RIAC Experts' Comments

Where is Greater Europe?

May 7, 2014

Author: András Radnóti, Junior Researcher, Russian International Affairs Council.

A look at European and Eurasian integration after the Ukraine crisis



Driven by the negative narratives through which it explains the world, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has launched an ambitious integration project in direct competition with the European Union. Although it is acknowledged by both Russia and the EU that only a deep and far-reaching cooperation agenda can bring benefits to either, an astounding lack of trust renders any marriage of convenience unlikely. The unequal and essentially hostile race Russia triggered has culminated in severe clashes over Ukraine, probably leading to a long-term deterioration of Russia-EU relations. It has forced the EU into a position where it has to act against its peaceful and cooperative instincts and the well-perceived interests of its crisis-ridden economy. It has to put on the boxing gloves, ‘punish’, ’force’, and play geopolitics.


Russia’s negative narratives

Russian foreign policy has come a long way from the early days of Putin’s rule. From the rapprochement of the early 2000s, the helping hand lent to America after 9/11 and the stepping up of cooperation on terrorism and non-proliferation, it has become aggressively nationalistic and anti-Western, even flirting with the fascistic neo-Eurasianist agenda[i] and defying international isolation. The regime has fuelled patriotic-nationalistic sentiment using negative narratives to present the world surrounding Russia. Capitalising on national myths and the age-old Slavophile dogma of Russians’ fundamental differences and cultural-historic supremacy to Europeans, these negative narratives have fulfilled their primary purpose: during the two worst moments of confrontation that they have led up to, 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Ukraine, President Putin’s popularity has broken records. Negative narratives can be discovered in most of the foreign affairs-discourse in Russia,[ii] but I will restrain myself to outlining only those which are directly relevant to my argument.


The most powerful negative narrative is the paranoia that Western powers are striving to ‘encroach’, then ‘strangle’ Russia by bringing neighbouring countries into their sphere of influence. This fear has proved extraordinarily persistent and remains a root cause for Russian resentment of the West. In February 2014, as the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine turned bloody, the state-owned international radio station Voice of Russia aired an interview with the German freelance journalist Cristoph Hörstel,[iii] long discredited due to his extreme anti-Americanism and support for the Taliban, who confidently stated that America “wants to rule Ukraine and after that they will continue their NATO encroachment against Russia”.[iv] This argument was echoed by President Putin in his speech announcing the annexation of Crimea, where he said Russians have “every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, conducted in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position”.


Another negative narrative, closely connected to this one, is the perception of the fall of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical and socio-cultural disaster, also articulated in Putin’s Crimea speech, among other occasions. It conveys a strong feeling of nostalgia for the Russia that constituted a pole of power, which leads to remembering 1991 — and by extension the whole of the 90s — as the decade of Russia’s ‘humiliation’ by the West. Coupled with the domestic  positive narrative of Russia’s recovered strength and consequence, thanks to its 2000s ‘decade of stability’, this makes for a pretext to strike back, using every available tool to maintain at least a facade of strength.


Putin entirely dismisses the concept of community of values; he believes that Europe’s and America’s talk of ‘shared values’ is mere exceptionalism, as laid out in the speech mentioned above. He sees it as sweet talk covering hard American national interests and geopolitical goals; most importantly, Russia’s encroachment. He plays up his own frankness in contrast to muddled Western discourse over values and principles, while picking up and dropping principles as it suits him. The Maidan protestors in Kiev were for Putin Western-backed fascists aiming for a coup d’état,[v] but little more then a month later Medvedev claimed that Eastern Ukraine’s separatists have every right to voice their opinion, just like they did on the Maidan.[vi] Putin was a champion of international law in 1999 in Kosovo, in 2003 in Iraq and in 2013 in Syria but has in fact worked in direct opposition to it by invading Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 without even tabling a resolution in the UN Security Council.


It is a tenet in Putin’s government, in the (state) media and even at Moscow’s elite MGIMO university that EU and NATO member states have given up their foreign policy independence in exchange for American ‘protection’ — another negative narrative. Although it is certain that the US has put heavy pressure on its ‘European partners’ at times — for example, when pushing for sanctions on Iran — Putin’s perception of a mentor-mentee relationship ultimately proved false in Ukraine. There, Europe and America worked out and conducted their responses largely independently — although as allies and in a coordinated manner. President Obama and Vice-President Biden both toured Europe putting forward their plans to impose a ‘cost’ on Russia for its bold annexation of Crimea, but received nothing like the support they wanted from their ‘mentees’.


