international analysis and commentary

Why Russia Needs a Strong EU

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There is a strong conviction in Brussels and many EU member-states that Russia favors a weak and disintegrated European Union, and is doing everything it can to achieve it. As evidence, advocates of this theory point to Moscow’s desire to solve some issues through bilateral talks with individual EU member states, its financing of right-wing European political parties and its supposed unwillingness to engage in dialogue with the leadership of supranational EU institutions – particularly the European Commission.

This charge does not hold water. First, Russia conducts bilateral talks with individual EU member states on such issues as energy and security not because it wants to create divisions within the Union, but because European law stipulates that member states, not Brussels, have the right and responsibility to build such relationships. Individual states are unwilling to delegate that authority to the supranational level: they prefer deciding for themselves where to buy energy and how to provide for national security. It is no more “subversive” for Moscow to hold bilateral talks with interested states than it is for those states to hold bilateral talks with Washington on the import of LNG from the U.S.

Also, there is nothing improper in Russia supporting political forces in the European Union that favor closer relations with Moscow and that are willing to adopt or least acknowledge Russia’s point of view concerning, for example, Syria or Ukraine. The EU does that much or more concerning pro-Western politicians and organizations within Russia and other Post-Soviet states.

Finally, Moscow is not to blame for the fact that the EU has based its Russia policy in recent years on the lowest common political denominators and that the Central European, Eastern European and Baltic states have played an increasingly influential role in shaping that policy. Against such a backdrop, it is, indeed, more advantageous for Russia to pursue bilateral ties with those EU countries that are interested in constructive cooperation.

Moreover, it could hardly be said that Russia – that maintains bilateral relations with EU member states – is somehow “ignoring” the European Union in a way that even begins to compare with the way the EU treats the members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The EU simply ignores the Eurasian integration process and continues to conclude comprehensive agreements with Kazakhstan, Armenia and other countries as if the EAEU did not even exist. What’s more, Brussels makes it no secret that it considers the EAEU an artificial organization based on a “mock” form of integration, and that it is unwilling to establish full relations with the EAEU in the same way that it has with other integrative organizations such as ASEAN, MERCOSUR and others.

In fact, in contrast to EU policy toward the EAEU, Russia is interested in seeing a strong, unified and efficient European Union. This is due to its objective economic, political and security interests in Europe, the Middle East and the world as a whole. A weak European Union could not serve as an effective partner on European security issues, exert a stabilizing influence on the Middle East region or act as a guarantor of Russia’s energy interests. In many ways, the current deplorable state of Russia-EU relations is actually the result of the disintegration and fragmentation that has been taking place within the EU since 2004-2005.

First, Russia needs a strong EU as a partner for European security. A strong EU can exert effective influence on Ukraine, participate in the discussion of “hard security” issues (missile defense, INF, CFE, arms control in general and the expansion of NATO infrastructure in Eastern Europe) and act as a capable partner in discussing and forming a system of European security in general, and the rules of the game concerning the “common neighborhood” in particular. A capable and self-confident European Union would be less inclined to view Russia as an external threat, let alone exaggerate that image and turn Russia into a “common enemy.”

By contrast, a weak EU creates a distinct problem for European security. Such an EU is instinctively drawn to the U.S. and encourages it to further enhance its role in European security and its military presence in Eastern Europe, thereby deepening the geopolitical and military-political divide on the continent. A fragmented EU incapable of pursuing a unified foreign policy is also incapable of pressuring Ukraine to fulfill its part of the Minsk agreements or of negotiating with Russia on the rules of the game as they apply to the countries of the “common neighborhood.” What’s more, in its current condition, it cannot, in principle, develop a new Eastern policy – despite the obvious failure of the current one. Lastly, a weak EU is in no condition to discuss issues of military security, leaving the U.S. as Russia’s only negotiating partner in this area. To a large extent, the growing weakness and fragmentation of the European Union itself has contributed to the failure of talks on reforms to the system of European security held in 2008-2013.

Second, it is mistaken to believe that the EU would be more favorably disposed toward Russia if it were weak and fragmented than if it were strong and firmly consolidated. To the contrary, a weak EU feels compelled to artificially cultivate and exploit the image of Russia as a “common threat.” This was particularly evident in its policy toward Ukraine in 2014-2015. Moreover, in a fragmented and divided EU, the more anti-Russia countries of Poland and the Baltic states hold greater influence over policy and the decision-making process then in a strongly unified EU where they play a more secondary role. Lastly, the weaker the EU, the greater the role the U.S. plays in shaping its foreign policy.

Third, only a strong and consolidated EU is capable of acting as a reliable importer of Russian energy resources, as it did up until 2005-2006 when its fragmentation and disarray began. The lack of a unified EU energy policy has enabled individual countries to block projects in which the EU has a clear interest and has made it necessary for Russia to build alternate pipelines such as South Stream to bypass existing transit countries. But even the South Stream project must contend with the fact that Washington exerts a greater influence over Bulgaria than it does over most other European countries. And the weak and fragmented EU is unable to work out an arrangement with Moscow and Kiev for the reliable transit of Russian gas through Ukrainian territory. Lastly, were the EU to strengthen its energy sector institutions, it might serve to lessen the fears of some EU states that Russia could use its “energy bludgeon” against them while also reducing “securitization” of Russia-EU energy relations as a whole.

Fourth, Russia needs a strong EU as a partner to solve problems in the Middle East. Only as a global player capable of pursuing a unified foreign policy can the EU exert a disciplinary influence on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran and play a worthy role in creating a new international political order in the Middle East. A weak European Union that is in no condition to carry out an effective migration and counter-terrorism policy will only fuel the fire in the Middle East – as the events of 2011-2015 have clearly demonstrated.

Fifth, only an EU strong enough to act as one of the global centers of power can bring greater overall balance to the international community and help stop the deepening rift that is splitting the world into two major political and economic camps: the one centered around the U.S. and consisting of its allies in Europe and Asia, and the one centered around China, India and Russia and consisting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization states and Iran. A consolidated EU will make a more confident negotiating partner with the U.S. on TTIP and a more interesting partner for China. By contrast, a weak EU toeing Washington’s political and economic line greatly exacerbates the global divide.

Of course, some argue that the former Soviet republics would find a strong and consolidated EU even more attractive, and that a stronger Brussels would pursue a more active, even aggressive Eastern policy, thereby undermining Russia’s influence and interests in that region. However, the situation is not that simple. The European Union acted most aggressively toward the former Soviet republics when it was experiencing a domestic crisis, hoping to use those “victories” abroad to compensate for failures at home. Moreover, the European Union cannot remain strong while expanding endlessly eastward, as the story of its development following expansions in 2004 and 2007 clearly demonstrates. In fact, a strong EU would be better able to develop a new Eastern policy that takes into account the appearance of a second center of integration in “Wider Europe.”

As for the former Soviet republics, the real question is whether they will be attracted not to the EU, but to Russia and the EAEU. If Russia manages to implement needed domestic reforms and to become a role model for its nearest neighbors – while skillfully fostering their dependence on both this country and the Eurasian integration – the EU will not upstage it.

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On the same topic, read the Aspenia online’s editorial:
Why Brexit divides US and Russia, by Marta Dassù