Winter Issue 2019
Written by: Dalya Soffer, Boston University
Following Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, the EU presented an unexpectedly strong and unified front, especially when compared to its muted reaction to Russia’s invasion of Georgia and annexation of Abkhazia in 2008. The uncharacteristically rapid mobilization by the EU and the imposition of sanctions took the international community by surprise, including Russia. On the surface, it may appear as if the EU is unified on this issue; in reality, it is more a reflection of a shift in the German government’s policy towards Russia. This consensus masks deep and long-standing divisions amongst Union Member States on the issue of how to deal with Russia as well as a fundamental flaw in the Union’s foreign policy structure which makes it difficult for the EU to develop and maintain a united foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia. According to Mitchell Orenstein and Daniel Kelemen, for a federal, or quasi-federal, entity to have a successful foreign policy, it must not only be in a position to formulate a common foreign policy, but it must also be able to prohibit its member states from simultaneously pursuing their own independent policies[i]. However, when the EU developed its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and its Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), it only completed half of the equation [ii]. These policies do provide a means for the EU to articulate a common foreign and security policy, but they do not prohibit Member States from developing and maintaining their own, at times contradictory, foreign policies. This has created an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to exploit internal divisions within the EU by cultivating bilateral relationships with individual Member States and thereby undermining, from within, the EU’s position against Russia. This paper will demonstrate how this flaw in the CFSP has given supranational actors, such as Germany, an outsized role in shaping EU foreign policy and illustrate how the current system is self-destructive.
The relationship with Russia is particularly susceptible to revealing the fissures which exist in the EU’s foreign policy. Historically, the divergent views of the Member States have thwarted efforts to adopt a unified policy vis-à-vis Russia. It was the egregious nature of the annexation of Crimea, which galvanized EU member states into recognizing the threat Russia posed and propelled them into adopting a unified policy. However, the policy itself will be difficult to implement due to external and internal factors. In March of 2016 the EU foreign ministers and Frederica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, reached an agreement on five guiding principles for EU-Russia relations: “full implementation of the Minsk agreements before the lifting of sanctions; closer ties with Russia’s former Soviet neighbors; strengthening EU resilience to Russian threats; selective engagement with Russia on certain issues such as counter-terrorism; and support for people-to-people contact.” One difficulty in implementing the policy is that the EU cannot control the instability amongst Russia’s neighbors, and it is powerless to control the repressive legislation inside Russia which will make maintaining people-to-people engagement with Russian citizens extremely difficult[iii]. Another significant hurdle for the implementation of the policy will be the lack of cohesion amongst its members. This tension is made evident by the increasingly loud and consistent efforts by some Member States to lift the sanctions without the implementation of the Minsk agreements[iv]. Similarly reducing the EU’s dependence on Russian energy will be very difficult to achieve because Member States are pursuing independent foreign policy agendas and entering into bilateral deals with Russia on the energy front[v]. In order to better understand the tensions at play, it is useful to examine the EU’s history when dealing with Russia which illustrates how the Member States have been pursuing their own foreign policies outside of the one established by the EU.
Adopting a unified strategy towards Russia was a major shift for the EU who until then had been sharply divided on the issue. The traditional East-West divide of Europe has strongly influenced individual members’ perception of their easternmost neighbor. The Eastern European countries, which have a long history as vassal states of the Soviet Union, view Russia in a more cynical light and see it as a threat to regional security. Consequently, they have long favored the adoption by the EU of a strong stance against Russia[vi] [vii]. Whereas the Western European nations have tended to view Russia as a strategic partner and believed that there was an opportunity to establish positive and stable relations with their neighbor through economic integration[viii] [ix] [x]. For these countries, economic ties with Russia have been viewed as an asset to be exploited. Germany, in particular, has pursued, since 1969, a foreign policy towards the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia, dubbed Ostpolitik, whose stated goal “was to achieve positive change through rapprochement.” This was to be achieved by developing strong economic ties with Russia in particular in the energy sector through pipeline and nuclear projects[xi]. The Eastern European countries, however, have always viewed their dependence on Russian goods as a form of continued dominance by their previous overlord[xii]. This is especially true because Eastern European countries tend to be very reliant on Russian trade, in particular, its gas which Russia has used as a weapon on two occasions, in 2006-2007, against Ukraine by withholding gas deliveries to obtain political and financial gains[xiii].
