EU policy towards Russia? What options after 2022?


Žaneta Ozoliņa

Facing military tension

The situation at the EU and NATO’s eastern border proves that defence and protection cannot be taken for granted. The concentration of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border, weaponisation of migrants on Belarus’ borders with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and the intensified coercive political discourse show that the popular theses – ‘we are living in a borderless world’ and ‘borders do not matter in the XXIst century” – have turned irrelevant today and for the years to come.

The attempt to undermine existing borders targets not just the physical borders of countries; it aims to redraft the security order in the transatlantic area. Russia’s proposal for new security guarantees sent to the US administration and NATO is a clear signal that it demands a say on the further enlargement of the alliance. This, however, undermines the sovereign right of other countries to define their own foreign policy choices. At this point, proposals for ‘new security architectures’ have become routine business for Russia. The Baltic Sea Region countries can recall regional security proposals offered by Russia in 1997 as an alternative to NATO membership and the several attempts to create a new security landscape under the OSCE umbrella. The revisionist and opportunistic character of Russia’s foreign and security policy still matters and foreshadows what to expect in the future.

Where is the European Union? 

What role has Europe played in the recent months of growing tension on the eastern border? What is the EU response to Russia’s international performance? While the US, NATO and Russia have ‘negotiated’, ‘argued’, ‘searched for de-escalation efforts’, the EU has ‘discussed’, ‘worked on’, ‘harmonized with’, ‘collaborated with’…

Following a meeting with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in assessing the state of affairs and tension between the West and Russia was characteristically blunt. The West, Lavrov said, is unable to provide any arguments except that they are ‘concerned, concerned, concerned….and now the EU also does not want to lag behind the US and wants to set up a training camp in Ukraine. It will be quite an interesting turn in the EU’s ambitions. Maybe this is an attempt by the EU to remind everyone of its existence because so far it doesn’t figure in serious conversations.’

If measured exclusively and solely by the number of visits European politicians have made to Kyiv, the EU should be a global player in managing Russo-Ukrainian tensions. The security situation in Europe is once again demonstrating the wasted time, resources and institutional capacity. Indeed, the EU has once again failed to display leadership, expertise or even relevance of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The €1.2 billion emergency aid package offered to Ukraine by European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis is a significant signal to Ukraine and the international community, but ‘signal diplomacy’ also leaves many questions unanswered. What is the EU policy towards Russia? How will it respond to Russia’s threats? 

The EU’s weakness is essentially concerns the application of power. The Union is not short of power, but rather the necessary global ambition, political will and consistency needed to fully implement EU decisions. Such weakness is less obvious during years of ‘normality’ but resurfaces during episodes of international tension and confrontation, such as now. 

Rethinking EU policy options

An effective and credible CFSP requires unity. It is fairly obvious that today unity is more rhetorical than real. As an association of democratic countries the EU must respect the results of the elections, allow politicians to follow the demands of their constituencies, and constantly recognise the diversity of national preferences. That being said, several policy actions could reinforce the EU’s international presence.

First, strong EU-NATO co-operation is needed more than ever. EU member states are not all committed to the defence initiatives adopted by the Council. It takes time. Therefore, whilst the EU enhances its capabilities the EU should coordinate with and participate in existing NATO mechanisms. Second, close partnership with the US is vital as there are critical shared interests, such as defence and deterrence, relations with China and Russia, multilateralism. Third, the EU should reconsider the Eastern Partnership initiative.  There is a clear divide between Europeanizing, such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and others with varying views on relations with the EU and Russia, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Finally, the international environment is becoming increasingly confrontational reinforcing geopolitical rivalry. Therefore, the EU needs to become far more adept at rapid reaction rather than lose time drafting lengthy communiqués. Rather than simply expressing ‘concern’ even ‘great concern’, the EU needs the capacity to act.

Professor Zaneta Ozolina is Professor of International Relations at the University of Latvia and a member of The Alphen Group.