In 2007, in ECFR’s “power audit” of the 28 European Union member states’ relations with Russia, Slovakia was placed in the group of “friendly pragmatists”, alongside Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, and Slovenia. At the time, the report said that these countries “maintain a close relationship with Russia and tend to put their business interests above political goals”. Eight years later, things have changed: in this year’s European Foreign Policy Scorecard, Slovakia is listed as an EU “leader” in two out of five areas of the EU’s relationship with Russia (for supporting the strong line of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Trade on compliance issues with Moscow and for pushing for the diversification of gas supplies away from Russia).
Much of the change in Slovakia’s approach has taken place over the past 12 months. The transformation is mainly the result of the crisis in Ukraine, which has changed Bratislava’s security and political calculus. Bratislava had long had good reasons to seek economic cooperation with Moscow: most of its gas deliveries as well as nuclear fuel for its Russia-built nuclear power plants come from Russia, and some of its core defence equipment is still procured from Russian manufacturers. So when the EU discussed the first round of sanctions on Russia in spring 2014, Slovakia (along with several other countries) pushed for keeping some of the more high-profile Russian names off the sanctions list, hoping to safeguard its interests. Top government officials in Bratislava warned against “too hawkish” steps towards Russia, fearing that Slovakia, along with other central European states, would be exposed to counter-sanctions from the Kremlin.
Top government officials in Bratislava warned against “too hawkish” steps towards Russia, fearing that Slovakia would be exposed to counter-sanctions from the Kremlin.
Moscow gave Slovakia no special consideration for these efforts: the country’s gas supplies from Russia have been cut by 50 percent, after the country started in 2014 to supply gas to Ukraine through reverse gas flow (which now accounts of one-third of Ukraine’s annual consumption). Slovak advocates of a softer approach to Moscow lost further ground when Gazprom announced the “Turkish Stream” project without any previous warning. If the new pipeline is built by 2019, as Vladimir Putin announced in December 2014, it will radically shift Russian gas transit away from Ukraine and Slovakia, depriving Bratislava of lucrative transit fees. The economic crisis in Russia, caused by the fall in oil prices and compounded by Western sanctions, is also being felt by Slovakia-based car manufacturers and the tourist resorts that used to be frequented by Russian tourists seeking a cheaper alternative to the Alps. All of this has prompted a rethink of Slovakia’s relations with Moscow.
While the outcome is still far from certain, over recent months, Bratislava has begun to see the country’s economic closeness to Russia as a potential liability and has started taking steps to diversify its interests. The government is negotiating a new gas connection to Poland, which would add one more route to the three new connections that have been built in the past five years (to Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Austria), and thereby decrease Slovakia’s vulnerability to future gas cut-offs from the east. The Slovak defence ministry has announced a plan to replace virtually all of the Soviet-made weapons in its armoury, beginning this year with military helicopters, to be followed by supersonic jets and air defence radar systems.
Bratislava has begun to see the country’s economic closeness to Russia as a potential liability and has started taking steps to diversify its interests.
The Slovak government, and the prime minister in particular, continue to publicly oppose further sector-specific sanctions on Russia, and public opinion is also divided. But in practice, the administration has avoided taking any steps that would undermine the EU’s unity. Bratislava believes that the EU needs a policy towards Russia that goes beyond sanctions. The government thinks that the solution to the crisis in Ukraine lies both in diplomacy with Moscow and in strengthening Ukraine itself. In other words, Ukraine’s success hinges not on only on Kyiv’s or Europe’s ability to limit Russia’s actions in the Donbas but also on the Ukrainian government’s resolve in implementing long overdue, deep structural reforms.
After the first debate on sanctions, some feared that by safeguarding what it perceived as key economic interests, Slovakia risked undermining its position in the EU and, ultimately, its own fundamental political and security interests. Growing appreciation of this risk has helped to adjust Slovakia’s course in practice. Scepticism about the EU’s sanctions policy notwithstanding, self-interest has driven Slovakia to begin diversifying its defence, economy, and energy away from Russian sources. The more it does so, the fewer reasons it will have to allow economic interests to shape its response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.