement with Russia. This indicated a step in the right direction, but almost a year and many escalations later, the proposed principles remain undeveloped and the press have not reported on further discussions. This casts doubt on what the EU’s current policy towards Russia is and why it remains so ambiguous.
As such, this article seeks to explore the evolution of the EU’s Russia policy nineteen months into the so-called “special military operation”. To do this, it first provides some background on Mogherini’s five guiding principles adopted in 2016, followed by an analysis of the EU’s current behaviour vis-à-vis Russia. Lastly, the article makes some reflections on the future of EU-Russia relations.
Mogherini’s Five Guiding Principles: Striking a Balance Between Toughness and Engagement
Until 2014, relations between the EU and Russia were relatively progressive, as demonstrated through discussions regarding the potential of visa-free travel and a free trade area (Gardner 2014, Vogel 2014). However, following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, the EU’s engagement with Russia took a first hit. This was reflected by a ping-pong game of sanctions, counter-sanctions and ensuing import substitutions (Bush 2015, Cambridge University Press n.d.). The 2015 Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy further alluded to the deteriorating relations between the two actors, but still referred to the helpfulness of “constructive cooperation” (European Commission 2015).
“The EU’s relations with the Russian Federation have deteriorated as a result of the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sebastopol and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine. There are several issues pertaining to the region on which constructive cooperation would be helpful in terms of addressing common challenges and exploring further opportunities, when conditions allow.”(European Commission 2015)
In March 2016, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council came forward with five guiding principles to act as a framework for the EU’s engagement with Russia, which, officially, still form the basis of EU-Russia relations to this day (European Council 2016, European Parliament 2018).
The first principle aims to enact a full implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were signed to achieve a ceasefire and “enable a political settlement” in eastern Ukraine (European Parliament 2018). This also entailed ruling out any recognition of the annexation of Crimea. The second principle concerns closer relations between the EU and the former Soviet republics. These include the six eastern neighborhood countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which were integrated in the Eastern Partnership, and the central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The third principle focused on improving the EU’s resilience to Russian threats, including in the cyber, hybrid and energy domains. The fourth principle envisioned selective engagement with Russia on foreign policy issues, focusing on the Middle East and the role of Russia in the United Nations Security Council. The fifth and final principle entailed supporting Russian civil society and promoting people-to-people contacts, focusing on education, scientific research and cross-border cooperation (European Parliament 2018).
These principles try to strike a balance between a tough stance regarding Russia’s actions and a certain degree of openness to engagement, effectively constituting the lowest common denominator between the Member States that are divided between safeguarding ties with Russia, such as Germany, France, Italy, Hungary and Austria, and those with a more hawkish position, such as Poland and the Baltic states (Meister 2022, Paikin 2021).
Hitting Rock Bottom: The EU’s Engagement With Russia Since 24 February 2022
The precarious ties that remained between Russia and the EU in the wake of the annexation of Crimea fell apart after Russian troops entered Ukraine on the dawn of February 24th, 2022 (Hodge, Lister, Kottasová and Regan 2022). It also laid bare the many interdependences between major EU Member States and Russia, most notably in the energy domain. These interdependences, paired with the economic opportunism of the Union, contributed to Russia’s belief that ensuing sanctions would not be of a severe nature (Meister 2022). However, the EU has imposed unprecedented and far-reaching sanctions on Russia in the form of eleven separate sanction packages at the time of writing, thus proving that the EU cannot be overlooked in the context of the conflict.
In the past, relations between the EU and Russia were strongly rooted in energy interdependence, with Russia’s gas exports to the Union accounted for 45% of the EU’s total gas imports (Kardás 2023). In addition, Russia was one of the Union’s largest suppliers of crude oil, coal and petroleum products (Kardás 2023). However, the sanctions packages allowed the EU to increasingly decouple from Russian energy, imposing embargoes on the imports of Russian crude oil, coal and petroleum products (Serrano 2022).
By cutting off these Russian revenue streams, the Union hopes to undermine its abilities in sustaining the war in Ukraine. However, the EU imported significantly more Russian liquified natural gas (LNG) in 2022 and 2023, rendering the country the Union’s second biggest LNG supplier (Liboreiro 2023). In addition, the Union’s sustained and far-reaching support for Ukraine is also an indicator of its policy towards Russia. For the first time in history, the EU has leveraged the European Peace Facility to deliver arms to a third country, demonstrating that EU-Russia relations are no longer confined to the economic and energy spheres, with the bloc adopting an increasingly (geo)political and antagonizing character (Brzozowski 2022).
Whilst the EU has not formally updated its policy on Russia, a leak to the press in November 2022 revealed that amendments are in discussion regarding “lines to take” as opposed to a fully fledged policy proposal. The document outlined six points that would replace the five guiding principles in place since 2016 (Barigazzi 2022). One major point entails “isolating Russia internationally, imposing and implementing restrictive measures against Russia and preventing their circumvention, in order to prevent it from waging war”, thus reflecting the current reality of the Union’s sanctions packages and efforts to stop the war (Barigazzi 2022).