The revisionist argumentation Putin used to justify the annexation was itself based on negative narratives, notably the widespread, and dangerous, idea that Ukraine, and especially Crimea, has never been a separate country with independent statehood or history. Putin has irksomely observed that with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian diaspora became the biggest in the world; this understandably left Central Asian and Baltic states worried. This, along with the Russian self-image of leader of the Slavs and the Orthodox Christians, nurtured by the Kremlin, could just as well be used to justify the restoration of the former Soviet empire and beyond.


That the EU’s foreign policy is slow, careful, disintegrated and often at odds with America’s, hasn’t stopped President Putin from seeing it as a hostile force because of its — perceived — role in Russia’s ‘encroachment’ as a puppet of the US.

The EEU’s rationale

The picture couldn’t be simpler: the EU is Russia’s largest trading partner and Russia the EU’s foremost provider of natural gas and an important export market. An awareness of this interdependence naturally adds a dose of ambiguity to Putin’s dealings with Europe. While he has sought to keep the EU at bay on the international stage, there have been real efforts to step up bilateral relations for the economic benefit of both parties. These have, however, born little fruit; since the 2008 Georgian war, Russia-EU relations have been in stagnation at best.

There is undoubtedly some cynicism in Russia’s approach to the European Union, owing to its value-based foreign policy, lack of unity, and a perceived general ‘decline of the West’ — a phenomenon echoed in official documents as well.[vii] It still admits the EU’s accomplishments: the creation of a strong and deeply integrated community, with any armed conflict between member states inconceivable and, most importantly, its significance as the world’s biggest market. Russia’s own integration project was originally christened Eurasian Union, only later was this changed to include ‘economic’, apparently in order to alleviate Kazakh concerns about a potential political union. Its executive body is called the Eurasian Economic Commission, which is complemented by an eponymous Council. The name-clues speak for themselves. But not only this: the structure and the legal basis of the Union, drawing heavily on WTO rules, also shows an astounding similarity with the EU’s acquis.

Through integration with the developing countries of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, Russia hopes to gain a larger market for goods, services, labour and capital, and an increased international leverage. The inefficiency of policy-making at the supranational level — seen as the EU’s major pitfall — will be counteracted by authoritarian governance. Still, there are a number of flaws in this model. It has been demonstrated a number of times that the economic rationale for the EEU is weak. Observers have noted that, as the economic structures in member states are very much alike, the union will offer no scope for economies of scale and thus for badly needed modernisation[viii]. Neither is it difficult to imagine where Kazakh, and eventually Kyrgyz and Tajik, labour force would flock to in even larger numbers; add to that Muscovites’ hostility to the Central Asian immigrants already dominating some blue-collar industries, and you get a definitely unhealthy mix.

Unlike the EU, which developed as a framework for economic integration and has been slowly drifting towards a political union, the EEU will be born as a political project — though not union — with political benefits, mostly to Russia. Eurasian integration will become Russia’s primary vehicle for exerting influence in its immediate neighbourhood. Not only will the positive narrative — reiterated to the point of being trite — that ‘Russia is again a strong country’ be proven to the world; it will also boost Russian power by tying down states that at this point could still swing another way. As the leader of a regional union, Russia will gain in consequence on the international stage. Its leverage vis-a-vis its biggest regional rival, China, as well as Turkey, the Middle East, and America, will grow, and it will finally achieve its long-standing vanity goal of talking to the European Union as an equal partner, despite a striking disparity in every sphere, save the number of nuclear warheads.

