Why is the EU divided over Russia?

July 02, 2021 2:30 PM

The Geneva Summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin raised hopes of a similar re-engagement between the EU and Russia.

putin merkel meetingThe EU’s Russian dilemma presents a daunting challenge to the internal unity of the bloc. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Dr Yatharth Kachiar and Priya Poojary

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the relations between Moscow and Brussels have deteriorated rapidly. Recently, the crisis in Belarus and the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader and anti-Corruption activist Alexei Navalny further escalated the tensions. The Geneva Summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin raised hopes of a similar re-engagement between the EU and Russia. Consequentially, in a bid to thaw the frozen relations, France and Germany proposed a bilateral Summit with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, the proposal was quashed in the recently concluded European Council Summit after the Baltic States and Poland raised strong objections. Macron-Merkel proposal to launch a strategic dialogue with Putin conflicting with the sensitivities of the Baltic States and Poland yet again reveals the deep divisions that have afflicted the European Union over Russia for years.

The Baltic States and Poland

The Baltic States and Poland are particularly vulnerable to rising security threats from an assertive Russia. With a sizable Russian-speaking minority population and the enhanced presence of the Russian military on their eastern borders in Kaliningrad, these states perceive the Russian threat more gravely than their EU counterparts. The Kremlin has used the presence of the Russian-speaking population in post-Soviet republics to increase its power and influence. Moscow wielded this strategy of protecting the Russian-speaking minority while annexing Crimea in 2014 and, more recently, in the simmering conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine.Moreover, the presence of a significant Russian-speaking population in the Baltic States make these countries vulnerable to the influence of Russian media. In 2020, Latvia and Lithuania banned Russian broadcast channel RT for its alleged control by Dmitri Kiselyov, whom the EU sanctioned for promoting Russian propaganda during the Ukraine crisis. With their unique geographic position and ethnolinguistic ties with Russia, the Baltic States are deeply vulnerable to the Kremlin’s tactics of gaining influence in the post-Soviet Republics. Therefore, a precarious security situation has pushed these states towards vociferously promoting a tough stance vis-à-vis Russiawithin the European Union.

The Case of Germany and France

Compared to the Baltic States, France and Germany have been collectively offering to ease the diplomatic pressures on Russia, surprising the other member states within the European Union. Macron’s push for reinstating talks with Russia is driven vis-à-vis the competition with the USA. Biden’s high-stake meeting with the Russian President last week renewed some uncertainties on a possible shift of dynamics between the USA and Kremlin within the French diplomatic circles. This is not the first time that France has proposed continued engagement with Russia. President Macron has been calling for more realistic cooperation with Moscow to foster long-term stability in the region. Similarly, Berlin also wants to tread carefully on Russia as it fears possible fallout on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project connecting Russia to Germany, which is nearing completion. While the EU has become more estranged from Russia in the last few years, Germany has been keeping its economic decisions from political developments in the Nord Stream 2 project.

The EU’s dilemma: How to deal with Russia?

The EU’s Russian dilemma presents a daunting challenge to the internal unity of the bloc. Recently, the EU High Representative Josep Borrell had proposed a new framework for Russia. The approach consisted of three elements: Push back, constrain and engage. Under this approach, the EU intends to push back on human rights violations and anti-democratic values. The growing politically repressive environment in Moscow coupled with the deteriorating situation of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and media has deeply affected EU-Russia relations. The EU is determined not to slide on the erosion of its core values by making it clear that these are no longer domestic affairs of nations. It will also continue to raise objections to the breaches of international law in Georgia and Ukraine, calling on Russia to implement the Minsk agreement fully and assume its responsibility as a party to the conflict.

At the same time, the EU will constrain Russian efforts to undermine the bloc’s collective interest by becoming more robust and resilient. For this, the EU needs to strengthen its cyber security and defence capacities, ensure energy security, and counter hybrid threats by coordinating with NATO and G7 members. While pushing back and constraining it, the EU also intends to selectively engage with Russia on strategically important issues of COVID-19, climate change, trade, energy, and people-to-people connectivity.

The EU’s balancing between pushback, constraint, and engagement needs to be coupled with assertive policies. Otherwise, these policy prescriptions are not new, and they hold very little significance in mending EU-Russia relations in the short term. Moreover, any strategic engagement will be effective only if the EU itself remains coherent.The EU’s experience in dealing with Russia has made it evident that an appeasement policy towards Russia will not yield the necessary result. The EU must resort to a tougher stance vis-à-vis Russia, coupled with dialogue only if the Kremlin shows moderation in behaviour. The EU needs to unify its position vis-a-vis Moscow And demand a reciprocal restraint in the Russian position for a possible change in the status quo.

(Dr Yatharth Kachiar is an Assistant Professor, and Priya Poojary is a Lecturer at Manipal Center for European Studies (MCES), Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal, Karnataka. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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