The EU never had a 'Russia Policy', but now it should

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt looks to the day when the Russia-Ukraine War will have ended, and argues that the EU must think ahead to a unified policy stance on Russia.

How should the European Union deal with Russia once its war against Ukraine ends? No one can say when or how the fighting will stop, but that’s no reason to delay marshalling the options and reviewing them with the member states. EU governments along with business and civil society leaders need to assess their interests and their red lines, whether or not Vladimir Putin remains in power.

Strange to say, the EU has never had a ‘Russia Policy’. There was a short-lived move towards one after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Jacques Delors backed the launch of a ‘Club of Moscow’ to grapple with Russia’s investment needs and crippling debt. But in the turmoil of the USSR’s collapse, EU policymakers’ attention switched to the PHARE and TACIS development strategies that a decade later brought so many of the old Soviet satellites into the EU.

There appears little likelihood of a Putin ‘victory’ in Ukraine

Defining the EU’s relationship with the new Russian Federation took a back seat, reflecting an undisguised mood of triumphalism. Russia’s economic difficulties and political volatility were seen as proof that it had ‘lost the Cold War’ and could be discounted as a major power.

Europe and America were to discover before long that Russia was down but not out. And a comparable situation looks fairly certain to arise when the Ukraine conflict ends in an armistice or a more durable settlement. This time the Western allies must learn from their mistakes of the late 20th century and fashion a far-sighted and constructive policy framework for their future dealings with Moscow.

With hindsight, it’s easy to see how the EU’s drift and a proliferation of ad hoc national energy and investment policies created conditions in which the Kremlin might fragment Europe. These are lessons the EU is beginning to apply to its dealings with China, and will have no choice but to insist on when contemplating its post-war Russia relationship.

There appears little likelihood of a Putin ‘victory’ in Ukraine. The odds instead look to be on Russia becoming severely handicapped by its failure to force the reintegration of Ukraine into its political economy. How badly affected Russia will be by its military losses and the long-term effects of international sanctions remains to be seen, but the Russian economy was never very sound and may soon be locked into headlong decline.

The EU must tailor its future trade and investment policies to avoid vengefulness and humiliation

Demographics are the Russian giant’s clay feet. It never fully recovered from the 25 million deaths it suffered in World War 2, and according to one forecast by the UN its population may by 2050 have fallen to 104 million from the 145 million registered in 2000. Some observers think Putin’s invasion was not so much an attempted land grab as a people grab. Together with the tailing-off of oil and gas exports, this loss of manpower means Russia’s economy is doomed to shrink.

A return to super-power status isn’t on the cards, but nor is a greatly weakened Russia in the EU’s best interests. Although the bitterness and raw wounds of war will take many years to heal, the international community will still need to help stabilise this huge country stretching so far around the world.

At the same time, the West should strive to win the confidence of Russian public opinion as much as it can. A striking aspect of the war is the degree of popular support Putin still enjoys at home, despite 100,000 casualties and Draconian conscription measures. Western media coverage has downplayed most Russians’ unquestioning loyalty to ‘Mother Russia’.

The EU must tailor its future trade and investment policies to avoid vengefulness and humiliation. How this is to be done will remain an open question while hostilities persist, and it’s hard to see light at the end of this tunnel so long as Putin is in the Kremlin. But the geo-political case is clear. So, too, is the EU’s interest in avoiding a repetition of its failure to define a Russia Policy three decades ago.

The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe.

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