EU and Russia: Eastern partnership vs. Eurasian union


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Marcel de Haas
Marcel de Haas

Former Senior Research Associate at Clingendael Research, officer in the Royal Netherlands Air Force

Since his ‘formal’ return to power in May 2012 – was he ever really away? – President Vladimir Putin has been eager to restore Russia’s superpower status to distract from domestic problems. Russian leaders have traditionally demonstrated Moscow’s clout first in the post-Soviet space, particularly in Eastern Europe. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) and the Warsaw Pact have today been replaced by the Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The question is how should the EU respond to this new geopolitical competition with Moscow?

Faced with domestic difficulties, autocratic governments often strive for foreign successes to divert attention and shore up public support. This was the case when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in the early 1980s and Putin’s actions today are not much different. Russia is confronted with huge problems in education, housing and health services, not to mention the anarchy and bloodshed in the Northern Caucasus. Well-educated young people are taking to the streets demanding a share of the Kremlin’s welfare.

Putin hasn’t addressed these domestic challenges head on, focusing instead on foreign policy. At first, Russia became increasingly isolated because of its stance on Syria and Iran, but thanks to clever Russian diplomacy and a hesitant U.S., Moscow achieved remarkable successes in 2013 like the chemical weapons deal on Syria and the interim nuclear agreement on Iran. And in Eastern Europe, Ukraine ‘chose’ to deepen co-operation with Russia instead of forging closer ties with the EU.

Eastern Europe is divided into two spheres of influence. The EU uses its Eastern Partnership (EaP) to promote co-operation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine. It is not a waiting room for EU membership, but a project to enhance these countries’ stability and prosperity and to ensure safe borders for the EU.

On the other side, Russia has the Eurasian Union-to-be (EaU) and the CSTO. For now, the EaU is nothing but a customs union that includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but the Kremlin intends to bring in Ukraine and some other former Soviet republics to form a competitor to the EU. The CSTO is Russia’s military instrument in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and includes a military assistance clause to prevent an attack on any of its member states. The basis of Putin’s foreign and security policy objectives – as laid down in Russian security documents – is that Russia has privileged interests in the former Soviet republics and therefore the right to intervene.

The issues at stake in Eastern Europe are a complicated web of political, military, economic and energy issues. From the start, the Kremlin denounced the EaP as an unacceptable project, seeing it as the EU’s way of drawing Eastern Europe away from Russia and into the Western orbit. As a result, pro-EU governments in Moldova and Georgia suffered boycotts – as Ukraine, too, felt this last summer, before President Viktor Yanukovich realigned from Brussels to Moscow. In the same vein, Georgia’s intention to join NATO in 2008 was a step too far for Moscow and the Russian invasion of Georgia put an end to this plan, at least for many years to come.

On the economic front, energy rules. Despite the EU’s claims to have a common energy policy, Moscow successfully divides and rules the EU member states. The European Commission has launched a legal case against Russia’s energy giant Gazprom for monopolistic action in the new Eastern EU states, which are highly dependent on Russian gas. What’s more, Moscow is doing everything it can to thwart the EU’s project to construct pipelines directly to Azerbaijan and possibly Central Asia in order to wean itself from dependence on Russian gas. Russia’s own alternative pipelines to circumvent the current one through Ukraine – Nord Stream to Germany and South Stream around the Black Sea – are yet another way to try to undermine the EU’s common energy policy.

So how can the EU win the geopolitical game with Moscow? The answer to this is quite simple and is to be found in European unity and vigour. For too long Brussels has failed to do so and Moscow has exploited this with its ‘divide and rule’ policy in Europe. The EU should be much more aware of Russia’s foreign policy objectives and anticipate its actions. If the EU is more cognizant of Russia opposition to the EaP, then it could take measures to soften Moscow’s boycotts of EaP member states.

The EU claims to stand for democracy and human rights and Brussels should therefore go beyond merely making statements and actively support human rights groups and the political opposition in Russia as well as in Ukraine. And instead of bi-lateral energy deals with Moscow, all 28 EU member states together should sign one gas contract with Russia and collectively support gas pipelines to bypass the Russian ones. With a genuinely cohesive energy policy, the EU will strengthen its political manoeuvrability vis-à-vis the Kremlin, and thus bolster its endeavours in the field of human rights and democracy. Such policies will show former Soviet republics that the EU has much more to offer them than Moscow’s alternative Eurasian Union.

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