Five years after the annexation of Crimea: are EU-Russia relations irrevocably damaged?

Europe's World

Picture of Julian Lindley-French
Julian Lindley-French

Director of Europa Analytica in the Netherlands, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. and a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

In 2014, Julian Lindley-French wrote for us as the Crimea crisis was unfolding. What are his thoughts five years on?


Irrevocable is a strong word, rarely used to describe diplomatic relationships, but these days, its use doesn’t seem so far off base. Since 2014, the list of ways in which Russia has damaged its ties to the EU continues to grow: usurping Crimea from Ukraine, allegedly shooting down a civilian airliner and killing 298 people, many of whom were EU citizens, purportedly using a nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury, and thereby causing the death of another EU citizen, exerting military pressure on EU member states, and seeking to influence elections across Europe and elsewhere by making fake news a central part of its influence strategy.

Russian military intelligence was also accused of having hacked the Institute for Statecraft in London, an institute wherein I hold the position of Senior Fellow. These are hardly the acts of a partner, let alone a friendly power, and more the acts of a strategic hooligan that sees Europe and the EU as an adversary.

What is also clear is that Russia remains unreliable. Minsk I, Minsk II, the Normandy Format and a host of other attempts to engage Russia in dialogue have, more often than not, been met with frustration rather than success. In the wake of Russia’s predatory behaviour, sanctions have been imposed by the EU, mainly targeting Russia’s elite. For many Russians, such sanctions merely confirm the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia is a victim rather than a perpetrator.

A foreign policy that is built on ‘facts on the ground’ is no basis for a sound relationship with the EU

Sadly, as of yet, there is no sign that Russia is really prepared to modify its behaviour towards its European neighbours. Worse still, Moscow seems to be systematically engaged in a form of ‘5D warfare’ – disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and implied destruction – seemingly with the aim of keeping the EU and its member states strategically and politically off-balance.

Given that the sectoral financial and economic interests of numerous member states have tempered stringent enforcement of sanctions on Moscow, the EU’s position can hardly be considered firm. Russia is already extending its influence over significant parts of south-eastern Europe. Furthermore, Italy has vested energy and banking interests with Russia, while Berlin is pursuing the construction of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline which will link Germany to Russia. Even London – which has been at the receiving end of Russian aggression – is duplicitous in its attitude towards Russia, with the City acting as the repository for many questions revolving around the existence of so-called ‘McMafia’ money.

Such financial Realpolitik is dangerous for the EU. There is, at the heart of the conflict, a struggle predicated on matters of principle – Machtpolitik versus Lexpolitik – power versus law as the organising principle of pan-European relations. Therefore, until and unless Russia accepts that it has no veto over the sovereign choices undertaken by EU member states, it is difficult to see how EU-Russia relations can return to what might be described as normal and constructive.

This contention over the very nature of power itself … makes it hard to envisage a positive future

The hard truth is that in 2014, Russia shifted the settled borders of Europe by force of arms. A foreign policy that is built on ‘facts on the ground’ is no basis for a sound relationship with the EU and is the very antithesis of the legal concept of power that the EU enshrines at its core. Ultimately, it is this contention over the very nature of power itself – Russian Machtpolitik versus EU Lexpolitik – that makes it hard to envisage a positive future for EU-Russian relations, whatever narrow sectoral interests some EU member states might have in fostering close relations with Moscow.

Five years after the annexation of Crimea, we ask: are EU-Russia relations irrevocably damaged? No, not irrevocably. However, Russia’s predatory attitude towards its European neighbours will need to change before Europeans can countenance a return to the kind of substantive EU-Russian strategic partnership that had once upon a time been desired. Until Russia changes its view of itself and its idea of ‘Europe’, it is hard to envision a Europe that is either at ease or completely at peace.

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