Bridging the Divide How Should the EU Reach Out to Russia?

The European Union must finally adopt a consistent policy toward Russia. In addition to signing a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, Brussels should work with Russia to reform international organizations and expand joint projects such as free trade zones.

By Alexander Rahr

The East-West conflict ended nearly 20 years ago, and there is hardly a politician in office today -- whether in the United States, the European Union, or Russia -- who held a position of power during the Cold War. Nevertheless, after a brief rapprochement that could have led to Russia's integration into the West, Americans and Europeans are once again at odds with the Kremlin. There is even talk of a new cold war. The West faces a choice: It can continue to treat Russia as the disturber of international peace and attempt to contain it with policy tools from the Cold War era, or it can accept the incompatibility of Russian and Western value systems and attempt to establish a strategic partnership that will incorporate Russia into a joint alliance.

Kremlin honor guards march alongside the Kremlin wall, covered with snow, in downtown Moscow.

Kremlin honor guards march alongside the Kremlin wall, covered with snow, in downtown Moscow.

During the last years of the Bush administration, the United States pursued a policy of containment toward Russia, influenced in part by an increasingly authoritarian Russian domestic policy. It initiated the stationing of missile defense systems in Central Europe, sought to expand NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia, and attempted to break the Russian pipeline monopoly on oil and gas transports to the West. President Barack Obama, who apparently sees no good reason to begin a new cold war with an old adversary, is likely to make concrete proposals on cooperation. But if the United States continues to shun Russia as a potential international partner, the European Union will have no choice but to pursue its own independent policy of rapprochement. After all, while Russia may not be indispensable for world order, it is essential for European peace.

Russia will doubtless remain an extremely complicated partner for the European Union. The Russian elite have never recovered from the collapse of the Soviet empire. Today they openly criticize the West for shamelessly exploiting Russian weakness in the early 1990s in a bid to make the country economically dependent on the West and to rob it of its traditional spheres of influence. Russia regards itself as a leading power in Europe and is eager to help build the continent's future economic and security architecture. It refuses to allow the European Union to shunt it aside in favor of Asia. In response to Western objections that the Russian economy is too weak to be taken seriously, Moscow reminds Europeans of their dependence on Russian energy. The annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the Georgia conflict in August 2008 fueled Western fears of a neo-imperialist Russia.

The European Union might take the position that due to different Russian values, its fragile legal system, and its underdeveloped democracy and market economy, Russia is not a reliable partner for building a shared European civilization. In this case, the European Union would have to radically diversify energy imports from Russia and develop and implement alternative projects for gas and oil pipelines as well as liquid gas transports. Otherwise it would risk a dangerous dependency on the country and make itself vulnerable to energy blackmail.

Meeting in September 2008 with international experts from the Valdai Club, an annual meeting of political analysts at the Kremlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated that Russia should have been admitted to NATO in the 1990s. If it had, the current conflicts in the post-Soviet region could have been avoided. Not only did this not happen, but the Europeans continued to expand their security and economic architecture through NATO and the European Union. A fundamental decision has also been made to include Georgia and Ukraine in the Western alliance. While a united Europe has gradually emerged on the sole basis of NATO and the European Union, Russia remains isolated in the new European institutional order.

Hard Line or Soft Integration?

Moscow's desire to change this state of affairs and to assert its own claims within Europe underlie the current conflicts between Russia and the European Union. The European Union is deeply divided over its relationship to the Kremlin. Several EU states do not support a joint European framework for peace. This intra-European dispute revolves around issues such as NATO expansion, missile defense, a possible energy alliance with Moscow, and assessments of the August 2008 conflict in Georgia. Backed by Great Britain and Sweden, many Central European states are currently calling for the European Union to take a hard line against a "neo-imperialist" Russia.

Other EU countries, such as France, Italy, and Germany, do not want to pursue a European policy that goes against Russian interests or does not integrate the country into Europe. Furthermore, these EU states refuse to blame Russia alone for the Georgia war. If this continues, the dispute over Russia is likely to split the Europeans into "old" and "new" camps.

During its EU Council presidency in 2008, France made intensive diplomatic efforts to reconcile these different positions, and it did indeed succeed in offering Russia a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. It promised Moscow close economic, academic, and cultural cooperation with the European Union, provided it did not further distance itself from European values. Moscow was asked to abandon, once and for all, its plan to create a sphere of influence and to support a common European neighborhood policy. With the endorsement of his six-point plan, French President Nicolas Sarkozy could even brag that he prevented an escalation of the Russia-Georgia conflict. If another EU member state such as Poland had held the presidency, it is highly probable that punitive sanctions would have been imposed on Russia. After all, during the German Council presidency in 2006, Chancellor Angela Merkel was unable to overcome stubborn Polish resistance to opening negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia, and the issue remained on the back burner for nearly three years. The most important task facing the European Union at present is therefore to define a consistent political line toward Russia.


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