Russia as the new Donald Rumsfeld
Archived Articles 12 Nov 2007  EWR
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Russia has emerged as the most divisive issue in the European Union since Donald Rumsfeld split the European club into ‘new' and ‘old' member states. In the 1990s EU members found it easy to agree on a common approach to Moscow. They coalesced around a strategy of democratising and westernising a weak and indebted Russia. That strategy is now in tatters. Soaring oil and gas prices have made Russia more powerful, less co-operative and above all less interested in joining the west.

Although the EU has failed to change Russia during the Putin era, Russia has had a big impact on the EU. On energy, it is picking off individual EU member states and signing long-term deals which undermine the core principles of the EU's common strategy. On Kosovo, it is blocking progress at the United Nations. In the Caucasus and Central Asia, Russian efforts have effectively shut the EU out of an area where it wanted to promote political reform, resolve conflicts and forge energy partnerships. And in Ukraine and Moldova, Moscow has worked hard, with some success, to blunt the appeal of the European system.

Russia's new challenge to the EU runs deeper than the threat of energy cut-offs or blockages in the UN. It is setting itself up as an ideological alternative to the EU with a different approach to sovereignty, power and world order. Where the European project is founded on the rule of law, Moscow believes that laws are mere expressions of power - and that when the balance of power changes, the laws should be changed to reflect it. Russia today is trying to revise the terms of commercial deals with western oil companies, military agreements such as the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and diplomatic codes of conduct like the Vienna Convention. And it is trying to establish a relationship of "asymmetric interdependence" with the EU. While EU leaders believe that peace and stability are built through interdependence, Russia's leaders are working to create a situation where the EU needs Russia more than Russia needs the EU, particularly in the energy sector.

The fragmentation of European power

In order to help improve the quality of European debate, ECFR has conducted a power audit of the EU-Russia relationship, examining the resources available to each side, as well as their respective ability to realise their policy objectives.

Although the EU is a far bigger power than Russia in conventional terms - its population is three and a half times the size of Russia's, its military spending ten times bigger, its economy 15 times the size of Russia's - Europeans are squandering their most powerful source of leverage: their unity. Contrary to a widespread perception, the divisions between them are much more complex than a split between new and old member states. We have identified five distinct policy approaches to Russia shared by old and new members alike: 'Trojan Horses' (Cyprus and Greece) who often defend Russian interests in the EU system, and are willing to veto common EU positions; 'Strategic Partners' (France, Germany, Italy, Spain) who enjoy a 'special relationship' with Russia which occasionally undermines common EU policies; 'Friendly Pragmatists' (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, and Slovenia) who maintain a close relationship with Russia and tend to put their business interests above political goals; 'Frosty Pragmatists' (Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden and the United Kingdom) who also focus on business interests but are less afraid than others to speak out against Russian behaviour on human rights or other issues; 'New Cold Warriors' (Lithuania and Poland) who have an overtly hostile relationship with Moscow and are willing to use the veto to block EU negotiations with Russia.

Broadly speaking, the EU is split between two approaches - and each of the five groups tends towards one of the main policy paradigms. At one end of the spectrum are those who view Russia as a potential partner that can be drawn into the EU's orbit through a process of 'creeping integration'. They favour involving Russia in as many institutions as possible and encouraging Russian investment in the EU's energy sector, even if Russia sometimes breaks the rules. At the other end are member states who see and treat Russia as a threat. According to them, Russian expansionism and contempt for democracy must be rolled back through a policy of 'soft containment' that involves excluding Russia from the G8, expanding NATO to include Georgia, supporting anti-Russian regimes in the neighbourhood, building missile shields, developing an "Energy Nato", and excluding Russian investment from the European energy sector.

Neither of these approaches has replaced the 1990s model of "democratising Russia". Each has obvious drawbacks, making both unpalatable to a majority of EU member states. The first approach would give Russia access to all the benefits of co-operation with the EU without demanding that it abides by stable rules. The other approach - of open hostility - would make it hard for the EU to draw on Russia's help to tackle a host of common problems in the European neighbourhood and beyond.

The Need for a New Paradigm: Promoting the Rule of Law

Despite EU member states' different interests, history and geography, there is a chance today to agree on a new and better approach, as it is increasingly clear that the status quo works against the interests of all five groups. To develop a new paradigm for the relationship, Europeans will need to rethink the goals, means and policies that define their relations with Russia.

While the long-term goal should be to have a liberal democratic Russia as a neighbour, a more realistic mid-term goal would be to encourage Russia to respect the rule of law, which would allow it to become a reliable partner. The rule of law is central to the European project, and its weakness in Russia is a concern for all Europeans working there. Russia's selective application of the law affects businesses who worry about respect of contracts, diplomats who fear breaches of international treaties, human rights activists concerned about authoritarianism, and defence establishments who want to avoid military tensions. An approach based on the rule of law would also have positive echoes within Russian society, where even citizens who have become cynical about the language of democracy are concerned about corruption and the arbitrary exercise of power by the state.

If EU leaders manage to unite around such a common strategy, they will be able to use many points of leverage to reinforce it. This report sets out some of the areas where policymakers could rethink their approach in line with a ‘rule of law paradigm':

Conditional Engagement with Russia - Proponents of ‘soft containment' and ‘creeping integration' debate whether Russia should be excluded from the G8, and whether to block the negotiation of a new Partnership and Co-operation Agreement.

Under a ‘rule of law' approach, the EU would keep Russia engaged in these institutions, but adjust the level of cooperation to Russia's observance of the spirit and the letter of common rules and agreements. If Moscow drags its feet on G-8 commitments and policies, more meetings should be organised on these topics at a junior level under a G7 format - excluding Russia. Similarly, the EU should not be afraid to use the EU-Russia summit and the negotiation of a new Partnership and Co-operation Agreement to highlight issues where Russia is being unhelpful, such as Kosovo and the conflicts in Georgia and Moldova.

Principled Bilateralism - Proponents of ‘creeping integration' see bilateral relations as a good way to reach out to Russia at a time of tension. Their opponents tend to see such contacts as a kind of betrayal (for example, Polish politicians have described the Nord Stream deal as a new Molotov-Ribbentrop pact).

Under the ‘rule of law' paradigm, the EU should aim for 'principled bilateralism'. The goal would be to ensure that bilateral contacts between Russia and individual EU member states reinforce rather than undermine common EU objectives. Equally, most member states would value an early warning system which would allow both upcoming crises and upcoming deals to be discussed internally in the EU.

(Excerpt from an ECFR report released November 7. The full report is available at
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