No doubt such an agenda alone would have done little to convince Kazakhstan and Belarus to jump aboard. Trade with Russia is decisive in both countries (although negligible between themselves), therefore a customs-free regime and harmonised regulations could contribute to an economic upturn in the short run. But the main point is, again, political. Two authoritarian states, both non-players on the world stage; Belarus, stuck between a powerful West and Russia, Kazakhstan, between Russia and a mighty China, expect to gain in consequence by forming an economic bloc with Russia. The president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, although often dismissed as Putin’s puppy in the West, has in fact proved efficient in representing his country’s interests in dealings with Moscow; especially in securing the exemptions under the customs-free regime that best suited his country. Likewise, the point-blank ways of the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev all but remind one of his and his country’s near-complete dependence on Russia. He has pushed for equal votes for member states in the EEU Commission — a compromise Russia made, if perhaps with a sight to luring Ukraine into the Union, as well as bowing to Nazarbayev’s pressure. He considers the Eurasian Economic Commission’s work in Moscow temporary, and would no doubt prefer to see the body establish its headquarters in his shiny new purpose-built capital, Astana, instead. Despite all his bluntness, he is now unlikely to achieve this. Russian domination of the EEU is self-evident and uncompromising. If, according to Putin’s plans, a currency union emerges with time, the common currency will probably not be the Kazakh tenge, but the Russian rouble.

The trust issue

In the Vedomosti-article in which he first embraced the idea of a Eurasian Union, Putin refers to the concept of ‘Greater Europe’[ix] (elsewhere referred to as “wider Europe”, or “Lisbon to Vladivostok”), a cooperative community in the wider European space based on, as he writes, the ‘shared values of freedom, democracy and market laws’. Everyone knows these are not shared: that basic freedoms are regularly violated in Putin’s Russia, with many of his political opponents and free-spirited journalists in prison, that his democracy used to be called a ‘managed’ one — a euphemism for autocracy —, and that his market is dominated by the state through its mega-enterprises. That behind the facade of a liberal market democracy, he heads a repressive authoritarian regime with nepotistic state capitalism. The talk of shared values finds no fertile soil in Europe.

The concept of Greater Europe, not originating from, but proclaimed by Putin and embraced[x] by a number of prominent think-tankers across Europe, mentions values — but only on the margins. It in fact suggests a community of interests. Russia badly needs cooperation, most of all with the European Union, for security and economic stability. The EU likewise; free trade and security cooperation with Russia could open a range of new horizons. But in this case, shared interests, without shared values, will not suffice for meaningful cooperation. Russia’s hidden reality, and the discrepancy between this reality and the official discourse lose Moscow   all the trust Brussels (or London, Paris, Berlin) ever had in it. Having observed Putin’s flexible approach to international law at work yet again in Crimea and its aftermath, EU policymakers are unlikely to take him seriously again.

Russia is competing, not cooperating

Since the day of the publication of Putin’s article it has been evident that the EEU is to be created as a competitor to the EU, a reaction to the basic negative narrative of Russia’s being encircled — much like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation was given rise to as a competitor to NATO. A rules-based regime, the EEU sets competition to the EU in the institutional sphere, where it has thus far been unchallenged. With the EEU’s political, economic, security, and strategic challenges, there remains now only such area: normative power, the adherence to and promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The power of attraction of this system is still a reality. But it is, as always, a threat to the power of autocratic regimes. The threat is, then, mutual.


In his article, Putin wrote that the EEU will not be aiming to ‘cut itself off’ or ‘stand in opposition to anyone’[xi]. But he has also many times hinted at the incompatibility of European and Eurasian integrations — as have European leaders — and the consequent need for all concerned, most notably, Ukraine, to choose either one or the other. According to CEPS analyst Michael Emerson, the Kremlin in fact declared the EEU’s confrontation with the EU by rejecting the idea of parallel integration straight away, and offering an alternative one instead.[xii] It is a choice between a community of interests and a community of values. Although Russia’s — and by extension, the EEU’s — severely mismanaged and highly inefficient, corruption-ridden economy is no match for the EU’s economic structures and outlook, Europeans’ insistence on the values at the core of their community might well steer authoritarian leaders Putin’s way, who is offering not to meddle in their domestic politics. Their people might choose not to follow them, as happened in Ukraine, indirectly triggering the integration race to pass the point of no return.


In Ukraine, both sides backed up the integration projects’ mutual exclusivity with technical reasoning: Russia was concerned that EU products might flood its market by way of Ukraine, and the EU worried that, in such a set-up, it would effectively have free trade with non-WTO-members Belarus and Kazakhstan. Both sides had economic interests in Ukraine, too: Russia needs its heavy industry to complement its own, as the breakup of the Soviet Union left them both orphaned to a degree; and Ukrainian land and labour force would be useful to the EU. But these did not create the mutual exclusivity.


