Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea (in March 2014) and its on-going support for anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine, relations with the EU have deteriorated. The EU no longer considers Russia a strategic partner and has made it clear that its sanctions policy will remain in place until Russia is prepared to recognize the integrity and sovereignty of its neighbours. In the meantime, eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region is slowly turning into a ‘frozen conflict’, and the possibility of resolving the annexation of Crimea is remote. It is in the EU’s interest to ensure that the status quo in the region will not turn into a fait accompli. This is a serious risk, since the Russian government has become trapped in its own nationalist rhetoric, making the return of Crimea to Ukraine unacceptable and non-negotiable. In turn, the EU is reluctant to adopt a ‘back to business as usual’ approach, since caving to Russia’s President Putin would undermine the EU’s standing as a normative power that is keen to uphold European norms and values, as well as international law.

The EU has shocked President Putin by maintaining remarkable unity in its sanctions policy, which includes restrictions and bans in three key areas: finance; military and dual-use products; as well as high-tech energy exports. Although the economic impact of Western sanctions may well be significant, it remains uncertain whether they will alter Russia’s stance on eastern Ukraine, let alone its calculations on Crimea. The unintended consequences of the EU’s sanctions policy have also become clear, since Russia is now seeking closer (trade, political and military) ties with China and the Gulf States.[1] Russia also makes the most of EU sanctions to strengthen its official narrative that ‘the West’ is openly antagonistic and engaged in a new Great Power (or even civilizational) ‘war’, making it easier for President Putin to rally the Russian people around the flag.

Figure 1
The EU’s two-pronged approach towards Russia
Two pronged approach

Recognizing the need to construct a working relationship with Russia, the EU follows a two-pronged approach of sanctions and pressure, combined with dialogue and engagement (see figure 1). This classical dual-track strategy is based on a reappraisal of the EU’s interests and a more sober understanding of Russia’s role in European security. The EU (as well as the United States) maintains contact with Russia on a wide range of issues, from dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the war in Syria, to fighting jihadism and organized crime. Arguably, the Paris terror attacks have radically changed the EU’s security agenda. Several EU member states have declared themselves ‘at war’ with the Islamic State, and President Putin has offered himself as a viable and even indispensable partner in what seems to be becoming a common strategic cause. A deal will probably have to be made with Russia involving Moscow’s cooperation in Syria in return for some form of recognition of Russia’s interests in Ukraine (including Crimea).[2] Details and the political ramifications of this ‘deal’ remain vague, but certainly merit serious discussion. However, the EU’s strategy towards Russia remains unclear, and suggestions for how to construct a new basis for a long-term relationship between Brussels and Moscow are scarce and often unpolished.

In a world of global power shifts, the EU has to adopt a more geostrategic approach.

This Clingendael Report takes an unapologetic Realist view of the EU–Russia relationship. It recognizes that in a world of global power shifts, the EU has to adopt a more geostrategic approach. This implies that the EU and the Netherlands in particular have to overcome the drama of the downing of flight MH17 (in July 2014) which killed 298 people; resentment should take a back-seat to finding practical solutions to pressing problems, like fighting jihadism and the Islamic State (in Syria and beyond). After offering a concise overview of the EU’s options vis-à-vis Russia, this Report argues that the EU should ensure that its Association Agreement with Ukraine (signed but not yet ratified) will be compatible with Kiev’s commitments of free trade with Russia. It may also mean that this Association Agreement needs to be amended to take into account Russian (and arguably also Ukrainian) interests, both economic and political. Western political leaders should also clarify that Ukraine is unlikely to join the EU (and NATO) any time soon. The EU should also ensure that Russia’s two cardinal sins (that is, the annexation of Crimea and support for anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine) can be accounted for, and ultimate absolved in two, separate processes. Solving the crisis in eastern Ukraine is the EU’s first priority and Brussels should focus all of its diplomatic energy on this. The Donbass region should be pacified and stabilized, preferably under a United Nations (UN) Interim Administration, as was recently the case in Kosovo. The EU should also initiate a high-level platform to discuss prospects to modify Europe’s security architecture. Finally, the EU should start an organized conversation with Russia about European norms and values.

Taken together, this Clingendael Report’s recommendations offer a realistic agenda to resuscitate the EU–Russia relationship, ensuring that the West is not sleepwalking into a Cold Peace, or even a renewed ‘hot’ conflict with Moscow. The EU may even benefit from this existential crisis on its own continent to make a shift towards strategic maturity, accepting Russia – and international politics in general – as it is, and not as Brussels’ policy-makers desire it to be.

Alexander Gabuev, ‘A “Soft Alliance”? Russia–China Relations after the Ukraine Crisis’, ECFR Policy Brief (February 2015); and Eduard Steiner, ‘Der Handschlag, Der Putins Riskanten Plan Besiegelt’, Die Welt (13 July 2015).
Neil Buckley, ‘Syria Surge Strengthens Putin’s Hand in Middle East – and in Ukraine’, Financial Times (25 September 2015).