EU-Russia relationship in 2021 - between "distorted pragmatism" and "resilient foreign policy", Analysis by Dionis Cenușa



The lessons learned from the fiasco in Moscow involve a rethinking of the EU's position on Russia, which needs to become firmer. There is no need for the EU to become "more aggressive", the formulation of a "resilient" and "anticipatory" foreign policy is a more effective solution ...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

In its style, the political regime in Moscow, whose authoritarian traits are continually multiplying, skillfully uses foreign policy to compensate for the deficiencies of legitimacy in domestic politics. Paradoxically, the survival of Vladimir Putin's regime depends largely on the success of engaging with the external world. As a rule, Russia sees the external actors as allies or opponents. The supporters accommodate Russia's strategic interests, while the opponents challenge them. Russia differentiates its opponents according to their ability to influence its internal processes or block its external agenda. Russian decision-makers are pressuring, with varying efficiency, small critical state actors to change their tone and builds the relations with big players in the pursuit of (re-)establishing a favoring balance of power. To this end, Moscow attempts to ensure a central role when are set the rules of the game for others. This kind of logic guides Russia's discourse and actions on the future of relations with the EU. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov verbalized a very similar set of ideas during European Foreign Minister Josep Borell's visit to Moscow (February 4-6, 2021).

In the last seven years, due to Russia's contribution to military separatism in Ukraine, bilateral meetings with senior EU officials have become rarer. As of 2017, their travels to Moscow have been permanently missing from the agenda. Despite the diminishing intensity and strategic symbolism of bilateral relations, the EU-Russia dialogue has not been suspended but degraded, becoming more compartmentalized and selective. Brussels speaks bluntly about its "interdependence" with the Russian side (energy, trade), and Borrell describes the relationship with Russia as one of the "most complex" that the EU deals with. European pragmatism seems distorted because it would ignore the geopolitical toxicity of the Russian factor. Nevertheless, the EU has no alternative, as for now, that would replace the need for cooperation with a highly unpredictable actor, which aligns to ongoing geopolitical interests (strongly tied to the survival of Putin's domestic system), not to the principles of international law. After confronting Lavrov on Russian soil (or vice-versa), Borrell realized that "Russia is disconnecting from Europe" perceiving "democratic values ​​as an existential threat." That is a belated conclusion, but extremely valuable anyway to change the bilateral dialogue radically.

The sixth - still absent - principle of the relationship with Russia

The shocking revelations about the attempted poisoning of politician-activist Alexei Navalny, his trial and orchestrated imprisonment on his return to the country, and the harsh repression of the two waves of pro-Navalny protests, called for a severe and cautious attitude on the part of officials, including the use of targeted sanctions. Russia's political developments call for an urgent review of the EU's guiding principles in the dialogue with Moscow, including the activation of the horizontal sanctions mechanism provided by the EU's "Magnitsky Act" (IPN, December 2020) to penalize actors involved in human rights violations in Russia (beyond Chechnya). Other economic sanctions, such as stopping the Nord-Stream 2 gas pipeline, would have an additional beneficial effect on the EU's strategic positions, such as building strategic autonomy.

The sixth - still absent - principle of the relationship with Russia

Adopted during Borrell's predecessor Federica Mogherini ("Mogherini's principles") in 2016 and reconfirmed by EU Member States in 2020, the set of principles that calibrates relations with Russia comprises five dimensions: 1) the fulfillment of the Minsk Commitments in relation to Ukraine; 2) deepening the EU's relations with the Eastern Partnership countries; 3) increasing European resilience by strengthening energy security and counteracting hybrid threats and misinformation (of Russian origin); 4) selective cooperation with Russia; 5) supporting people-to-people contacts and Russian civil society. For the time being, a sixth principle absent in this set, but imperative, is the rule of law, which is in decline, judging by the way Alexey Navalny was deprived of his liberty. Theoretically, a first step towards updating the five principles should have been cancelling Josep Borrell's visit to Moscow and instead focus on reviewing the EU's approach to Russia in the light of Russian domestic policy events from 2020-2021. However, Josep Borrell had perceived Russia's situation differently and moved in the opposite direction - a contraindicated one - putting his head in the wolf's ("bear") mouth.