Another principle outlines “ensuring accountability by holding Russia, perpetrators, and accomplices responsible for violations of international law and war crimes committed in Ukraine” (Brzozowksi, 2022). Such a position is in line with the European Parliament’s resolution declaring Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Other principles include the need to “support civil society, human rights defenders and independent media inside and outside Russia, while addressing increased threats to security and public order in the EU”, hinting at the need to effectively address Russian disinformation campaigns inside the EU (Brzozowski 2022). Such misinformation aims to justify and distort information regarding the war (OECD 2022), with the campaigns going as far as to blame the EU for causing a global food crisis as a result of its sanctions (Liboreiro 2022).
Overall, the new envisioned principles that would underpin the EU’s future engagement with Russia better reflect the EU’s current position. The new principles are significantly tougher and more stringent in comparison to the previous principles, which were characterized by strategic ambiguity, and would limit room for manœuvre and interpretation. However, ten months later, there are no new policies and the press have not reported signs of further discussions.
One of the likely reasons why the EU has so far failed to produce an updated strategy on Russia is due to persistent divergences between the Member States. This is what initially caused the ambiguity of Mogherini’s five guiding principles, and provide potential insight into the protracted discussions on how to formally amend them to better reflect the current situation. The EU is only as strong as the sum of the Member States and will always be a “compromise machine” by nature (Fix 2023). The Member States must strike a careful balance between one side that holds an interest in potentially engaging with Russia in a post-war future, and the other with a more hawkish stance that believes the proposed revisions are not ambitious enough.
“But with the war still raging, not everyone agrees that now is the right moment to be settling questions about how to approach the EU’s long-term relationship with Moscow.”(Barigazzi 2022)
As a majority of Member States are convinced that formal policy adaptations are premature, this also explains a lack of tangible progress in defining the new EU-Russia strategy (Brzozowski 2022). The war remains unpredictable and new challenges may arise in the near future, which should also be accounted for in the new principles. In addition, it stays unclear how Russia will emerge from the war and what kind of Russia the EU will face in the long term. Given the lengthy process of policy revisions, it would be undesirable for the EU to have a stringent policy position that is inapplicable and leaves no room for manœuvre. In this regard, the current principles are more flexible and do not impede a strong European response to the war.
Keep Your Friends Close But Your Adversaries Closer? Keeping the Door Open for Light Engagement
In light of the atrocities taking place in Ukraine, it is clear that the EU ought to form a strong and united front to condemn Russia’s actions as they not only violate international law and human rights, but they also pose a real and imminent threat to the wider European security order. Nevertheless, in the long term, it is not desirable to cut all ties with Russia. The country is, and will always be, the EU’s largest neighbor and so ignoring Russia’s existence is not an option.
Moreover, Russia already perceives a form of geopolitical competition in the region which was an important factor in its decision to invade Ukraine (Meister 2022), and further polarization will only exacerbate this. In addition, when no form of engagement exists between the two actors, Russia will become increasingly unpredictable and will continue to develop deeper relations with other authoritarian countries such as China. Considering these elements, a number of additional challenges can be identified.
Potential Intra-EU Fragmentation
A lack of a clear EU-Russia strategy that provides room for engagement will also create effects on an intra-EU level, possibly resulting in further internal fragmentation. Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria have shown to be relatively pro-Russian in the context of the invasion (Muzikárová 2023), and according to a survey published in September 2022, the majority of Slovaks would be open to a Russian military victory of the war in Ukraine (Hudec 2022). Moreover, a Eurobarometer survey found that these three Member States are also the least supportive of EU sanctions against Russia (Eurobarometer 2022).
Bulgaria and Hungary are the only EU and NATO Member States to have openly refused to deliver weapons to Ukraine (Angelov and Wesolowky 2023), with Hungary also ramping up its anti-EU propaganda (Muzikárová 2023). However, Bulgaria did allegedly provide Ukraine with secret supplies of fuel and ammunition (Henley 2023). In order to maintain intra-EU unity and not undermine the EU’s decision-making, it is thus important that these Member States do not feel shunned. Otherwise, Russia will gain fertile ground to engage bilaterally with these countries and try to influence EU decision-making from within.
In the past, Russia has demonstrated its capabilities of meddling within EU politics by means of economic influence (Meister 2022). Corruption, money laundering and bribing were all part of the Kremlin’s toolbox to ensure a conducive economic and political environment (Reuters 2019). If the more pro-Russian member states feel that the bloc will disregard their interests, this could exacerbate Russia’s meddling practices and prove counter-productive for the EU.
