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Jan 06, 2022

A Sovereign Europe ... and Russia

The EU member states have failed to create a common approach in their dealings with Putin’s Russia. There are a number of steps that they can and should take to forge a united front.

EU and Russian flags
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Currently, Russia is simultaneously testing the European Union's ability to act on several fronts: on the border with Belarus through the support of an artificially created refugee crisis; on the border with Ukraine through a massive deployment of troops; through the forced closure of the Russian NGO, Memorial—at the heart of Russian civil society and a close partner of German organizations in particular; through the circumvention of the OSCE Minsk format after the second Karabakh war; and through pressure on the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. This highlights the vulnerabilities of the member states and also the EU's inability to act in important policy areas such as migration, energy, and security.

According to the coalition agreement, the new German government wants to “focus on a common and coherent EU policy toward Russia.” This is precisely what is lacking, as the member states are not united in their dealings with Moscow, and Germany has also played an ambivalent role in recent years. On the one hand, former Chancellor Angela Merkel united EU states on sanctions against Russia in relation to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, her government pushed through Nord Stream 2 against massive opposition from partner countries in the EU and Eastern neighbors. This divided the EU and damaged relations with Washington.

Russia has become a strategic adversary for Germany and the EU. Germany is the main target of Russian hacker attacks and disinformation campaigns in the EU. If you want to weaken the EU, you have to undermine the credibility of the economically most important member state. Moscow no longer recognizes the European Security Order negotiated after the end of the East-West conflict and is weakening multilateral institutions such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe. At the same time, it promotes corruption and informal structures. The Russia of President Vladimir Putin has become a fully authoritarian state since 2012, with growing domestic repression and an aggressive foreign policy. The conflict with “the West” and thus also with the EU and Germany has become a source of legitimization for Putin's system. According to this reasoning, if the West loses, Russia wins—and vice versa. For the Russian leadership, inaction or a failure to shift red lines are an invitation to keep up the provocation.

There are a number of steps that the EU can and should take to create a united front when it comes to its dealings with Russia.

A United Policy on Russia

First, a strategically autonomous EU must make itself less dependent on Russian gas by diversifying its supplier countries, expanding storage capacities and compensating even more for supply shortages by building additional interconnectors (also with neighboring countries). The expansion of renewable energies will also reduce dependency, but in middle to long term. As things stand, interdependence has not led to more security, but rather to increased vulnerability. This energy relationship does not provide a "bridge to Russia," instead it is an instrument of influence for Russian policy on Germany and the EU. As such, infrastructure projects like Nord Stream 2 should be regulated by a common EU energy policy that strengthens member states’ energy security.

Second, it is crucial to expand the range of possible civil countermeasures in order to be able to respond adequately to Russian provocations without causing escalation. This requires the systematic development of a sanctions policy that also allows for a flexible policy by scaling economic, personal, and financial sanctions. The development of preventative measures and the legal basis of such a policy should enable the EU to respond quickly. For this to work, it must be clear which sanctions follow which actions. This requires a policy coordinated between EU member states, and also with international partners such as the United States, Canada, or Japan.

Third, there needs to be sufficient and credible capacity for military deterrence, rendering any military or hybrid escapades, with respect to eastern and northern member states, too expensive. This deterrence exists within the framework of NATO. Nonetheless, European countries that are NATO members, should still improve military capabilities so they can also act without the US in certain crises in their own region. To this end, various military measures must be combined and adequately funded, quite independently of any 2-percent targets.

Fourth, an integrated security concept that takes into account the serious risk to member states and partner countries in Eastern Europe such as Ukraine and Georgia is needed. NATO still provides the most capable military response to security threats, however, with regard to its eastern neighbors, the EU's Neighborhood Policy could also have a stronger non-military security component for cybersecurity, disinformation, energy security, and the development of societal resilience. This would augment NATO's policy and could be supplemented by bilateral efforts such as training operations or the provision of arms for self-defense, in Ukraine, for example. Another way to implement this kind of integrated security concept would be the strengthening of multilateral institutions such as the OSCE in the areas of collective security, monitoring, and conflict management. This is also about taking more ownership in the OSCE framework.

Russia's policy serves not to resolve but to exploit (Nagorno-Karabakh) or create (Donbass) conflicts. The EU and its member states should counter this with a more active policy to the east and the south. Taking more responsibility to deal with and resolve conflicts in these areas means increased capacity for peace operations, monitoring missions, and the creation of negotiation platforms by the EU. Here, both the role of EU states in the OSCE and the United Nations can be strengthened. But the EU itself must also increase its capacity to actively stabilize its neighborhood. EU special representatives dealing with conflict should be given a stronger mandate and be better staffed and funded.

Fifth, Europe will need to develop both a significant amount of credibility and resilience in order to exist independently in relation to Russia. Mechanisms against violations of the rule of law by member states must be further developed and consistently applied. Systematic action must be taken against Russian corruption and money laundering in Europe and worldwide. Special prosecution authorities could be established for this purpose, which would also cooperate with authorities in Great Britain and the United States. The consistent constitutional prosecution of groups that want to weaken cohesion in EU member states, also making them susceptible to Russian influence, needs more attention.

This also applies to disinformation and hybrid threats. In this case, the EU's analysis and response capacities must be significantly strengthened and coordination between member states improved. A clearer distinction must be made between public foreign media (Deutsche Welle, BBC World) that use the traditions of quality journalism to report, and media as propaganda (RT, Sputnik), a part of Russia’s state information and security policy. At the same time, more consistent action should be taken against networks and media that spread Russian propaganda and fake news.

Sixth, a normative European policy toward Russia must stand up for the strengthening of value-based multilateral institutions such as the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. This also involves more consistent action against member states that undermine principles, attempt to corrupt or try to obstruct institutions, or fail to implement resolutions and judgments.

Seventh, an autonomous European policy in regard to Russia should promote civil society exchange at all levels and protect people who have to leave Russia due to repression. This should not force a democratization agenda on Russia, but should strengthen Russian (and Belarusian) civil society ideologically, politically, and financially.

Germany has a key role to play in developing a united EU-Russia policy. In addition to providing conceptual leadership and taking on greater responsibility, Berlin should coordinate more closely and systematically with partner countries in and outside the EU. Going it alone, as with Nord Stream 2, should not happen in the future. Close coordination with Washington is important. Moreover, the skill and determination to take action in Europe’s various regions is needed; within the European framework and, if necessary, without the US.

Stefan Meister is head of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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