1st Jul 2022


Prodding Russia

As with most foreign policy decisions, Europe has chosen to take a predictably schizophrenic approach in dealing with Russia.

The result has been to Europe's detriment, with only Russia benefiting from the EU's confused prevarication, while Europe is left with its foreign policy credibility further in tatters.

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On the one hand, Europe has adopted a moralistic and superior tone with Russia. NGOs and parliaments across the bloc periodically complain about receding democratic norms, and the mistreatment of neighbour states (and potential NATO members) Georgia and Ukraine.

On the other hand, European nations embrace Russian investment, attempt to pour money into the country and buy strategic resources; often fighting with each other to secure deals with the Kremlin.

Divergences occur between and within member states - Germany, for instance, is so confused in its approach as to have a foreign office that often appears at odds with the chancellery.

The recent performance in Lahti was a crystallization of this scattered EU policy. EU members went into the conference with a mild sense of embarrassment that they were giving president Putin a platform and photo opportunity while he refused to sign an energy charter with them to improve transparency; threw European investors out of already signed oil deals and talked of the potential for "bloodshed" in the Caucasus.

European leaders fear Russian blackmail

Yet at the same time, president Putin cannot really be held to blame. He is merely responding to their invitation and if they really had issue with his policies then they might develop a more measured approach to dealing with him.

Unfortunately, European leaders fear Russian blackmail, feeling beholden to their Russian energy suppliers.

Russia has never directly threatened the EU, however, and it does not appear that she needs to, as the Europeans are willing to read the threat in their analysis of the weighting of the relationship.

The result is that European states line up to sign bilateral deals with the Kremlin fearing Russian anger, and lose the EU's main advantage in international economic and foreign affairs - its size.

Ultimately, Russia needs to sell its energy to the European Union. At the moment, their links to Asia are not developed enough, and they are reliant on the inflows of currency that selling their energy to the EU brings.

On top of this, their creaking energy infrastructure is crying out for investment and external development by Western (European) energy interests.

For proof of the difficulties they face, one must simply turn back the clock to last winter when ENEL, the Italian energy company, made quiet complaints about Gazprom's being unable to supply them with the gas supplies that they had ordered.

The result was that prime minister Silvio Berlusconi found himself going into an election period having to ask Italians to turn down the heating in their houses. Hardly a vote grabbing request.

German and Polish positions moving closer

Europeans should read this as leverage: while they need Russian energy, Russia obviously also needs the investment. This is not to say that Europe should boycott Russian energy until the Russians bend to their will, but rather there is more space for discussion than they currently seem to suggest.

It appears that the one good thing to have emerged from the Lahti discussions was that the previously diametrically opposed German and Polish positions have at last started to move closer together, with both agreeing that investments in Russia need to be secure - a direct jab at the recent Russian apparent shifting of the goal posts on foreign energy firms involved in the development of the Sakhalin II field.

However, underlying tensions remain over the Baltic sea pipeline deal, with Poland still indignant that the deal was a matter of national interests that trumped EU solidarity.

Sadly, the end result of all this is that Russia gets the best possible deal on its terms, while EU member states squabble with each other and relations within the union fray even further.

Loss of EU foreign policy credibility

This final image is one that is becoming all too typical in European foreign policy. Others are recognizing that the best way to get around Europe is to exploit internal tensions. The ease with which it is done has led to an almost complete loss of foreign policy credibility for the EU as an institution (and is reflected in the recent silence by the EU on foreign policy).

Europe has, in its way, reacted through the forming of the foreign policy directoire of the UK, France, and Germany. However, this ad hoc partnership is one that frustrates other member states who feel left out of this closed club.

The problem is that such a teaming is necessary if one is to deal with the pressing nature of the threat posed by Iran: Let us not contemplate that stasis that would occur were a consensus with all 25 member needed in the discussions with Iran.

However, in dealing with longer-term foreign policy issues like Russia, Europe can take more time and develop a more nuanced and comprehensive common policy.

Stepping beyond energy security and democratic norms

This is something that will only come over time, and with careful discussion amongst all union members. While it is hard to imagine the German presidency next year taking the lead on this, it is something that the successive Portuguese and Slovenian presidencies could attempt to concentrate on.

The agenda for such a policy needs to try to step beyond the current obsession with 'Energy Security' and 'Democratic Norms.'

Both of these subjects may be central to Russo-European relations, but are inflammatory to Russians and consequently do not really help establish a foundation for a common European policy.

Rather, such issues should be approached from different angles, which will in the first instance bring all EU members to the table together. So, Europe should talk about how Russia can be made "attractive to investors" and how to "develop Russian natural resources."

In parallel, Europe should make a more concerted effort to wean itself off Russian energy and advance efforts to develop both green energies and, in some cases, reconsider the decision to abandon nuclear energy as a power source.

Furthermore, investment should be directed towards building pipelines that bring Europe hydrocarbons from the Caspian through Turkey.

These measures will all start to alleviate the sense of blackmail EU leaders feel and could also put some downward pressure on energy prices.

The risk is that such a policy could be used as advocacy for a continuation of the current stagnant European policy towards Russia.

However, if the Portuguese and/or the Slovenians start to plan for this now, they are giving themselves a good run up period to really develop the agenda and establish a genuine consensus within Europe.

There is a very real danger that European foreign policy will fall into a disarray that will only come together in crisis situations, and then only a core of members (a permutation of the EU-3 or G6 groupings) will come to a consensus, something that will breed resentment and weaken Europe as a whole.

Europe's current Russia policy is demonstrably failing and is merely needling Moscow with occasional ideological prods. By setting a long timeline, Europe could start to develop a coherent policy towards its biggest neighbour.

The author is Research Associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Arundel House, (IISS) in London


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

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