Russia needed Ukraine to be either in its own, or in no-one’s sphere of interest to avoid a step towards ‘encroachment’ and maintain its strategically crucial naval base in Sevastopol, desirably beyond its agreed lease, 2042 — the importance of which has since been proven by the annexation of Crimea. These are Putin’s geopolitical interests in Ukraine — to be secured through his paramount geopolitical vehicle, the Eurasian Economic Union. Europe, on the other hand, is interested in promoting its values in the neighbourhood, for — beyond fulfilling its duty as a ‘normative power’ — stable and democratic states have proven to be more reliable partners than non-democratic ones. Russia is seen as a force for the opposite of these. Its East-Central European member states, notably Poland and the Baltics, perceive Russian aggression in, and control of, Ukraine as a hard security threat. Dalia Grybauskaité, the Lithuanian president and a devout European, said at the 6 March EU summit that “Russia today is trying to rewrite the borders of Europe after World War II, that is what’s going on … if we allow this to happen, next will be somebody else”[xiii], demonstrating the Baltics’ notion of vulnerability. These are the EU’s geopolitical interests in its neighbourhood: democracy, rule of law, political and economic stability and security — some of them in direct clash with Russia’s. No doubt it is the geopolitical aspect of both Eurasian and European integration that makes the two mutually exclusive.


The European Union began reacting to the race in summer 2013 when, with the signing of Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement in Vilnius approaching, Russia stepped up its pressure on Ukraine by raising a number of trade barriers. European leaders voiced their concern, but continued relying on the EU’s ‘power of attraction’, failing to realise that Viktor Yanukovych, who was calling the shots, was personally more attracted to Vladimir Putin. Yanukovych, failing to secure the money he would have liked to sell Ukraine to the Brussels for, suspended talks with the EU just two weeks before Vilnius — a severe shock to European officialdom, most of all to Catherine Ashton, Radek Sikorski and Carl Bildt, for whose careers this was set to be a turning point. The fiasco at Vilnius sparked up expert and political discourse about what needed changing, particularly regarding the details of the Eastern Partnership, but for some time it seemed like the appetite for reform in the EU’s foreign policy circles would die out soon.


The EU’s support for the Euromaidan protests was still not driven by geopolitical ambitions, contrary to Putin’s belief. Brussels was ready to give Ukraine up at least for a few years as the protests grew big. But it had to acknowledge their historic significance as the first true uprising for a European future, for membership in the international community[xiv]. It had to stand firmly behind the Maidan (while maintaining contact with Yanukovych’s government until the very end), for not doing so would have been a betrayal not just of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, but of the very values that they, too, associate Europe with.


The last stage in the Ukraine crisis where the EU, at least on the surface, was still a step ahead, not behind, of Russia, was the 21 February deal between Yanukovych and the opposition, brokered by the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland. It is worth remembering that Moscow’s envoy to the talks, Vladimir Lukin, did not sign the agreement. In the Kremlin, they still hoped that Yanukovych could be saved, the protest movement repressed, and Ukraine cajoled into joining the Eurasian Economic Union.


After Yanukovych’s ousting, Putin had to change course. As many commentators have noted, the occupation and annexation of Crimea took place according to an elaborate action plan, one that must have been taken off the shelf ready to be activated; but the decision itself was a spontaneous reaction to the turn of events. The author of this essay believes that Russian national interests would have been better served if Crimea had remained in Ukraine, but taking a closer look at Putinist politics and its negative narratives, one finds arguments for the annexation. The Maltese philosopher Edward de Bono’s term ‘lateral thinking’, referring to an indirect, creative approach to problem-solving, is often used in relation to Russian foreign policy. (Opinions differ on whether it explains or excuses it.) It is clear that Putin was ready to take an economic risk for strategic and, most importantly, political gain. The security of the Sevastopol naval base was and remains crucial to Russia’s military might on warm seas. Destabilising a now pro-European Ukraine by effectively annexing one of its regions was desirable although risky, as in the medium to long term, it might contribute to the strengthening of pro-European sentiment in the rest of the country. Most importantly, at a time of economic stagnation, swift, victorious, ‘patriotic’ action in the near abroad was exactly what Putin needed to increase his popularity amongst a Russian public burning in nationalist sentiment — in large part also a product of Putinist propaganda.


