The European Union caught between Russia and its own internal problems: Where is the way out?

A Triple Challenge for the European Union: Russia, Eastern Partnership and Its Own Internal Problems

Freedom Files Foundation

May 2016

The European Union appears to be dealing now with a set of three very difficult tasks, which combined, represent probably the biggest challenge it has ever faced. The EU must simultaneously:

1. address the challenge of Russia, in all its aspects, including the ongoing war on the European continent and the worst breach of international security agreements since WWII;

2. assist in protecting sovereignty of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries and support their democratic transformation; and

3. deal with its own internal problems of erosion of the values and principles of democracy and rule of law that the EU was established on, while addressing the massive migration crisis.

In dealing with all the three tasks, the EU appears to be confused, late, inconsistent, and divided. It is not surprising because all three of them are interconnected and mutually dependent.

The EU will be able to address the challenge of Russia only if it successfully addresses its own internal problems and rebuilds the European Union as a project of a union of democratic nations. Likewise, by rebuilding itself, the EU will be able to more successfully influence the situation in the EaP countries and support democratic transition there. When the EU is divided internally about democratic principles of governance in its member states, its foreign policy becomes less united and increasingly based on Realpolitik rather than value-driven. These negative changes in the EU foreign policy help autocrats in the East to use security arguments, criticism of the EU institutions, and economic interests of individual EU member states to develop lobbying inside the EU and divide the EU unity.

The following seven recommendations can be given to the EU to address these three challenges at once:

1. Consistently defend the principles of international law and protect Ukraine’s sovereignty. Strive to stop the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine and not allow Vladimir Putin to freeze the status-quo there by increasing the price to the Kremlin. Be consistent and not lift sanctions until the hostilities are over, Kremlin’s support of the separatists stops, control over the Ukrainian border is re-established, and sovereignty of Ukraine restored. Expand sanctions if the Kremlin continues its aggression and interference in Ukraine. Never accept occupation of Crimea and maintain Crimea-related sanctions. Consistent and firm approach will serve to prevent further aggression elsewhere.

2. Take care of vulnerabilities in EU’s own security (military and energy) and provide protection to those EU member states which may become next targets of the Kremlin’s aggression – through hybrid or classic war actions. However, a focus should be not on taking reactive steps, reacting to each and every Russian provocation and engaging in a spiral of increased confrontation, prone to emergence of accidental military conflict. Instead, the EU (and NATO) should take systemic measures, aimed at strengthening military and energy security of its members. At the same time, EU should not be afraid of “provoking” and irritating the Kremlin by building stronger security architecture. The main reason for Putin’s aggressive steps is not his reaction to the West’s counter-measures but domestic policy and his need to mobilise public support at home, in Russia, by demonstrating his “toughness” and successes in a struggle with “enemies”. Aggressive steps, provocations and “testing the boundaries of permissible” will continue regardless of a security response of the West. The best instrument to stop the Kremlin’s aggressive behaviour is economic pressure and systemic strengthening of security, not reactions to provocations.

3. Support democratic transformation of the EaP countries, as well as Central Asian countries, rather than consolidate their autocratic regimes in a hope to isolate Russia. Value-based policy is the best recipe for protecting sovereignty of these countries and ensuring regional security. Authoritarian leaders are not capable of protecting security and independence of their countries. Solidarity with Ukraine and supporting its democratic transition are of particular importance: success of Ukraine will do a major blow to the Kremlin’s imperial project and will serve as a role model to other countries of the region.

4. Strengthen the EU as a democratic project based on the values of democracy, rule of law, and human rights, and successfully address the challenge of the populist illiberal turnaround (in particular, in the Visegrad-4 countries) and the rise of the extreme right-, left, populist, and Euro-sceptic political forces across Europe. In the case of further consolidation of these forces and of the value crisis, not only the EU as a democratic project will be threatened and the of mass migration will be more difficult to address but the unity of the EU in its relations with Russia and the EaP countrieswill be further undermined. Autocrats in the East will be able to state even louder that “the EU has no right to criticise us for problems in human rights and democracy when it is internally divided on these issues. These demands to us are no more than double standards and a tool to undermine our governments.” How exactly the EU can influence the non-democratic evolution of the Visegrad-4 governments and what leverage it has, in addition to using economic assistance, is an open question which requires further discussion. exactly the EU can influence the non-democratic evolution of the Visegrad-4 governments and what leverage it has, in addition to economic assistance, is an open question which requires further discussion.

