Tuesday

30th Nov 2021

Analysis

EU strategy hopeful of Russia detente

  • EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell speaking by video-link to US secretary of state Antony Blinken (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)
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Russia is "important" and should be "engaged" with despite its aggression, the EU is preparing to say in a landmark security document.

"Russia, the EU's largest neighbour, remains an important global actor who attempts to widen its geopolitical sphere of influence," the EU's draft 'Strategic Compass' said.

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  • Borrell visited Moscow earlier this year (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

It was clear-eyed about Russia's threat to the EU since its "watershed" attack on Ukraine in 2014.

Europe ought to be "pushing back aggressive acts and constraining its [Russia's] capacity to undermine [the] EU's interests" in multiple regional conflicts, it noted.

"Use of hybrid tactics, cyberattacks, and disinformation are part of the reality in dealing with Russia," and ties had "severely deteriorated", it added.

"This should nevertheless not be seen as a historic inevitability. Many common interests and a shared culture in fact link the EU and Russia," it also said, however.

"That is why the EU strategy aims at engaging Russia in some specific issues on which we have shared priorities, such as climate change," it said.

EU foreign and defence ministers will discuss the draft in Brussels on Monday (14 November), prior to its final adoption in March.

The talks come in tense times, with Russia massing troops beside Ukraine, and Russia's ally, Belarus, forcing migrants to attack the Polish border.

The EU paper also listed a ring of other dangerous conflicts in its neighbourhood.

These ranged from Mali, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Moldova, and Georgia to Armenia and Azerbaijan.

"We face a dangerous mix of armed aggression, illegal annexation, fragile states, revisionist powers, and authoritarian regimes," the draft Compass said.

It warned of wider "instrumentalisation of irregular migration flows" on the Belarus model.

"Security and stability throughout the Western Balkans is still not a given," it said.

"Afghanistan will continue to pose serious security concerns for the Union in terms of terrorism, the smuggling of drugs, and irregular migration flows," it added.

Further afield, China was "an economic competitor and systemic rival" which "gains advantages through our division", the EU document also said.

China was "increasingly both involved and engaged in regional tensions," the EU noted.

But it repeatedly called China its "partner", in more benign tones than on Russia.

And it made China sound more important in world affairs.

"A new centre of global competition has emerged in the Indo-Pacific," and America's "shift towards Asia is undeniable", the draft EU Compass said.

"China's development and integration into ... the world at large, will mark the rest of this century," it said.

"Russia is trying to dismantle the EU in the short term. China's philosophy is different. It is trying to build influence in Europe in the long term," an EU diplomat said.

"They're on different timelines. Russia is strong now, but becoming weaker. China is strong now and will be even stronger tomorrow," he added.

Borrell's 'army'

The paper, drafted by EU foreign-affairs chief Josep Borrell, proposed creating a 5,000-strong EU "rapid-deployment" force by 2025, to help prevent what he called Europe's "strategic shrinkage" in a draft preamble.

This "land, air, and maritime" force would be formed by a coalition of "willing and able" EU states and could "operate in hostile, non-permissive environments, and high-intensity contexts", the draft Compass noted.

It could be sent into battle without unanimous EU-27 approval and be commanded by Borrell's military attachés out of their building in Brussels, he proposed.

And it was just one aspect of wider EU defence integration, which also included joint arms procurement and research, as detailed in a recent "masterplan" by his staff.

Meanwhile, the friendly overtures on Russia echoed more the views of Berlin and Paris, who are keen to keep doing business with Moscow, than Vilnius or Warsaw.

"The threat from Russia needs to be better reflected, e.g. [by mentioning] military threats and occupation, weaponising of energy supply, and hybrid actions," a diplomat from a central European country said of the draft Compass.

Central European states were also opposed to giving up national vetoes on EU defence and have voiced concern on competition with Nato.

But EU "divisions over Russia policy should not be exaggerated. France and Germany have committed significant forces to the defence of Nato's eastern flank, and Germany commands the alliance's multinational battalion in Lithuania," Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official, recently told EUobserver.

And EU countries' intelligence services saw Russia the same way in a classified 'EU Threat Analysis' paper drawn up last November, which went into more depth on hybrid threats, including EU weak-spots on political subversion, an EU source said.

"Most member states' services contributed to this," the source said.

Reality check

France has, in the past, called the developments the birth of a "European army" and EU "strategic autonomy".

And Borrell's Compass highlighted a Nato-type mutual defence clause in the EU treaty.

"Our strategic competitors should not question the EU's common resolve to respond to aggression and malicious activities against any one of our member states in accordance with Article 42(7) of the Treaty on European Union," it said.

But it was widely understood that Nato would continue to provide territorial defence against Russia, while any new EU force might intervene in local clashes only.

"Nato has tended to fight as an entire alliance. This means that Nato countries are not fighting on their own. If they get into trouble, they can count on ... fire support from other allies, particularly the US. This is not the case with EU battlegroups, which would essentially deploy on their own," Nato's Shea said.

EU military ambitions needed to be "realistic", an EU diplomat noted.

But even if they came together by 2025, it might be hard to agree what kind of fighting Borrell's 5,000 men might do.

"There are few EU divisions on how to handle crises in Africa, such as the Sahel, but would the EU be willing to use military force to stop a migration crisis?", another European diplomat asked.

"Some countries would want an EU military to help stabilise the Eastern Partnership [former Soviet] region, but are France and Germany ready for the EU to play such a role?", he said.

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