It was this seemingly irrational, blunt action that knocked the EU off its horse and left it lagging far behind. Once again, the EU failed to forge a powerful response to Russian provocation. All along, it was careful not to use too strong a tone, in order to leave room for dialogue. European leaders hoped they could convince Putin to de-escalate the crisis he had initiated. They failed to realise that Putin will always pick up the phone but never make concessions. Yet it seems that, after the annexation of Crimea was finalised by the Russian Duma, European leaders have slowly come to realise the vanity of these hopes, and their poor understanding of Putin’s politics. The American push for a stronger response, a more substantial ‘cost’ to be imposed on Russia for arbitrarily rewriting Europe’s borders might have played a role, too. Now, perhaps, there is a glimmer of hope that Europe will unite and defend its most basic interests, its own security and that of its immediate neighbourhood.

Europe, ante bellum

A community built on the principles of peace, prosperity and democracy, the EU is often considered by its prominents not to ‘believe’ in geopolitics[xv]. The EU solves disputes by creating institutions and building consensus; it does not fight for its sphere of interest or play power politics. Leaving the Cold War far behind, it is seeking new, cooperative ways to manage international issues. There could be a scope for that, as in terms of ideology, the world has remained largely uni-polar since the fall of the USSR: there is little challenge to Western democracy. With the notable exception of China, all leading powers, including Russia, preach Euro-Atlantic values — practice is a different story altogether.


What European leaders have failed to realise — or at least to articulate — is that spreading democracy, the rule of law and good governance, as well as managing relations with and improving human rights in partner countries, to which ends the European Neighbourhood Policy and later the Eastern Partnership were devised in the first place, are in themselves geopolitical goals. They create not a ‘sphere of influence’ in the traditional sense of the term, but a community of values, a powerful sense of belonging. Geopolitical considerations surface when this is defined as opposed to Russia’s influence; they solidify when the clash with Russia’s articulate interests becomes evident.


2004 was the year that the European Union ceased to pursue any coherent policy towards Russia. It was the year several former Soviet member- and satellite states joined, bringing their own policies and experience — not coherent even between themselves —, interfering with the partnership core states had agreed with Russia the year before. A general trend is of course that older, Western member states are more open to cooperation with Russia, whilst newer, Eastern members are more cautious. During the Ukraine crisis, Germany and Poland emerged as leaders, both compromising serious economic interests by enacting sanctions, but some Eastern member states, notably Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia either remained silent or openly opposed the reaction. But member states are also divided between forging a coherent common policy or pursuing their own ones; the Kremlin clearly prefers the latter. The divergent, and often contradictory, policies of member states and the slowness and inefficiency of EU foreign policy decision-making are one reason for this. The other, more important one is Russia’s superior leverage when dealing with individual member states, compared to the collective power of the EU. This also benefits Russia by putting a strain on EU solidarity, further deepening internal divisions.


The EU has so far been unable to respond to this, neither by forging a clear, united stance on Russia nor by decreasing its dependence on it; primarily in the energy sphere, but also as an export market. Yet with the second, Ukrainian lesson, the EU must have realised that for Putin, geopolitics is the beginning and the end of reality; that it has to stand up to it or fade into insignificance.

There will be no Cold War

Cold War-analogies, which have risen high in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, have only one use beyond political scaremongering, which is to remind the world of the costs of a prolonged, intensive East-West conflict. But under current circumstances, any such conflict could not be as prolonged or as intensive as it was in the past century for a number of reasons. In terms of military power, there are both fewer and more poles. The place of the US as the only global superpower is unchallenged; likewise the place of Russia as a major military power. But the presence of several other major powers, that could play a decisive role in any global conflict, further complicates the picture.