The Baltic nations have also had repeated clashes with Russia on other issues, which has only increased their distrust in their neighbor. There is an ongoing crisis between Estonia and Russia over the issue of Russian minorities and a territorial dispute over the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Poland has also clashed with Russia over the development of its anti-missile shield[xiv]. Because of their geographic proximity to Russia, these countries felt the destabilizing effects of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 much more keenly than their Western partners did. Due to these tensions, the Central and Eastern States have advocated, unsuccessfully, for many years for the EU to adopt a stronger stance against Russia and to give more importance to human rights and democratic values when dealing with the Russian government[xv].
These countries have repeatedly been thwarted in their efforts to get the EU to adopt a harsh foreign policy towards Russia by Germany and other large Member States. For instance, Germany opposed the EU’s efforts to develop the Nabucco natural gas pipeline, an alternative gas supply intended to reduce its dependence on Russia by transporting natural gas from the Caspian region and the Middle East instead of Russia. Berlin promptly reached an agreement with Gazprom, Russia’s energy supplier, to develop a pipeline known as the Southern Stream. Gerhard Schröder, who was Chancellor at the time, negotiated the NordStream pipeline deal directly with Russia bypassing regular EU channels and over the vociferous opposition of the Polish government[xvi]. Similarly, it was Germany, along with other big Member States like Italy, France, and Spain, who defeated the proposal to have Georgia and Ukraine join NATO in order to avoid offending Russian sensibilities despite the support for the idea from the other Member States[xvii].
Germany’s status as an economic powerhouse within the EU has given it the leverage to dictate the direction of the European Union’s foreign policy towards Russia[xviii]. It has been described as “Russia’s strategic partner or even Russia’s advocate in Europe.” Germany has been a strong advocate for Russia due to the strong economic ties between the two countries, and this has remained the case during Angela Merkel’s term as chancellor. So much so that initially the rapprochement between the two countries worried foreign analysts and politicians alike. Philip Stephens reported in the Financial Times that several of US President Obama’s aides felt she was “…too soft on Russia.” The principle of Ostpolitik has played an essential role in shaping the relationship between the two countries and after 50 years of close economic cooperation, they are very closely linked, which is a critical consideration for German policymakers[xix]. Eurostat finds that in 2017, Germany accounted for 30% of all EU exports to Russia. It was the largest importer (€29 billion) and exporter of goods (€ 26 billion) with Russia[xx]. Germany’s foreign policy has, therefore, remained relatively stable regarding Russia primarily because of the intense lobbying efforts of German industry[xxi]. BASF/Wintershall and E.ON Ruhrgas, German energy companies, each holds 20% of the Nord Stream AG project company[xxii] [xxiii]. German industries are also involved in other joint ventures, such as WINGAS and WIEH, with their Russian counterparts[xxiv]. The interests of the energy sector in Germany are so strong that they are taken into account by policymakers, even if they are not expressly stated[xxv].
Because Russia has been able to cultivate separate relationships with individual Member States, it took internal negotiations and political pressure to reach a consensus on imposing sanctions on Russia after the invasion of Crimea[xxvi]. While regional countries and major EU countries supported the initial imposition of sanctions, many countries had to be pressured into voting for them. The only reason Greece, who publicly opposed the sanctions, voted for them was because of its reliance on the EU for the financing of its bailout loan. Hungary’s government was also opposed to the sanctions but ultimately voted for them because it needed the support of the European People’s Party. Italy had also voiced opposition but decided, under pressure, to ‘toe the line’ in the end[xxvii]. Maintaining the sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia isn’t automatic; every six months, the Council must vote to reimpose them. Keeping all the members united on this issue is becoming increasingly difficult due to Member States’ respective domestic priorities. Smaller countries that are more sympathetic to Russia have tried to extract side payments from the EU in exchange for agreeing to support the EU’s policy on Russia while simultaneously seeking to obtain other benefits from Russia in exchange for promises that they will promote Russia’s interests in the EU[xxviii].
These tensions within the EU are a major reason why the sanctions have not led to the withdrawal of Russia from Crimea. This is especially true because Germany, the de facto leader, has been ambivalent in its attitude towards Russia from the outset. The EU has been only marginally involved in trying to resolve the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. In some ways, it could be argued that Germany led the EU’s foreign policy on the Ukraine crisis just as it has done with previous EU foreign policy positions towards Russia[xxix]. It was Merkel who spearheaded all of the diplomatic peace efforts, be they the Normandy Group (which included Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and France), the Weimar triangle (with France and Poland), or the shuttle diplomacy she conducted in 2015 which led to the Minsk II agreement[xxx] [xxxi]. The EU did not pass sanctions on Russia until Merkel failed at resolving the issue through negotiations. At this point, Merkel took the lead in imposing sanctions which led to the EU passing the necessary resolutions[xxxii]. It has been clear from the outset that the EU’s foreign policy on Russia, including the way it deals with the Ukrainian crisis, has been entirely under the control of Germany and that any sanctions imposed will only go as far as Merkel is willing to take them[xxxiii], which makes domestic politics in Germany an important aspect of the EU-Russia policy.