5. Expose and undermine Kremlin’s lobbying networks in Europe and counter its propaganda targeting the European public. Moscow has created a vast network of lobbyists in the EU, including corrupt western politicians and experts working to weaken and split the EU and undermine the democratic concept of the development of Europe. The Kremlin invests huge amount of resources for the support of extreme right and extreme left Eurosceptics throughout Europe. But no less is invested in numerous think-tanks, expert centres, and journalists. Some of them are the Kremlin’s “useful idiots,” offering their support for ideological reasons, while many are simply bought. Look at who works for Russia Today and Sputnik News broadcasting in Europe: more than half of them are foreign journalists and “experts”. 

6. Assist a democratic change in Russia. The West should not give up on a democratic change in Russia and agree to co-existence with a dictatorship and to a new division of the continent, as Putin wants. It should renew its support for a democratic transition in Russia. A democratic change in Russia, as in other countries, can come from a combination of internal demand for change, a split within the elites, and external pressure and support. As Andrey Sakharov said back in the 1970s, “my country needs pressure and support.” Pressure should be aimed at the ruling circles, interested in maintaining the status-quo, by applying targeted economic sanctions, in particular on the oligarchs, Putin’s friends and companies that not only benefit from the regime but also serve as its support base by extracting cash from trade in natural resources and channelling it to the top through corruption schemes; investigating Russian dirty money, the corrupt Russian elite’s assets throughout Europe, and criminal ties exported to the EU; and using the mechanism of universal jurisdiction to prosecute culprits of gross human rights violations such as torture, political assassinations or enforced disappearances, in national courts in Europe. Assistance for strengthening internal demand for change in Russia should be done by increasing support to pro-democracy forces, including civil society, remaining pockets of independent media, and political activists. In addition to this, the EU should develop an effective communication strategy for reaching out to the Russian public, affected by “zombifying” propaganda. The EU should explain the Russian public that Western restrictive measures are not targeted at Russia as a nation but at the Russian authorities to push them to change their course of actions. The EU should find a way to counter the myths of Kremlin’s anti-European propaganda and highlight advantages of the European perspective for Russia.

7. Selectively engage with Russia on issues of mutual interest in foreign policy such as countering terrorism, addressing the problems of mass migration and nuclear non-proliferation. However, it is very important that the West does not strike a deal on the Kremlin’s terms. Essentially, Moscow is trying to persuade the West to accept contemporary Russia as an equal partner in addressing global problems and reconcile with the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy and its violations of international law. This role would be similar to the role the Soviet Union played in relations with the West at the times of Stalin in a joint struggle against over Nazi Germany. “If you want our cooperation, accept us the way we are,” is the logic of Moscow today. The dream of the Kremlin’s leaders is to impose on the West a “new Yalta”, where leaders of the great powers would sit at a table together as equals and strike a new deal on dividing “spheres of influence”. This would allow the Kremlin to maintain all the territorial gains accumulated recently through aggressive actions, such as in Crimea, the South Caucasus or Transnistria, and establish political, economic and military control in the post-Soviet space and possibly beyond. These conditions should not be accepted, even if the Kremlin threatens with new wars. The West should understand that the current regime in the Kremlin is not at all a reliable partner. Agreeing to these conditions would mean a defeat of the democratic Europe.

As said above, the best way to contain a new aggression is a combination of applying economic pressure on the Kremlin, strengthening the EU as a democratic project, and pursuing a value-based policy regarding the Eastern Partnership countries. These three tasks should be pursued simultaneously and in coordination.

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