Relations between the European Union and Russia are at their lowest point since the Union began to expand eastwards following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. While EU leaders now realize that Russia does not abide by international conventions and regulations, Moscow views the Union as a significant threat to its regional ambitions. In response to Russia’s aggressive moves against its nearest European neighbors, EU states will need a common voice and an effective “Eurasian” policy in close coordination with Washington.
THE EUROPE-EURASIA CHASM
There is a fundamental difference between the EU and Russia. The EU project is designed to increase multinational governance in an increasingly interconnected continent. In stark contrast, Putinist Russia is intent on rebuilding a strong state that is not bound by international norms and subordinates weaker neighbors. While Russia’s leadership operates in terms of spheres of influence and zero-sum calculations, EU policymakers believe in mutual interests, shared sovereignty, and “win-win” solutions.
In Russia’s western strategic horizon, perceptions of the EU have undergone three main stages. In the early 1990s, the EU was viewed as a relatively harmless organization, limited to Western Europe, focused on economic cooperation and trade, and lacking a foreign policy or security dimension. By the mid to late 1990s, the EU was increasingly perceived as a useful counterpart to NATO and U.S. influence when it assumed a growing number of “soft security” functions amid intensive debates about the rationale for NATO’s future.
During the Putin presidency, the EU has been perceived as encroaching on Russia’s national interests. By the mid-2000s, the EU included most of the Central-East European (CEE) countries, which challenged the accommodating Union approach toward Moscow’s democratic regression and regional reimperialization. The EU’s democratization agenda was viewed in the Kremlin as undermining the policy of maintaining pliable post-Soviet governments along its borders. Additionally, EU standards for government accountability, business transparency, market competition, and environmental protection increasingly undercut Russia’s economic penetration, which was primarily based on opaque business practices. In sum, the EU’s gravitational force was seen as pulling several post-Soviet neighbors permanently out of Moscow’s orbit.
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The EU now occupies a pivotal position in Russia’s strategic equations. A unified EU foreign policy synchronized with Washington that undercuts Russia’s aspirations is viewed in Moscow as a source of threat that needs to be neutralized. In effect, the EU may be a more direct challenge to Moscow’s ambitions than NATO. Not only is it disrupting the Eurasia project, but it also could become a growing source of attraction to various regions inside the Russian Federation, including those forcibly annexed from neighboring European states, such as Kaliningrad and Karelia.
THE BATTLE OF VILNIUS
The EU's Vilnius Summit on November 28-29 promises to be a major showdown between Brussels and Moscow. In the past few months, the battle lines have been drawn between the European and Eurasian projects and they revolve around the identity and membership of several post-Soviet states. Under the Lithuanian presidency, the EU has reinforced its commitment to signing Association Agreements and Free Trade accords with a number of East European capitals. To qualify, each country must meet some basic political and economic criteria. Although the signatories have no immediate prospect for EU membership, the agreements are viewed as the first rung in an upward ladder toward accession.
By establishing a free-trade area with the EU, each country will improve its access to Europe’s markets while gaining increased foreign direct investment. In return, the EU expects the modernization of regulatory systems and business practices in line with its standards. The association agreement would also require conformity with EU political norms, including a reformed justice system and free elections. The long-term economic benefits of these arrangements will be far more substantial than any closer economic links with Russia.
Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have been singled out as meeting the criteria for EU association and free trade. This is despite the fact that Moldova and Georgia are divided states and the Ukrainian government has still not released from jail the former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. The support of new EU members has been crucial in enticing the emerging democracies to join the European project and thus reducing their political turbulence, economic instability, and dependence on Russia.
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But instead of seeing the EU initiative as a means of stabilizing its neighborhood, Moscow views the Vilnius summit as a direct threat to its ambitions for creating a Eurasian Union (EuU). In the latter arrangement, the former Soviet republics would need to revoke their commitments to EU accession. Moscow envisages several stages in Eurasian construction, beginning with a Customs Union and moving toward an economic and political amalgamation modeled on the EU but with one significant difference. Whereas the EU is based on shared sovereignty, the EuU will be founded on surrendered sovereignty to a dominant central power. Russia is offering membership in the Customs Union to its former dominions, which currently includes Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, claiming that this will bring tangible benefits. In reality, this is a protectionist project and the first step on a downward ladder toward subordination.
An expanding EU is a direct threat to Putin's Eurasia project as it precludes future state mergers with Russia. EU entry is also viewed in Moscow as enhancing each country's qualifications for NATO accession and closer links with the U.S. To thwart such European aspirations, Russian officials have heated up their rhetoric. In early September, Putin cajoled the Armenian government to revoke its EU ambitions and join the Customs Union. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan came home from Moscow visibly humbled and announced that Yerevan would join the Russia bloc, in effect renouncing any EU aspirations.
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Putin stressed Armenia’s economic and energy dependence on Moscow and reportedly threatened Yerevan with withdrawing support for Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and other Azerbaijani territories. Moldova is also menaced by Moscow with economic collapse, with sanctions already imposed on Moldovan wine, the country's major export item. The Kremlin also manipulates Transnistrian separatism to bring Chisinau into line.
