Monday

27th Jun 2022

Column

Europeans are Russian pipeline addicts

This week's European Council was again one of these moments that makes one wonder why we still try to pretend to have a European foreign policy.

The more we talk about geopolitics, autonomy, and grand strategy, the more Europe seems to move in the opposite direction.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Europe's leniency towards Russia does not increase the chance of cooperation - as the Germans (and others) suggest

Russia is one these issues that makes it painfully clear. The council did not agree on anything, except doing nothing.

Despite the situation of Alexei Navalny, despite the show of force on the border with Ukraine, and so forth.

In some capitals, this will be explained as pragmatic diplomacy. In its trademark 'Alice-in-Wonderland-mode', Berlin politely suggested Moscow to "switch from provocation to cooperation."

It has been suggesting that for about 20 years. This is what makes the so-called pragmatism deeply disturbing.

While the wheels of diplomacy usually grind slowly, Europe has had 20 years to develop its defence to Russia's renewed assertiveness - yet only continues to take the punches.

It takes the punches because its scared to death about Russian retaliation. Despite Nato building up its presence in the east, Europe is by no means ready to deal with Russian aggression. It takes diplomatic punches because its flawed energy policy renders it at Russia's mercy.

Close to 40 percent of our gas is still supplied by Russia. New pipelines are being built; liquid gas terminals expanded, including in my own country of Belgium.

Europe also takes diplomatic punches, because it is reaching out for Russian money with the other hand. Just as the European ministers prepared their meeting, Shell signed a new five-year agreement with Gazprom, Siemens got an order to supply trains, and Generali started to explore a $2bn [€1.66bn] acquisition in Russia.

Kicking the can

Europe is kicking the can down the road, but the road might well lead to an abyss. Europe's leniency towards Russia does not increase the chance of cooperation, as the Germans and others suggest.

No, Europe's weakness is an open invitation for more provocation, for Russia to continue to test how far it can go. In the history of world politics, weakness has been as important a catalyst of war as strength, with that difference that it yields the initiative to others.

For now, Russia seems to be somewhat saturated, after the annexation of the Crimea, limiting itself to intimidation.

But forward-leaning intimidation, in the Baltic, on the border with Ukraine, in the Black Sea, around the Mediterranean, or in the domain of cyber and information war, increases the likelihood of missteps and escalation.

European idealists will retort that Russia is fragile, that it is just in the periphery of a vast European market and that it needs the European Union more than the other way around.

European realists could argue that in fact a new kind of multipolar Europe is emerging, with four major powers – France, Germany, Britain, and Russia – seeking to advance their interests above the heads of the many smaller states; the European Union becoming a thin guise under which this new contest lurks.

Yet, from the eyes of the Russian elite, most of Europe is just a bunch of spoiled, decadent pipeline addicts that takes its illusions for reality, and can be easily played with.

Let's try to do a bit of geopolitics from a Russian perspective.

In its immediate neighbourhood, Russia has built up a formidable capacity to destabilise: in the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, the Black Sea, and beyond.

A second layer consist of little trouble makers, including countries like Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. They are a nuisance and their military ties with the US is disturbing, but not really undermining Russian deterrence.

Next comes a layer of central European states.

They combine a traditional caution not to provoke Russia and with a more recent appetite for business. Think of Germany, Austria, Slovakia. This is another pressure point.

The westernmost layer consists of countries that vaguely discern a geopolitical challenge, but lack the resolve to respond, and can also be easily cajoled with energy and business opportunities. Think of Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Spain.

And while Europe is nowhere close to manipulating some of the internal resentment in Russia to destabilise Vladimir Putin or to work towards strategic autonomy towards Russia, Moscow will continue to use Europe internal divisions to continue to weaken it, to exploit its energy dependence, and enhance its own strategic autonomy.

Indeed, Russia is a European fringe power, but a fringe power with plenty of advantages.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

US deaf to Germany on Russia pipeline

Any firm issuing safety certificates for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will find itself in US sanctions crosshairs, the state department has warned.

Column

When 'peace' becomes self-defeating

When one member state is threatened, Brussels will come up with its usual denouncements and superficial sanctions, just to let the other member states relapse into their habit of trading with rivals, and focussing on the next election campaign.

Column

Nato's biggest enemy hides within

Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, intellectuals like Paul Kennedy and Francis Fukuyama warned that a democracy cannot be preserved on utilitarianism and capitalism alone. That warning has only become more urgent.

How to enhance EU cybersecurity

The Hungarian hacking allowed Russian intelligence to read 'over the shoulder' of an EU member state for an extended period of time. The difficulty for the EU is that it's not one nation, but a combination of 27 cybersecurity policies.

Column

China's support for Russia challenges Europe's Peace Order

China's soft support to Russia is deeply troubling for Europe. Here is the EU's biggest trading partner signalling that it is on the side of Russia, its aggression, and its challenge to the post-war international order.

Sturgeon's 2023 'referendum' gamble for Scotland

The independence campaign launch featured a new Scottish government report, comparing the UK's economic and social record with those of other European states — and arguing, unsurprisingly, that Scotland should be independent as a result.

News in Brief

  1. Possible terror attack halts gay pride in Norway
  2. Belgian PM: Gas shortage requires joint response
  3. Bulgarian MPs set conditions for lifting enlargement veto
  4. Latvia: We need a brigade-size Nato force to 'feel safe'
  5. Deal reached on controversial energy treaty reform
  6. EU carbon emissions from energy up 6% in 2021
  7. Germany step closer to gas rationing
  8. Albania: EU 'disgrace' at lack of enlargement progress

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  2. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers for culture: Protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage!
  4. Reuters InstituteDigital News Report 2022
  5. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBHow price increases affect construction workers
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic think tank examines influence of tech giants

Latest News

  1. EU summit's uncertainty in the face of economic war
  2. Next winter's gas looms large at EU summer summit
  3. Ukraine becomes EU candidate after 120 days of war
  4. How to enhance EU cybersecurity
  5. Competing options for EU enlargement
  6. MEPs demand to exit 'ecocide treaty' after reforms 'fail'
  7. Finland optimistic in Turkey talks over Nato
  8. Hungary's global-tax veto seen as 'blackmail'

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us