Author: Stefan Meister, head of the Program for International Order and Democracy at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.

With the current regime in Moscow, there will be no reset of EU-Russia relations. Only deep regime change in Russia will create the opportunity for a fundamentally different EU policy toward the country. Russia itself has changed rapidly—and for the worse—since the war started. It is becoming more closed and more repressive of civil society and any kind of opposition. A key precondition for political change in Moscow—but no guarantee of it—is a Russian defeat in Ukraine, meaning the ouster of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory.

The integration of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine into the EU, which would help create successful examples of transformation, democratization, and reform in post-Soviet countries beyond the Baltic states, is crucial for change in Russia. If Ukraine wins the war, is reconstructed, and, at the same time, is integrated into the EU, this will have a major impact on Russia. It would counter the Russian leadership’s argument that there is no alternative to authoritarian rule and would confirm that democratization and successful reforms can take place in post-Soviet countries and would also be possible for Russia.

Beyond the ongoing war in Ukraine, European countries need a long-term vision and strategy for a different Russia in Europe. A crucial element of a new, common European policy toward Russia is making the EU member states and their societies more resilient against Russian influence. Better coordination among the member states is especially important. Self-protection against disinformation and hybrid attacks, military deterrence, and economic and energy decoupling to decrease vulnerabilities will be the main elements of the EU’s policy toward Russia in the short and medium term.

The proposition that Germany should not lead a new Russia policy because Berlin’s approach failed in the past needs critical reflection. A balanced approach is required between the interests of bigger and smaller member states, meaning that countries like France and Germany should not dominate the EU’s Russia policy and should learn lessons from the past. Yet, the EU can have a more effective Russia policy only if the bigger member states change their approaches and become less vulnerable to external influences, such as Russia’s role in gas supplies or China’s huge market and role in supply chains. For this, the EU needs to account for the failures of the past so it can redefine its policy for the future.

If the EU is to become a global actor, its foreign policy toward powers like China and Russia needs to show more ambition. Those member states that have historical and societal ties with Russia will always have an influence on EU-Russia relations. At the same time, Europe’s energy and economic decoupling from Russia will make it easier to formulate a common European policy toward Moscow. The economic component in several member states’ approaches to Russia will decline. But different traditions in dealing with Russia will persist. It is also important for the EU to coordinate its Russia policy with Washington while keeping a European profile in dealing with Moscow and countries in the Eastern neighborhood.


In conclusion, here are seven principles the EU should follow to form the basis of a new EU strategy toward Russia.