In Germany, most politicians and business leaders have been paying lip service to the need for sanctions[xxxiv]. However, Merkel has been facing domestic political pressure from all sides to end the sanctions from the outset[xxxv]. Foreign Minister Steinmeier immediately expressed his disagreement over the exclusion of Russia from the G8. While he eventually came around to expressing support for Merkel’s position, he continued to make comments arguing for ways to accommodate Russia. In December of 2014, he argued against new sanctions because bringing Russia to its knees would be destabilizing. In June of 2015, before the G7 meeting, he once again advocated for reintegrating Russia into the G8[xxxvi]. The leader of the SPD and Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, Sigmar Gabriel, meanwhile, advocated for a solution that would accommodate Russia’s position even after the Malaysian passenger plane MH17 was downed by Russian backed rebels[xxxvii]. Several prominent former politicians, such as Chancellor Schroder, Helmut Schmidt, and Klaus von Dohnanyi, defended Russia and criticized the West. Not only did they claim that the sanctions were useless, but some went so far as to argue that the entire conflict was the fault of the United States for trying to integrate Ukraine into NATO[xxxviii]. Overall there has been consistent and widespread criticism in Germany from the right, left and populist parties as well as industry leaders against the imposition of sanctions and in support of Russia’s position in Ukraine[xxxix]. These voices have been growing louder and after Merkel’s many recent election defeats it is becoming harder for her to ignore these points of view[xl]. This could eventually affect the EU’s attitude towards Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
There is evidence of this already in the way Merkel has dealt with the crisis up until now. While she advocated for imposing sanctions, she repeatedly made it clear that despite her criticisms of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the “fundamentals of Ostpolitik had not changed,” and that Germany, both in the medium and long-term, would continue to seek a partnership with Russia[xli] [xlii]. Merkel insisted that the only way to resolve the conflict was through sanctions. However, she resisted imposing heavier sanctions despite continued breaches of the Minsk Agreement, and she rejected the idea of delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine. At the 2015 Munich Security Conference Merkel criticized Russia for violating international law, but she once again emphasized the need for patience to end the conflict[xliii]. She was the only European leader who went to Moscow to attend the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, even if she eschewed the military parade held on May 9th [xliv]. Perhaps the most significant show of ambivalence on her part came in the summer of 2015 when E.ON and Wintershall renewed their cooperation with Gazprom by entering into new joint ventures[xlv] [xlvi].
It is Merkel’s more conciliatory policy towards Russia, rather than the uncompromising stance taken by the EU, which was adopted by other member states in the wake of the crisis. Royal Dutch Shell, French ENGIE, and Austria’s ÖMV also entered into business agreements with Gazprom that same summer. These companies agreed to an expansion of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, increasing Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas despite criticism from several Central and Eastern European nations and against stated EU energy policy[xlvii]. Merkel has defended these actions by claiming that this deal is a purely economic move with no political significance. However, it sends a strong signal to Putin that Europe is willing to ignore Ukraine’s interests to pursue its economic interests and continue to deal with Russia[xlviii]. Despite their disagreements on how to resolve the crisis, Putin’s willingness to speak primarily with her also makes it clear that he considers her the only legitimate interlocutor[xlix]. Therefore, the fact that Merkel has been navigating a delicate balancing act trying not to push Russia too much has led Putin to believe that the West isn’t resolute on this issue, thereby undermining the EU’s credibility. Had the EU been able to present a strong, unified front and made a greater commitment to put pressure on Russia, we might have had a different outcome to this crisis by now.
