What next for EU Russia policy?

The discussion on Russia at the European Council on 20-21 October comes at a new low in relations between Russia and the West. After the collapse of the ceasefire in Syria, Russia intensified its bombing campaign against civilian areas in Aleppo, prompting Western leaders to accuse Moscow of war crimes. President Putin cancelled a visit to Paris after President Hollande said that Syria would be the only topic up for discussion. This came days after Russia vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution on Aleppo drafted by France. Russia has also deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad in an apparent show of strength in the Baltic Sea region. Meanwhile, more emails belonging to Clinton aides have been leaked in an apparent attempt by Russia to influence the US elections in Trump’s favour. And all of this is only in the past two weeks.

Against this backdrop, European leaders are to have a strategic discussion on relations with Russia. The framework for the EU’s policy towards Russia remains the five guiding principles that were agreed at the Foreign Affairs Council back in March. The first principle – that full implementation of the Minsk agreement remains key to a substantial change in relations – will be particularly salient since Merkel and Hollande are due to meet Putin and Ukrainian President Poroshenko to discuss the Minsk accords in the Normandy Format the day before the European Council. It remains to be seen whether there will be any breakthroughs at this meeting given that the war in the Donbas continues and that negotiations are basically stuck.

The discussion at the European Council is supposed to be broader than sanctions but they will be the main feature. Prime Minister Renzi has been asking for a political discussion on sanctions since last year. But given the general deterioration of relations with Russia, it is unlikely that there will be significant push back on sanctions. If anything, discussions may go in the direction of more sanctions over Russia’s bombing in Syria. The US, together with some key European states, is reportedly looking at the possibility of imposing sanctions on individual Russians based on their role in Syria.

The fourth principle – selective engagement – may also be brought to the table. Moscow and Brussels have for months been looking at possible areas for technical cooperation. But here again – given the souring of relations – European leaders will be asking whether now is the right moment for this.

The EU has remained united on its Russia policy since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 despite various pressures. This unity has proven stronger and more resilient than many could anticipate – not least because of active attempts by Russia to divide the EU. Looking ahead, however, this unity may come under increasing pressure in 2017 as key elections are held in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and possibly Italy. In all those countries, there are opposition parties who oppose sanctions and want to see the EU move towards a normalisation of relations with Russia. The eventual departure of the UK from the EU may also shift the centre of gravity towards a softer line on Russia. But, as seen from the past two weeks, Moscow's actions are making it difficult for even its best friends in Europe to push for a more conciliatory approach to Russia.