  1. Put Ukraine first: Working in Russia’s neighborhood means having an impact on Russia. But the EU should not pursue a Russia First policy and instead put its energy behind reforms and transformation partnerships with states in the Eastern neighborhood that aspire to democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy. While the EaP has focused on transformation without integration, this new policy should concentrate on reforms with the goal of integration into the EU. The expansion of the European democratic and legal space into the Eastern neighborhood is now even more important. The aim should be political change in Russia itself, supported by successful democratization and reforms in other post-Soviet states. Because of its size, location, history, and dynamic civil society, Ukraine must play the key role in this systemic competition with Russia. Therefore, in the medium term, the EU should prioritize a Ukraine First policy, not only to help secure Ukraine’s survival as a state, but also to promote the country’s reforms and EU integration policy as an example to others.
  2. Upgrade the EU’s neighborhood policy: With the Russian war against Ukraine, the EU’s neighborhood and enlargement policies need an upgrade. The EU requires a strategy to strengthen its role and goals in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans, the South Caucasus, and the Black Sea region. This involves bolstering the connectivity and security of trade routes and promoting the resilience of partners, especially in the wider Black Sea region, at a time when Russia is massively engaged in Ukraine. To this end, the EU should promote connectivity between the Black and Caspian Seas and onward to Central Asia, also to further diversify sources of oil and gas for the EU. The union needs to be more engaged and impose stronger conditionality to prevent important but currently difficult partners in the region, such as Georgia, from drifting away from Europe toward a third way and to help Armenia preserve its sovereignty and stay on its path of democratization and reform. Because of its geographic location and reform-oriented government, the integration of Moldova is a top priority in the context of the integration of Ukraine.
  3. Do not abandon Russian civil society: Working systematically with progressive Russians who have left their country in light of the war should be a focus of relations with Russian civil society. In Russia, the government has used so-called foreign agent laws and restrictive measures to ensure that any civil society exchange with external actors, including from the EU, is cut off. Without forgetting those civil society actors who are still in the country, the EU should devise an integrative, values-based, and strategic policy for the people who have left Russia and are trying to adapt to the situation or build a new life in Europe. Creating platforms in science, education, the media, and political advice to develop concepts for a different Russia in Europe and to influence the Russian-language information space is a policy geared toward sustainable change. In the process, the EU must support Russian emigrants in developing a Russian vision for a peaceful Russia in Europe. This is all the more important because many Russians are still influenced by their country’s imperial and colonial past and share the values of their political leaders
  4. Devise a smarter visa policy: While more and more Russians are emigrating to the EU, the member states are divided as to whether these refugees are a security risk or should be supported. Russia’s direct neighbors, like the Baltic states and Finland, want stricter rules on entering the Schengen area of passport-free travel than do member states like France, Germany, and Italy. In response, EU countries have agreed to suspend the EU-Russia visa facilitation agreement in place since 2007, increased restrictions on tourist visas, and begun to reassess currently valid visas. EU member states now rarely accept applications by Russians for visas in third countries. Yet, a restrictive EU visa policy and Russia’s complete societal isolation work against change in the country. There is a need for a common European visa policy toward Russia that is transparent and does not change constantly. This policy should be linked to clear and less bureaucratic solutions for obtaining residence in the EU. Besides humanitarian visas, which are issued in limited numbers, tourist visas are key for those who need to leave Russia quickly, and this issue will become more acute as the regime becomes even more repressive. The EU should establish a European system of checking the backgrounds and possible security risks of migrants. Border countries, like the Baltic states and Finland, need more support in managing the new arrivals, and the EU could develop alternative routes via a limited number of third countries with a greater capacity to check people and provide entry visas.
  5. Resist full disengagement: The complete economic and technological isolation of Russia is not expedient in the long term. A certain level of financial and technological integration with Russia is in Europe’s interest. If Russia becomes completely dependent on Chinese technology and disconnects itself from the global banking and financial system because of Western sanctions, Europe’s possibilities for influence and information will dwindle. As the example of sanctioning Iran shows, the complete isolation of an authoritarian state does not necessarily lead to a change in policy. On the contrary, it strengthens isolationist security elites and weakens the liberal parts of the elites and society. That said, the EU must reduce its dependencies on Russia and deprive Moscow of the possibility of using energy as a weapon against European states and the common neighbors.
  6. Strengthen European energy security: The integration of energy and electricity networks between EU member states and the Eastern neighbors strengthens energy security in Europe. Gas and oil supplies are major targets of Russian influence through corruption. The EU needs to devise, implement, and monitor common European rules to minimize this possibility. An EU policy of energy integration with Ukraine and other Eastern neighbors as well as reforms and investment in the framework of the 2020 European Green Deal—a set of initiatives with the aim of making the EU climate neutral by 2050—is an economic, development, and security project.
  7. Become a peace actor: Finally, the EU should both define itself more as a geopolitical and security actor and work to strengthen multilateral institutions, which are based on international law. Linked to this should be a willingness to organize more EU peace and monitoring operations in conflict zones in Europe’s neighborhood and beyond and to strengthen institutions for prosecuting war crimes and international corruption by boosting personnel, funding, and information sharing among the member states and partner countries. A values-based foreign policy does not exclude pragmatic partnerships with nondemocratic states. However, the EU must avoid the types of compromise and appeasement it has pursued in the past with Russia. Securing Europe’s legal and democratic space internally and expanding it externally requires a proactive and strategic EU foreign and security policy as well as a more comprehensive set of instruments that include peace-building measures.

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