Author: Anke Schmidt-Felzmann, Researcher in the Special Research Programme for International Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and a Senior Lecturer at Dalarna University, Sweden.

"The annexation of Crimea marked a turning point and serious rupture in the European Union’s relations with the Russian Federation. This fundamental crisis in the relationship caused confusion and disbelief. How could the EU’s important strategic partnership with Russia suddenly turn out to have completely failed? The EU had long been strongly criticized for the internal divisions and inability of its Member States to speak with one voice to Russia. Indeed, the EU’s difficulties in the full range of policy sectors on which they cooperated were frequently attributed to national governments’ propensity to prioritize their special relations with Russia, without considering their effect on the EU. At the same time, Russia had regularly been criticized for pursuing a divide-and-rule policy towards the EU, deliberately driving a wedge between the Member States. Critics claimed that the Member States’ bilateral relationships ultimately weakened the EU’s common policy as they undermined the EU’s resolve and the effectiveness of EU policies, to the benefit of Russia. Russian negotiators could capitalize on divisions by blocking unfavourable policies and could obtain concessions from some Member States that put pressure on EU negotiators to concede ground on issues that mattered to Russia. It is undeniable that it can have a detrimental effect when twenty-eight national governments pursue their foreign policies in parallel with the EU’s relations with Russia as the EU’s ability to capitalize on its strengths in negotiations is weakened by the diversity of interests that have to be reconciled within the EU. It is however debatable if the EU’s internal divisions and special bilateral ties with Russia can explain the EU’s failure to develop mutually beneficial cooperative relations with Russia.  

EU policy-making towards Russia has always been characterized by the push and pull factors of diverse national (i.e. domestic) and EU-level incentives and constraints. Two points are important to make, and which are important to understand the way in which the EU’s common policy towards Russia has developed. First, different domestic priorities and differences in power between the Member States have, since the EU’s eastward enlargement, resulted in internal conflicts about the most appropriate course of action to be taken regarding Russia. Second, the large Member States, in particular Germany and France (but also the UK), have often been most influential in the EU-Russian relationship, but they do not share the same history with Russia as the Central, East European and Northern Member States. Germany’s relationship with Russia is also very different from the French-Russian relationship, due to historical, economic and domestic political reasons. The same is true for the Central, East European and Northern Member States: different incentives and constraints have produced a range of different approaches and responses to Russia, despite many similarities that they share due to their comparable historical experiences with Russia. The point is therefore that it matters which EU countries take the lead on a specific issue concerning Russia, how their bilateral relations with Russia have developed, and how the other Member States’ interests align with theirs.

The most prominent argument about the EU’s many failures regarding Russia is that divisions among the Member States undermine the EU’s credibility, bargaining position and effectiveness. If the Member States just managed to speak with one voice, the EU’s policy towards Russia would be much more effective.  

The EU’s failures can be attributed to its special structure, composition and nature which is neither conducive to quick decision-making nor to the adoption and pursuit of fast and powerful responses. The Russian President has central control over the Russian state apparatus, its intelligence services and key economic actors and he has the capacity and willingness to quickly take decisions and implement them. This places the EU, as a different kind of actor, in a difficult position. The EU High Representative for Foreign and Security policy lacks a strong European intelligence service, copious resources, long-term strategic planning capabilities and real rapid reaction capacity, and a political readiness to take decisions and implement them quickly in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks.

The EU’s capacity in foreign and security policy is weak and it requires therefore, in addition to greater resources and more efficient and effective structures, a much greater knowledge of Russian intentions and a better understanding of the logic of action to engage more successfully with Russia.

A fundamental challenge limiting the capacity of the EU to assess and effectively react to developments in Russia is arguably the extent to which national intelligence from the twenty-eight member states is shared with the EU institutions, and between the Member States. As national governments still guard much of their sensitive intelligence for reasons of national security, the EU institutions are  lacking some of the ‘bigger picture,’ despite the regular consultations that take place on Russia in the Council working groups and at higher political levels.

Another contributing factor is arguably the limited extent to which assessments of Russia by the direct neighbours (Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) feed into the EU’s evaluation of Russia as a cooperation partner.

Another reason for the predominance of a skewed view of the actual developments in Russia are the asymmetric power relations which impact both the Member States in the EU and their position vis-à-vis Russia. When more credence is given to the views of the larger Member States who are strong and desirable cooperation partners for Russia, and whose experience of dealing with Russia is consequently very positive, the EU’s assessment of Russia is necessarily biased, and does not reflect the complete story. In this sense, the EU’s problem is less one of disunity and more of not listening sufficiently to the voices of smaller, more exposed Member States.

It is a fallacy to assume that the EU’s internal divisions are the decisive factor in its relations with Russia. A more nuanced assessment of national foreign policy choices and their effects is necessary. The approach towards Russia that governs the EU’s and different Member States’ engagement with Russia, and the political and practical difficulties associated with the EU’s nature as a special kind of international actor, help explain why and how the EU-Russian relationship hit ‘rock bottom’ in a way that many policy-makers in the EU did not anticipate.

More fundamentally, Russia’s view of the EU and of how international relations are conducted, and the regional and global geopolitical conditions, help explain why the EU’s approach of engagement and close cooperation with Russia has not produced the desired results."


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