Chapter 4
The EU’s Policy Toolbox

The EU has ruled out the use of military force in Ukraine, or against Russia. EU Council President Jean-Claude Juncker has made the case for a ‘European army’ (arguing that such a ‘common European army would convey a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending our European values’[32]), but this plan has been discounted by all EU member states (bar Germany). So what is left in the EU’s policy toolbox? And how can (and should) the EU and its member states use the available tools to ratchet their policies up and down, depending on Russia’s actions in the region?

Most of the EU’s policy instruments are already in full swing as part of the impressive sanctions’ package that was implemented immediately after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This does not mean that all economic and financial ties are now abrogated, and the EU could certainly tighten up and intensify its economic sanctions on Russia. For example, the European Parliament has called upon EU member states to suspend bilateral cooperation with Russia in the defence sector.[33] Defence cooperation largely remains outside the EU’s remit, but should be carefully coordinated at the EU level as well as with the United States and within NATO. The saga of France’s botched deal to sell two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia in August 2015 (worth US$ 978 million), indicates both the necessity and possibility of arriving at a consistent EU approach on military exports to Russia.[34] Major Western energy firms (including BP, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and others) have consistently moved ahead with major oil and gas projects in Russia. Most EU (and US) sanctions only affect individuals and ancillary companies, which has not halted big oil firms from cooperating with Russia, especially in the coveted Arctic region. Calls for more aggressive Western sanctions affecting the energy sector as a whole have come to naught, mainly because it would eliminate the East–West energy interdependence that has, arguably, kept a lid on the escalation of tensions.

The EU faces the familiar problem that when its sanctions do bite, they tend to hurt the wrong people, most notably ordinary Russians (rather than Putin’s political entourage). Today, Western sanctions and Russia’s subsequent ban on a wide range of Western goods are causing the cost of food and medicines to rise. Recent reports indicate that almost one million Russian HIV patients are affected by drugs’ shortages and an ineffective Russian domestic substitution campaign.[35] As a result, public discontent is growing.[36] However, there are no indications that the cumulative effect of the West’s economic sanctions is eroding Russian public support and/or is impelling oligarchs to apply pressure on the Kremlin to adopt a more accommodating stance.

EU sanctions are hardly the precision instrument that they are made out to be

EU sanctions are therefore hardly the precision instrument that they are made out to be, and they rarely affect the right sectors and people within a politically relevant timeframe. The complete breakdown of EU–Russian negotiations on visa liberalization is a case in point (see above), as is the much-touted ‘asset freeze and travel ban’ regime, which affects 151 people and 37 entities within Russia. The United States’ so-called Magnitzky List (named after the Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitzky, who died in prison in 2009) inspired the EU to introduce this list of ‘specially designed nationals’ from Russia, but so far the United States has been tougher here, targeting oligarchs who are close to President Putin. The EU’s list of ‘banned Russians’ mostly comprises rather unknown figures in local (Crimean) politics, as well as middle-ranking military officers. The EU could ‘ratchet up’ its sanctions by including Putin’s inner circle on the targeted persons’ list. However, given that Russia has imposed an entry ban on 89 European political and military leaders (May 2015), the EU is reluctant to escalate matters further. A small group of MEPs now calls for the EU to remove Russian parliamentarians from the sanctions’ list, arguing that it hampers dialogue and de facto blocks the EU–Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee (PCC), which has been ‘on hold’ since the Ukraine conflict erupted in 2014.

Aware that EU sanctions and restricted visa policies affect ordinary Russians negatively, the European Council has initiated an Action Plan comprising a wide array of projects aimed at countering Russian propaganda and misinformation. Under the banner of Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy, a start-up team (‘East StratCom Team’) works together with other EU institutions and EU member states to ‘clearly communicate the universal values that the EU promotes’, as well as the ‘development of positive and effective messages regarding EU policies towards the region’.[37] The East StratCom Team will monitor Russian media and develop ‘communication products’, as well as media campaigns, explaining EU policies in the region. In future, this may also include the production of entertainment and documentary programmes, although plans for funding a Russian-language television channel have not been realized.[38] This is all part of the EU’s new regional communication programme ‘OPEN Neighbourhood’, which is aimed at developing effective networks of communication.