In economic terms, Russia is far from being on a par with the West or even its BRICS partners. Its dependence on the world economy, but its limited influence on it is the core factor that makes a far-reaching, bitter conflict unthinkable. It was well illustrated during the 2008 global economic crisis, which hit Russia hard, not only through the collapse of oil prices, which it is dependent on, but also, particularly, through heavy capital flight and an ensuing tumble in the value of the rouble and of the Moscow stock exchange. That the outbreak of the crisis should quickly follow Russia’s campaign in Georgia — described by some as ‘the peak of Putinism’[xvi] but put into context since another ‘peak’ came with the annexation of Crimea — was but a coincidence. Russia’s Crimean adventure has, however, certainly demonstrated the correlation between foreign policy and economic stability. As the Russian armed forces and their Crimean aides took control of the peninsula on the weekend of 1st March, the Moscow stock exchange went on an alarming downward tumble, its MICEX index closing 11% lower on Monday than on the previous Friday. (On that day, NASDAQ had had a normal bad day, with -0.7%, only to climb 1.7% the next day.) After the annexation took place, the World Bank forecast a 1.8% fall in Russia’s GDP for 2014, compared to an earlier estimate of around 1% growth. The danger to the rouble — the collapse of which was only avoided through large-scale investment by the central bank — was widely discussed and quite probably the single most important argument against the campaign, with ‘brotherhood’ with Ukrainians lagging far behind. In today’s open Russian economy, with all Russians reliant on import products in all spheres of their lives, these signs are very alarming. One well-known Kremlin hardliner, Sergey Glazyev, responded to the prospect of sanctions being enacted by the US by threatening non-repayment of any American loans. It is easy to foretell the future of Russia’s bond yields if that were to happen; the threat is as empty as it is scary. But it does confirm that no sanctions can go without retaliation. Russia has and will in the future respond in kind to the West’s sanctions, as it did several years ago to the Magnitsky list — but, much like the ban on Americans adopting Russian children, the response will remain largely ineffective. A full-blown economic conflict with Europe and the US would hurt the West, too, but Russia would start sinking in a matter of months, perhaps weeks. The country, and the regime, can simply not afford to provoke such hostility — and playing on the divisions and the perceived weakness of the West can only go so far.


Russia’s ambitions are at odds with her abilities. The negative narratives kindle an expansive, coercive foreign policy, resulting in increasing confrontation with the West. At the same time, its economy cannot sustain the burden of hostility, lack of trust and isolation. Putin is teetering on the brink, and will likely continue to do so.

A Geopolitical Dilemma —the outlook

With the crisis in Ukraine, all the tensions of the integration race have come to the surface. Russia’s actions in Ukraine kick-started it on the route to international isolation and opened up the scope for a far-reaching sanctions regime that could potentially badly damage its economy. Putin, it seems, is not for turning — neither on Ukraine, nor any other issue. The world-view he has helped construct and maintained over the last 14 years, based on negative narratives and expressed in a roguish, expansive foreign policy, is as inflexible as the culture of manual control and coercion developed at home. Put simply, there is no rational hope that anything short of stiff force will ever stop him from challenging the EU and compel him to build trust for a cooperative international environment in the Greater European space.


The time is also less than of ideal for far-reaching reform in Europe. It is still only slowly recovering from a crisis that has not only battered deeply rooted social and economic structures, but also sparked wide mistrust in national as well as European authorities and given rise to a continent-wide Eurosceptic movement. But the EU cannot avoid reacting to Russia’s challenge. It seems now all European leaders are aware of the fact that on the world stage, vis-a-vis, for example, Russia, they can only make a difference acting together. Even David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Britain who has promised to ‘renegotiate’ the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU, pending an in/out referendum, has been threatening EU sanctions (not UK ones), although Britain, guarding the Moscow elite’s assets and schooling their children, has perhaps the biggest leverage against Russia.


Angela Merkel’s ambition for Germany to take a larger role in international affairs, stressed since the beginning of her new chancellorship, is of great significance. More German assertiveness in a traditionally French and British-controlled area could be a powerful uniting force; the most influential EU member could drum up support from the rest of the Union. Furthermore, a diminishing of the discrepancy between Germany’s economic and political weight and its assertiveness could pave the way for a more muscular European foreign policy. Even if more assertive, Berlin can be expected to carry on its langsam spazieren: confrontation with Russia will always be a gradual process. As Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has put it, one cannot rush into dead-ends[xvii], but must manoeuvre in such a way that the other side can always give up and back out. Putin will not, but this is a good way to bring a sceptical German and European electorate, including a pro-Russia business elite, on board, proving that all less painful alleys have been tried and exhausted.