Borrell's "failures"

The results of Borrell's visit to Russia showed that the chosen direction was the wrong one, as it benefited Vladimir Putin's regime more than the Russian state-citizens or the EU. In a highly toxic domestic context, such as Russia, a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Russian soil turned Borrell into an attractive victim for the Russian disinformation machine. Neither the European Commission, nor the European Parliament, nor the foreign ministers of the EU states, which often activate the alarm system on various topics, have tried to stop Borrell from making mistakes in Moscow.

Lavrov used the joint public appearances with Borrell to draw some (geo) political strings. First, the journalists' composition at the press conference was carefully thought out by the Russian authorities, which Borrell acknowledged on his return - "the press conference was aggressively organized." That may explain why the first question addressed to Borrell was about Cuba and which generated critical statements from him regarding the US embargo (, February 5, 2021). Using Borrell's voice to condemn US foreign policy is a gift to Russian officials and the pro-Kremlin press. The question about Cuba, which does not seem at all accidental, allowed Lavrov to dive into the "extra-territorial sanctions" that the US applies to various (non-) state actors for violating US and/or international law. Moreover, Lavrov equated Western extra-territorial sanctions with "methods and tools of the colonial past." On this occasion, he rebuked the EU for being inspired by Washington when using the language of sanctions.

The second aspect that Russian officials wanted to emphasize, with Borrell's facilitation, was the repeated recognition of the effectiveness of the Russian vaccine ("Sputnik V"). Without any need, voluntarily, Josep Borrell praised the Russian vaccine and promoted it for use in the EU, expressing the hope that the European Medicines Agency will certify Sputnik-V. He acknowledged that the Russian vaccine could help the EU address the European vaccine shortage. Thus, Borrell's approach favors the, still silent, "vaccine diplomacy" (IPS, January 2021) carried out by Moscow to achieve its geopolitical interests. Borrell's statements also contribute to the rehabilitation of Russia's image, to which he also attributed, in 2020, part of the responsibility for triggering the information epidemic ("infodemic"). Last year, the EU perceived Russian aid to Italy or Serbia as a mean to discredit "European solidarity" (IPN, April 2020). Contrary to previous year, more European officials are beginning to sympathize with Russia's role in fighting the pandemic via the Russian vaccine. Promoting the usefulness of the Russian vaccine is not a problem, as long as it does not run counter to the idea of ​​a possible "vaccine diplomacy" by the EU to strengthen its positions in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership.

The third sensitive issue related to Borrell's performance in Moscow is that the European official failed to contradict Lavrov, who suggested that the EU has to consider "Russia's legitimate interests" in European policy on the ex-Soviet space. Russia has never accepted the eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004-2007. As in the case of NATO enlargement, Moscow shows an acute intolerance of geopolitical factors that democratize political culture in the neighboring geographical area, treated as Russia's geopolitical appendix. The European Neighborhood Policy, launched in 2004, was only partially acceptable to Russia because it offered somewhat close cooperation. The emergence of the Eastern Partnership produced alarmed Moscow. However, the export from the EU of a political culture based on reforms, the rule of law, civil society, human rights, threatens the style of government typical of Russia, which resides in the authority of decision-makers, but not in the rule of law. For more than three decades, Russia has failed to build a new identity of post-Soviet power, in a permanent attempt to recreate its past geopolitical superiority. Despite Russian geopolitical preferences, the EU should increase the states' independence in the joint neighborhood - Eastern Europe. Brussels needs a strong and explicit mandate from these states to speak on their behalf with Russia, whose intention to impose "veto" on the ex-Soviet states has to be denied.

Not "more aggressive", but "more anticipatory"

It is common to hear voices promoting the need for a more aggressive EU policy. Such calls contain risks related to provoking tensions with high costs for the EU and the countries from between - Eastern Europe. In reality, the EU does not need to show aggressiveness. An anticipatory intelligence in foreign policy and the ability to adapt quickly to changing exogenous circumstances is more relevant. These properties characterize the principle of resilience, which is currently poorly integrated into the modus operandi of European foreign policy. European foreign policy includes multiple regions in which Russia is active, so scanning and understanding Moscow's foreign priorities is essential to respond appropriately, without resorting to "post-factum diplomacy" (IPN, November 2020).