The most serious recent threat has been issued against Ukraine, the pivotal piece in the Eurasian jigsaw puzzle. At an international forum in Yalta on September 21, Kremlin adviser Sergei Glazyev brazenly warned of Russian sanctions if Ukraine signs the EU accords. Moscow would evidently impose an economic blockade and raise energy prices to hasten Ukraine’s economic collapse. The Kremlin could also terminate the bilateral treaty on strategic partnership and no longer recognize Ukraine’s borders. It could also support separatist movements in Eastern and Southern Ukraine and be prepared to intervene on their behalf. In effect, the Kremlin has raised the specter of partition and challenged Ukraine’s existence as a unified state.
The response of Brussels to Russian threats has been stronger than expected. Stefan Füle, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, asserted that Customs Union membership is not legally or technically compatible with the EU Free Trade accords. He also issued a strong statement in the European Parliament criticizing the pressure exerted by Russia on the EU’s Eastern Partnership countries. The U.S. administration has also become involved in the dispute, asserting that Russia's threats against Ukraine and Moldova contradicted its commitments to various international agreements, including the principles of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Both the Ukrainian and Moldovan governments have refused to succumb to Moscow’s blackmail. If Russia moves from threat to action against Kyiv or Chisinau it is essential for Europe and the U.S. to maintain a unified position. Either the creation of a Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union or conflicts generated by resistance to establishing such an alliance will undermine security along the EU's current borders. But as the Vilnius showdown approaches, it remains unclear how effective a response the allies are willing to undertake in defending the sovereignty and integrity of neighboring states if the Kremlin escalates its pressures.
In addition to conflicts over the EU’s eastern neighborhood, Russian authorities have accused Lithuania of harming its energy interests. Vilnius has lodged complaints to the European Commission that Gazprom uses its domination of the natural gas market to charge the country excessive prices and manipulates energy supplies as a form of political pressure. Russia’s officials have criticized EU moves to boost energy market competition and undercut Europe’s reliance on Russian supplies. The Commission announced in September that it is finalizing its judgment on Gazprom’s gas trading practices. EU regulators are preparing to charge Gazprom with abusing its dominant position - this could lead to a fine of up to USD 15bn. Furthermore, if gas prices are freed, Gazprom could lose a further USD 14bn in revenues.
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Moscow’s reaction has been predictable, by imposing trade sanctions on Lithuania and threatening other states with embargoes. In early October, Russia’s Customs Service banned the import of Lithuanian dairy products and an embargo on meat, fish, and other products was threatened. EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht asserted that Moscow failed to provide clarification regarding its customs controls and its moves could precipitate a challenge against Russia in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Paradoxically, Moscow’s sanctions against Vilnius created serious problems in Kaliningrad, which is more dependent on Lithuanian produce, and even sparked public protests in this Russian exclave against Kremlin tactics. Vilnius has also threatened to block Russia's road and rail access to Kaliningrad if Moscow continues to pressure its neighbors, thus further isolating the region. Such moves could raise support for Kaliningrad’s independence from Moscow that would boost the region’s chances for closer links with the EU.
Among other sources of mounting EU-Russia tensions are human rights violations and the arrest of Greenpeace environmentalists. According to Ambassador Vygaudas Usackas, Head of the Delegation of the EU to Russia, Moscow’s deteriorating human rights record could obstruct the ratification of the Russia-EU visa-free travel agreement in European parliaments. Moreover, the imprisonment of Greenpeace activists on charges of piracy for protesting against Moscow’s Arctic oil drilling has outraged all EU capitals and confirmed that Russia is becoming a rogue state.
EUROPE’S TEST AHEAD
EU parliamentarians, especially those from CEE, have urged the European Commission to adopt a firmer stance against Moscow’s multiple abuses of its neighbors and its disregard of international norms. A bureaucratic response and punitive actions against Gazprom or against Moscow at the WTO are not enough to affect Kremlin policy. The EU has the opportunity to act in solidarity with Lithuania and all member states that are threatened by Moscow by demonstrating that aggression ultimately harms Russia itself.
As the Vilnius summit approaches the most effective response would be to ceremoniously sign association and free trade agreements with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. The summit should also announce that all post-Soviet states except Russia are invited to obtain the same arrangements. Even those countries that have mistakenly entered Moscow’s Customs Union, where they will incur significant economic and political costs, can return to Europe once they revoke their signatures.
Brussels must also unequivocally confirm that each aspirant will be considered for full EU membership and will be given an accession path similar to those afforded to all the West Balkan countries, once they meet the initial criteria for accession. Simultaneously, a common position with Washington should be issued during or after the Vilnius summit. This must underscore that bullying and pressure by Moscow will be countered by resolute action to construct a democratic, secure, and prosperous trans-Atlantic community that includes all European states. The Kremlin needs to understand that bullying and blackmail is counter-productive and will ultimately defeat its own ambitions.
Janusz Bugajski is a foreign policy analyst, author, lecturer, columnist, and television host based in the United States. He has published 18 books on Europe, Russia, and trans-Atlantic relations.