The current system of requiring unanimity to adopt a foreign policy position gives even smaller Member States significant leverage to affect policy outcomes. This, therefore, gives Russia a strong incentive to ignore Brussels and establish bilateral relations with European countries who can block any legislation which would harm their national interest and Russia’s as well. Greece has long been one of Russia’s most reliable advocates in the EU because it gets approximately 75% of its gas from the Russians and buys much of its weapons from them as well[l] [li]. This explains why Greece, in 2007, stopped the EU from continuing the mandate of the EU Border Support Team in Georgia to include the area of Abkhazia which Russia had just annexed[lii]. On another occasion, France, Germany, and Italy signed separate bilateral deals with Russia to allow visa-free travel between their countries. These deals were later declared in violation of the Schengen rules, which immediately forced the entire EU to negotiate a visa-free travel deal with Russia[liii]. Poland, in 2007, single-handedly vetoed giving the EU a mandate to renegotiate the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement[liv]. This underscores the influence these bilateral deals can have. Each of the economic deals Russia enters into with an EU Member State has consequences beyond the immediate economic benefits to the parties involved; it affects EU foreign policy as a whole. Russia has entered into many different deals with individual European nations. Currently, Italy, Germany, France, and the Dutch are deeply involved in Russian energy production. Cyprus is a major offshore destination for Russian firms and a significant investor in Russia[lv]. Greece, which has recently had a contentious relationship with the EU due to its financial bailout, signed a preliminary deal to import gas from Russia[lvi]. Putin recently went to Budapest and signed a nuclear power and natural gas deal with Prime Minister Viktor Orban[lvii]. The Cypriot gave access to its ports to Russian Naval vessels[lviii]. Each of these deals potentially is an obstacle to the EU’s ability to reach a consensus on its foreign policy towards Russia in the CFSP.
Another tactic Russia has been cultivating in order to further divisions between EU countries is the propagation of disinformation through cyber warfare and traditional media outlets. Russia has been supporting financially and online anti-EU political parties in many European countries. For instance, in France during the last presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron, who has been a vocal supporter of the EU, identified attempts by the Russian’s to hack into the servers of his campaign headquarters[lix]. The Front National, and its leader Marine Le Pen, have long advocated for France to withdraw from the EU and Le Pen frequently speaks in favor of a more pro-Russian foreign policy. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that she received a 40-million-euro loan from a Kremlin-backed bank to support her political campaign for the French presidency[lx]. There are reports that the Kremlin has provided financial support to other extremist political organizations such as Ataka in Bulgaria, Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, and Linke in Germany[lxi]. Another means for spreading disinformation is through its state-sponsored news channel, Russia Today, which is diffused throughout Europe and the US. Changing domestic political views can have an impact not only on trying to get pro-Russian parties elected in a given Member State but it can also sway public opinion and put pressure on local politicians who may not be favorably disposed towards Russia. The goal of these campaigns according to analysts is to “weaken and destabilise the West, by exploiting existing divisions or creating artificial new ones” specifically “between EU Member States.”
The debate over whether or not the EU has a common policy towards Russia rages on amongst scholars, politicians, and political analysts[lxii]. Some view the fact that the EU has maintained sanctions on Russia since 2014 as a sign that it does have a common policy while others see fissures and disunity in the rhetoric, the bilateral deals and the lack of cohesion in the reaction to the poisoning of ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury[lxiii]. What seems evident, however, is that the current structure of EU foreign policy incentivizes nations, such as Russia, to bypass the EU and attempt to influence countries directly. This makes it very difficult for the EU to have a unified and cohesive foreign policy robbing it of much of its power on the international stage and vis-à-vis Russia in particular. This paper has illustrated that the EU’s current foreign policy structure has created a specific and internal flaw that not only makes having a united foreign policy almost impossible, but it destabilizes the Union as a whole. This is why some scholars like Avner Greif and David Laitin have identified the EU’s foreign policy as unstable and unsustainable[lxiv]. If Peter Mandelson, the ex-EU Commissioner of Trade, is correct that “This is a failure of Europe as a whole, not any member state in particular,”[lxv] then the problem can only be resolved at the EU level by altering the current system.
Dalya is a student at Boston University studying International Relations. Her area of research is Economic Integration and regional politics in the European Union.
 The first Minsk agreement was a peace deal brokered by Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande to cease the fighting in September of 2014. When the deal broke down in January of 2015 it was followed by Minsk II in February of 2015 as a way to revive the first peace deal and stop the fighting in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
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[xxviii] Orenstein and Kelemen, “Trojan Horses,” 89.
[xxix] Orenstein and Kelemen, “Trojan Horses,” 96.
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[xxxvii] Frosberg, “From Ostpolitik,” 32.
[xxxviii] Frosberg, “From Ostpolitik,” 32-33.
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[xlii] Siddi, “German Foreign,” 666 & 668.
[xliv] Siddi, “German Foreign,” 670.
[xlvi] Chestney, “Nordstream 2 Gas Pipeline,”
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[xlviii] Siddi, “German Foreign,” 671.
[xlix] Frosberg, “From Ostpolitik,” 30.
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[liii] European Council On Foreign Relations, A Power, 16.
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[lxi] Orenstein and Kelemen, “Trojan Horses,” 93,
[lxii] Dempsey, “Judy Asks,” Carnegie Europe.
[lxiii] Dempsey, “Judy Asks,” Carnegie Europe.
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[lxv] European Council On Foreign Relations, A Power, 16