“Russian elites were able to undermine institutions and stakeholders in Europe through corruption and money laundering. European banks and financial businesses played a crucial role in transferring corrupt money into the real economy and the real estate market. The energy sector was central in providing funds to bribe decision makers in member states and fund supporters of a Russia-friendly political and economic environment that would benefit the Putin system.”(Meister 2022)
The EU Accession Process in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe
Similar trends are also observable in the Western Balkan nations which are stranded in protracted accession negotiations with the EU. This has given Russia ample room to establish a fruitful presence in the region by continuing to leverage the “enlargement fatigue” and the historical ethnic and religious cleavages of the region (McBride 2022). By doing so, Russia effectively tries to undermine progress towards EU or NATO membership or other forms of integration with the West.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the war, the EU tried to revive its presence in the region and the enlargement process by granting Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status in December 2022 (EEAS 2022). But despite such efforts, Russia’s influence in the region remains significant. When it comes to Serbia, an EU candidate country, polls have shown that an overwhelming majority (95%) of Serbs still “consider Russia to be their true ally” (Stanicek and Caprile 2023). In addition, 68% of Serbs believe that NATO is responsible for the war in Ukraine and 82% are opposed to imposing sanctions on Russia. While Serbia, as an EU candidate country, is expected to follow the Union’s sanctions regimes (University College London 2022).
Such far-reaching support is something the EU ought to take into consideration, especially given the fact that Serbia is “the main source of Putin’s influence in the Balkans”, despite the country being gauged as the frontrunner to become an EU Member State by 2025 (University College London 2022). If Serbia were to become an EU Member State, it would give Russia a free pass to meddle in EU politics.
“Putin uses the Balkans, particularly Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a bargaining chip in his dealing with NATO and the EU. He has even sought to use the NATO intervention in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s to support his attack on Ukraine.”(Hoxhaj 2022)
In addition, if the EU is not on speaking terms with Russia, this will impact the new and potential candidate countries in Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia). In the past, Russia did not see the EU as a threat, as the bloc was conceptualised as a peace project (Debeuf 2022). As such, Russia did not see the EU’s expansion towards the East as a problem. NATO expansion towards the East, on the other hand, was what Russia wanted to avoid. However, as the EU is increasingly acting as a geopolitical actor, as demonstrated by sending arms to Ukraine, Russia could start perceiving the bloc as a security threat as well. In a scenario where Russia and the EU cut all ties, and there are no prospects of any form of future normalization, but the EU continues to expand to Russia’s neighboring countries and assumes an ever greater profile in terms of defence policy, tensions could escalate quickly.
Cutting all ties with Russia will also effectively close the door to any form of cooperation in the Arctic. Until recently, it was relatively unimportant whether the Arctic belonged to any of the eight countries surrounding it, namely Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, and the United States (Duurzame Student 2018).
However, climate change has exacerbated the melting of Arctic ice and is uncovering the region’s vast resources and possibilities in terms of oil, gas, critical minerals and even revolutionary shipping routes (Hadrovic 2022). This has resulted in a rapid militarization of the region, notably by Russia and the US (Hedlund 2023). Even non-Arctic states are increasingly interested in the region, with China declaring itself a “near-Arctic state” to justify its rising presence.
In addition, Russia has officially announced its ambitions to increase cooperation with BRICS countries (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Arctic affairs (Tass 2023). This is significantly undesirable for the EU since the Arctic region will continue to gain importance and Russia has already displayed its vast ambitions for the area, both in terms of security, energy and economic gains.
Russia is rapidly expanding its Arctic LNG production capacities, ramped up its use of the Northern Sea Route to ship oil and LNG to Asia and has planted a large Russian flag in the Arctic Ocean, signalling confrontation and dominance (Energy Intelligence 2023, Staalesen 2023, Vereykina 2023). Down the line, a lack of Arctic cooperation will also be detrimental to local Indigenous populations and any joint efforts towards environmental conservation and scientific exploration.
The EU as a Geopolitical Player?
While the EU previously kept a low profile in terms of geopolitics, the war has turned the European Union into a de facto geopolitical actor, as evidenced by the bloc’s first arms deliveries to a third country (Brzozowski 2022, Meister 2022). To live up to this new reality and its ensuing expectations, it is imperative that the EU soon puts into place an updated version of its Russia strategy in which its engagement represents the current reality by strongly condemning Russia’s actions and calling for accountability. This will signify to Ukraine that the EU is determined to let justice prevail.
Yet, besides a clear commitment to protecting European norms and values, it should also account for future security challenges that might arise, notably in the Arctic or other neighboring countries, especially those with candidate status. In this regard, considering the EU’s military incapability, limited engagement and a certain degree of pragmatism is preferable over no relations, as that could only further jeopardize the European, and to an extent global, security order.
Besides, the Union’s policy will always reflect the least common denominator, and it is unlikely that more pro-Russian Member States will agree to a significantly more stringent policy considering the possible future Balkan Member States, while the more hawkish Member States will not agree to a policy that lacks ambition in their eyes, which could explain why the EU has not yet published an updated version of its Russia strategy. It thus remains to be seen how the war and its aftermath will develop and take shape, and what kind of Russia will emerge from the war to adequately estimate the EU’s official new Russia policy.
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