The state of affairs around the symbols of European political culture - the rule of law, civil society, progressive human rights - must be actively monitored in Russia. A comprehensive and consistent way to map developments in Russia could be to prepare annual reports on the implementation of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia (initiated in 1997 and updated annually since 2007). The current reporting on human rights and democracy seems limited and superficial. A similar monitoring mechanism is used concerning other eastern neighbors. Such an effort could create closer links with Russian civil society, which can help gather the information on the spot - from Moscow to Vladivostok. Otherwise, the EU is acting in a reactive mode concerning Russia - towards the defect trials after their completion or violently suppressed protests etc. Based on regular monitoring reports, recommendations can be made, which are likely to face resistance from Russian officials and be processed by the independent media and consumed by Russian society's pro-reform segments. European anti-disinformation programs must also take a qualitative step forward - from fact checking and dismantling the fakes about the EU and its allies to combating misinformation within Russia. The misinformation of its population facilitated the preservation and prolongation of control over power by Vladimir Putin and his milieu. Extending the mandate to combat misinformation outside the EU requires tangible progress in clearing the pan-European media space.

Sanctions and the "example of Belarus"

Instead of praising the Russian vaccine, Borrell had to refer to sanctions against the Russian authorities responsible for Navalny's trial and harsh repression of protests. Only on his return to Brussels did the official European claim that sanctions against Russia are not ruled out, including the EU's "Magnitsky Act". The dilemma of Europeans around sanctions has a long history. For some European capitals, the sanctions already applied seem to be wrong. However, Russia's internal situation and Russian interference in the Ukrainian internal affairs (Crimea, Donbas) are distinct things that require separate approaches and sanctions.

The example of Belarus serves as a useful precedent for calling on the EU to apply individual sanctions. Most Belarusian officials, including President Alexandr Lukashenko, have been sanctioned (84 people) to use violence against peaceful protesters and persecute the opposition. With around 8,000 people detained in the two waves of protests, the EU has conclusive evidence to activate the targeted sanctions. Navalny's team called on the United States to penalize 35 Russian officials, including eight oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. Brussels can take over the same list, thus declaring a radical paradigm shift in Russia's relationship, containing the other earlier mentioned parameters - the systematic monitoring of internal processes, facilitating the fight against misinformation within Russia, etc.

In lieu of conclusions…

The EU's relationship with Russia requires a focus on the Russian public's real interests, with careful and conscientious monitoring of how the Russian authorities protect and respect them. The most sustainable investment in Russia's democratic future is to promote an attachment of the Russian public to the rule of law and civil society. Namely, respect for the rule of law is to be converted into the sixth principle, which guides the EU in its dialogue with Moscow.

A comprehensive understanding of Russia's internal dynamics, beyond the conventional studying of the power struggle between the ruling party and opposition, is essential. In this context, intra-EU discussions on the revision of Moscow-related principles, scheduled for the end of February, should include the introduction of a rigorous mechanism to monitor progress in implementing the bilateral agreement (PCA) and the introduction of sanctions for abuses by Moscow against the Russian protesters, using the example of Belarus. The establishment of a new generation of sanctions dedicated to promoting the rule of law in Russia, complementary to the sanctions related to the Ukrainian case, could become a real breakthrough.

The multiple blunders committed by the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, could have been prevented by canceling the Moscow visit. Instead, Russian officials exploited Borrell's presence to attack Western sanctions' rationality and defend their "legitimate Russian interests" in the ex-Soviet states. The lessons learned from the fiasco in Moscow involve a radical rethinking of the EU's positions vis-à-vis Russia, which needs to become firmer and more consistent. There is no need for the EU to become "more aggressive", formulating a "resilient" and "anticipatory" foreign policy is a more effective solution.

This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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