For the EU, the main prize is to reach the Russian populace and to counter President Putin’s narrative of an unfriendly, aggressive EU that is engaged in a ‘civilization war’ against traditional Russian values and interests. The OPEN Neighbourhood programme specifically aims to support independent Russian-language media, ensuring that Moscow’s dominant voice in the region does not go unchallenged. The EU also aims to increase people-to-people contacts (involving journalists, scientists, human rights groups and artists), based on the assumption that ‘[t]hese circles still foster critical minds and that is why many in these fields find themselves at loggerheads with increasingly repressive government authorities. They are in a difficult situation and deserve our support’.[39] The Dutch government has also made it easier for Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to apply for asylum in the Netherlands, indicating that Russia’s climate of homophobia is setting the country apart from Europe’s societal mainstream.[40]

Opening the EU’s doors to students, scientists and artists is a useful and timely, but also customary and unimaginative, course of action. Little can be expected from exchange programmes and academic cooperation, beyond showing the EU’s obligatory good will. Moreover, by intensifying strategic communication, the EU takes a big gamble. Brussels (and most EU member states) assume that ordinary Russians (not belonging to the cultural elite) can be encouraged to embrace Europe’s post-modern norms and values. For the moment, the EU–Russia values’ gap is widening. Whereas the EU pushes LGBT rights and the European Parliament has nominated the three (at that time jailed) members of the Russian feminist performance-art group Pussy Riot for the Sakharov human rights prize (in 2012), Russian society is embracing traditional family values as well as a newly found patriotism. Given current Russian distrust of EU policy (based on what is widely seen as the EU’s support for a political coup in Kiev in 2014), and the traditional and nationalist streak of Russian society, such a move towards the EU’s post-modern outlook will simply not happen.[41] Moreover, the EU’s communication strategy vis-à-vis Russia is eerily similar to US President Bush’s neo-conservative policies to change the mindset of the ‘Arab Street’ after 9/11, which had very modest results.[42]

‘Juncker Calls for EU Army, Says Would Deter Russia’, Reuters (8 March 2015).
European Parliament, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Report on the State of EU–Russia Relations, p. 8.
Pierre Tran, ‘Mistral Dispute with Russia Settled, France Eyes Exports’, Defense News (9 August 2015). France decided to sell the Mistral carriers to Egypt instead in September 2015. They are expected to be delivered in March 2016.
Maxim Sraj, ‘Ousted! How Sanctions against Russia are Expected to Affect Pharma Investments’, STEMPharma (June 2014); and Daria Litvinova, ‘Russia’s HIV Patients Struggle to Get Treatment’, The Moscow Times (16 September 2015).
Harley Balzer, ‘Will Russia Waste Another Crisis?’, in Sakwa et al., Putin’s Third Term, p. 32.
European Council, ‘Action Plan on Strategic Communication’ (June 2015).
James Panichi, ‘EU Declares Information War on Russia’, (27 August 2015).
‘Toespraak Minister Koenders Tijdens een Bijeenkomst over 40 Jaar Helsinki-Akkoorden’.
Janene van Jaarsveldt, ‘Dutch Open Doors to Russian LGBT Asylum Claims’, (8 September 2015).
‘Russians Value Tolerance and Civility More Than Freedom of Speech – Poll’, TASS (13 August 2015); and Alicja Curanovic, ‘The Guardians of Traditional Values: Russia and the Orthodox Russian Church in the Quest For Status’, Transatlantic Academy Papers, no. 1 (2015).
Robin Wright, ‘U.S. Struggles To Win Hearts, Minds in the Muslim World – Diplomacy Efforts Lack Funds, Follow-Through’, The Washington Post (20 August 2004).