More than any other issue, the European Union’s relationship with Russia has proved a continuing source of division among its member states. In recent years, this disagreement—along with genuine uncertainty when faced with aggression from Moscow—has made concerted and decisive action difficult, and at times impossible.
After the Cold War, EU policies toward Russia mainly consisted of cooperation and rapprochement. The Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 saw the abandonment of the approach, replaced by the five Mogherini Principles. The principles—named for Federica Mogherini, then the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs— marked Brussels’ reaction to Russia’s authoritarian turn in domestic policy and its ruthless foreign policy choices, including interference with elections in Western democracies. The principles also demanded “full implementation of the Minsk Agreements” to pacify eastern Ukraine.
The main point in the Mogherini Principles was that cooperation with Russia should be selective, continuing in certain foreign policy fields only: Iran, Syria, the Middle East, climate change, the fight against terrorism, and the management of international crises.
In other policy areas and geographical regions, even those important both to Russia and to the EU, the possibility of Russian-European cooperation remains limited. Swathes of territory neighboring on both Europe and Russia are by now a permanent area of conflict. At the same time, Moscow’s interventions in Syria and Libya have revealed the conflicting interests of Europe and Russia, previously concealed by notional common goals of stability and peace. In some places, European and Russian interests do overlap, for example, maintaining the nuclear agreement with Iran. However, these shared positions have rarely led to successful common solutions.
Failed Neighborhood Policy
Armenia was once considered a model for post-Soviet countries seeking to strike a foreign policy balance between the EU and Russia. The country was the first new member to join the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, but also signed a comprehensive enhanced partnership deal with the EU in 2017. After its “velvet revolution” in 2018, the country increasingly sought close ties with the EU.
Then came the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in September 2020. The war over the Armenian exclave in Azerbaijan proved one thing above all, namely Armenia’s dependence on Russia. For its part, the EU played no role in the conflict. Brussels’ lack of action not only weakened democratic forces in Armenia, it also highlights the broader failure of European policy toward its nearest geopolitical neighborhood.
Moldova is another post-Soviet country where attempted cooperation between the EU and Russia has gone nowhere. The country has been sinking into corruption and state dysfunction for years, despite having both close ties to Moscow and an association agreement with the EU. Moscow’s recognition of the pro-European Maia Sandu as prime minister and now as president was not so much a joint EU-Russian solution as an indication of Moldova’s equidistance between the two powers. This has left Moldova lacking the funding and other support needed for sustainable political and socio-economic development.
Russia Gets Smarter, but No More Cooperative
As the United States continues to withdraw from post-Soviet space, the importance of countries like Turkey and China in the region is growing. This seems set to continue under the Biden administration. There have also been sharply differing changes within individual countries, ranging from democratic opening in Armenia to renewed authoritarianism in Belarus. All of this has made the post-Soviet space a markedly more diverse political environment.
At the same time, Russian foreign policy has also evolved. It no longer relies, as it mostly did in Ukraine and Georgia, on aggressive rhetoric and the uncompromising use of military force. Moscow’s aim is now to achieve a balance in which powers like the EU and Turkey maintain regional involvement, while Russia maintains overall dominance. This tweaked strategy results from Moscow’s bid to develop a more targeted and efficient foreign policy. But the change has not necessarily improved cooperation with its neighbors.
Syria and Libya also highlight the pitfalls of selective cooperation. Attempts at cooperation have repeatedly failed, thanks to radically differing analyses of the conflicts in question. Russia fundamentally views the Syrian conflict as another color revolution in the making, something very much to be prevented. But Moscow also uses the conflict there and also in Libya to intensify refugee flows, and thus put pressure on the EU.
This has reduced areas of possible cooperation to a small list of topics, including arms control, the Iran nuclear agreement, Arctic cooperation, and climate change. But even in the most promising areas for cooperation, two main problems have impeded progress. First, on specific issues, lip service has often taken the place of genuine political will; this is particularly true of Russian approaches to climate policy. Second, in all the aforementioned fields, both Russia and the EU are dependent on the policies of third parties.
More generally, future EU-Russia relations will largely depend on their respective relationships with the world’s two great powers, the United States and China. In recent years, the EU and Russia have both been repositioned in the international order as China’s influence has grown within various global technological and economic structures.
Russian-European cooperation in the Arctic also takes place within this broader (dis)order. The region does indeed, as is often claimed, offer the best chances for partnership between the EU and Russia. Both, in particular the Russians, have a considerable interest in developing economic and trade policy in the region. But how things will actually proceed will depend on whether UN leadership can bring about amicable resolutions to Russian territorial disputes with its neighbors. The countries directly affected by this are EU members Denmark and Sweden as well as Norway and Iceland. Meanwhile, China’s future actions in the Arctic remain unclear; however, it unquestionably sees the Northeast Passage as one potential route in its broader Belt and Road Initiative.
Sanctions and Other Means
Since possibilities for cooperation are limited, EU policy toward Russia must, in keeping with the Mogherini Principles, seek to contain Moscow. To this end, Europe must strengthen its capacity for taking foreign policy action, reduce its dependence on Russian resources, and improve its sanction mechanisms.
Boosting the EU's foreign policy capacities includes enhancing military capabilities as well as adapting its neighborhood foreign policy to new realities. The conflicts in Syria and Libya have clearly shown that the EU only has the leverage to enforce its interests when it possesses the military force to back it up. This is particularly true in relations with Moscow, whose foreign policy logic is less about compromise than unilaterally asserting its own interests.
Ultimately, effective EU use of any strategic instrument—whether military, economic, or political—depends on the EU being able to make decisions. Introducing majority voting on foreign and security issues would be an essential step in this direction.
In addition, the EU must make itself less energy-dependent on Russia, above all by replacing Russian fossil fuels with climate-neutral energy sources. This approach would also bolster European climate policy. Connectivity between EU energy networks and those in neighboring Eastern European countries must continue to increase; this may also give these countries more room for maneuver with Moscow. At the same time, reducing their energy dependence on Moscow would reduce their exposure to Russian influence and corruption.
If energy dependency can be reduced, sanctions can also be improved by coming up with new, more effective measures, including a tighter monitoring of financial flows. The EU should boost the efficiency of its existing sanctions against Russia. The Panama Papers in 2016 and the FinCEN Files in 2020 both made extraordinary revelations, disclosing several cases where sanctions were circumvented.
Despite an overall strategy of containment, EU security policy must also maintain crucial channels of communication with Russia. In particular, these include the NATO-Russia Council, which significantly contributes to avoiding military escalation. Diplomatic negotiation formats like the Normandy Format (which brings together Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany) and the Minsk Group are only useful when both sides seek to achieve a balance of interests, and when they put in the necessary resources.
Sarah Pagung is an Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).