No less important is Poland’s emerging role as leader of the new member states and coordinator of the EU’s eastern neighbourhood policies. Its centre-right leadership continues to show the way for the EU — and, more narrowly, the Visegrad Group — on both Ukraine and Russia, and its firm advocacy of a powerful common foreign policy[xviii] is personified by its pre-eminent foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, a hopeful for the position of the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. As one of the EU’s ‘big six’, and having a long and manifold historical experience with Russia, Poland is well placed to act as a speaker for the post-2004 member states and help forge consensus in Brussels. In very practical terms, if Eastern European interests were strongly and visibly represented in Brussels, Bulgarian president Plamen Oresharski could no longer argue against a stronger hand with Russia by claiming that Eastern Europe would be hurt first[xix].


Much depends on how the Ukraine crisis eventually folds out: how Europe reacts to a potential Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine, and how it manages to support the new government in Kiev. Much depends on Moldova, too: it looks as though next on Putin’s agenda is forcing this country to turn its back on the EU, with which it has already initialled an Association Agreement in Vilnius. And much depends on the choices to be made in Brussels late this May, with particular regard to the post of High Representative. Should leaders choose to give way for a leader to embody the common foreign policy instead of a manager to find the overlap between 28 different ones, we would soon see an internationally more confident European Union. For that, Eurosceptic fears that the common foreign policy will squeeze out bilateral diplomacy would no doubt have to be overcome.


Putin’s foreign policy, based on and justified by negative narratives, has made Russia a completely unreliable partner, invariably degrading the concept of a cooperative Greater Europe to the domain of illusion. The constant drive to prove Russia’s might, and extend it by proving it, challenges the peaceful and voluntary integration, based on promotion of values, led by the EU, and endangers security and cooperation in the world by relativising international law. The Eurasian Economic Union fits perfectly into this wider picture, challenging EU integration in the shared neighbourhood by offering political clout in exchange for a poor economic outlook, a free hand at home in exchange for foreign policy and trade dependence on Russia. The mix of concessions, cajolery and coercion that it uses to pull in new members are proof that the EEU will be primarily the Kremlin’s vehicle to secure its exclusive influence in its sphere of interest.


The European Union’s Russia policy, which stems from its very nature, cooperative and non-geopolitical, has failed on Putin’s Russia. With the Ukraine crisis, it has become evident that Russia’s expansive, coercive power politics threaten the EU’s security and integrity. It now has no choice but to rise to the challenge and, standing united, forge a change to its non-geopolitical doctrine. President Obama has already noted the crash of his own policy of self-restraint and peaceful cooperation, brought on by in his ‘reset’ with Russia. His administration has hit a strong tone with Putin’s; there is no doubt that it is ready to move beyond the tactics of naming and shaming. However, due to the relatively low levels of trade between the US and Russia, America alone cannot contain Putin’s expansionism. It needs Europe on board; and although the era of American cajolery in Brussels has passed with the presidency of George W. Bush, the EU is susceptible to strain on the Trans-Atlantic harmony.


The EU needs three things to stand up to Russia: popular support, risk-taking and unity. Politicians need to start thinking strategically and, leaving internal debates behind, explain their electorates the threat that Russia’s imperialism poses to the common European project. They need to build up the courage to confront Russia on issues of its foreign policy despite potential harms to their own interests — while looking for ways to reduce their dependence on Moscow. They must realise that this is not about pan-European solidarity, for the threat is common; it is a common interest to act in unity. Only with the containment of Putin’s expansionism will Europe, and Russia, ever see a brighter future. By imposing severe costs on Putin for considering the common European space his sandpit, Europe would not only be protecting itself from a substantial threat and showing the world that binning international law and norms for increased national and personal power cannot go unpunished; it would also be contributing to Putin’s eventual downfall. Only under another leader can Russia escape its negative narratives and make a start on the road to dialogue, understanding, and peaceful cohabitation and cooperation, potentially paving the way towards realising the dream of Greater Europe.



[i] Referred here is the ideology represented by the Eurasian Youth Movement, led by Alexander Dugin. For its relation to fascism and links to the Kremlin, see: A. Umland: Neo-Eurasianism, the Issue of Russian Fascism, and Post-Soviet Political Discourse, Centre for Geopolitical Studies, 2008 at http://www.geopolitika.lt/index.php/www.ibidem-verlag.de/news.php?artc=2227

and Anton Shekhovtsov, 'Aleksandr Dugin's Neo-Eurasianism: The New Right àla Russe', Religion Compass, Vol. 3, No. 4 (2009), pp. 697-716.


[ii] Including the official discourse. The narrative of Russia’s ‘encroachment’, for example, features in the Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (12.02.2013), which states: “Russia maintains a negative attitude towards NATO’s expansion and to the approaching of NATO military infrastructure to Russia’s borders in general as to actions that violate the principle of equal security and lead to the emergence of new dividing lines in Europe.” It also hints at the perceived arbitrariness of Western sanctions, and proposes that Russia “work actively in order to prevent the USA from imposing unilateral extraterritorial sanctions against Russian citizens and legal entities”.


[iii] Crisis in Ukraine: West cannot be trusted – Christoph Horstel, The Voice of Russia, 03.03.2014at http://voiceofrussia.com/2014_03_03/Crisis-in-Ukraine-West-can-not-be-trusted-Christoph-Horstel-3795/


[iv] US wants to rule Ukraine and continue their NATO encroachment against Russia- expert, The Voice of Russia, 11.02.2014 at http://voiceofrussia.com/2014_02_11/US-wants-to-rule-Ukraine-and-continue-their-NATO-encroachment-against-Russia-expert-6967/


[v] See for example D. Speedie: Rein in Ukraine’s Neo-Fascists, CNN, 06.03.2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/06/opinion/speedie-ukraine-far-right/


[vi] Az orosz kormányfő szerint a polgárháború szélén áll Ukrajna [Russian PM says Ukraine is on brink of civil war], MTI, 15.04.2014, http://hvg.hu/vilag/20140415_Az_orosz_kormanyfo_szerint_a_polgarhaboru


[vii] Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (12.02.2013); National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation to 2020 (12.05.2009)


[viii] See Dragneva-Wolczuk: Russia, the Eurasian CustomsUnion and the EU: Cooperation,Stagnation or Rivalry?, Russia and Eurasia Programme Briefing Paper 2012/01, August 2012;


A. Kozharski: Rivaling the EU through institutional isomorphism, Working Paper 04/2012, Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Comenius University, Bratislava, 2012;


H. Adomeit: Putins Eurasian Union: Russias integration project and its policies on Post-Soviet Space, Neighbourhood Policy Paper 04/2012, Center for International and European Studies, Kadir Has University, Istanbul, July 2012


[ix] For an interesting, though outdated, comparison with Medvedev’s idea for a European Security Treaty and earlier ideas aiming to eliminate dividing lines in Europe, see F. Lukyanov: Rethinking Security in “Greater Europe”, Russia in Global Affairs, No. 3, July-September 2009


[x] It Is Time to Pursue a Cooperative Greater Europe, ELN-PISM-RIAC-USAK Task Force Position Paper, 2014 at /en/inner/?id_4=3055#top


[xi] V. Putin: «A new integration project for Eurasia: The future in the making», Democracy and Security in Southeastern Europe (Democracy and Security in Southeastern Europe), 89 / 2011


[xii] Emerson, M.: After the Vilnius fiasco: Who is to blame? What is to be done?, CEPS Essay, No. 8 / 21.1.2014


[xiii] US and EU impose sanctions and warn Russia to relent in Ukraine standoff, The Guardian, 06.03.2014 at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/06/us-eu-sanctions-obama-russia-ukraine-crimea


[xv] See M. Kuus: Policy and Geopolitics: Bounding Europe in EUrope,  Bounding Europe in EUrope, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 101:5, 2011


[xvi] B. Judah: Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin, 2013


[xvii] Diplomatie trotz Krim-Krise: Steinmeier will Russen und Ukrainer an einen Tisch bekommen, Spiegel Online, 04.04.2014 at http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/ukraine-krise-steinmeier-setzt-auf-internationale-kontaktgruppe-a-962567.html


[xviii] R. Sikorski: The Eurosceptic Case for a Common Foreign Policy, Hungarian Review V./2, March 2014


[xix] Bulgarian government underlines opposition to economic sanctions against Russia, The Sofia Globe, 21.03.2014 at http://sofiaglobe.com/2014/03/21/bulgarian-government-underlines-opposition-to-economic-sanctions-against-russia/

Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
For business
For researchers
For students