Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 made clear to European governments that Russia is not a problematic strategic partner, but a strategic problem. Europe is still not entirely sure how to respond. Some member states call for constraints on Russia; others argue for a combination of sticks and carrots; and a third, limited group thinks that acquiescing to Russia’s faits accomplis is inevitable. While Europe is united in seeing Russia’s behaviour as problematic, there is no analytical unanimity on the drivers and goals of Russia’s policy. This limits Europe’s policy planning, makes it difficult to formulate a consistent long-term strategy, and has given rise to some – though so far minor – missteps.
The year started with an intensification of fighting in the Donbas, eastern Ukraine, that led to renewed mediation efforts by the Europeans (namely by Germany and France through the so-called Normandy format talks) and resulted in the Minsk II ceasefire agreement in February. The agreement did bring about some de-escalation on the battlefield – although only after the combined forces of Russian troops and “Donbas rebels” had taken the strategic junction of Debaltseve. But most provisions of the agreement remained unfulfilled long after the deadlines had passed. Fighting continued until early September, though on a reduced scale, and there were some incidents even after that. More importantly, the ability of this agreement to provide a path to sustainable peace remains questionable. The document is near-unintelligible, especially on sequencing and timelines. Most glaringly, it sets the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial control as the last step of the process, though this would entail holding local elections while foreign forces were present, which is hardly compatible with a normal political process. The often vaguely formulated text lends itself to multiple interpretations, which, as might be expected, are hugely divergent in Kyiv and Moscow.
In the absence of any alternative political process, the EU has stuck to the Minsk agreement and made it a centrepiece of its strategy for regulating the conflict. Despite the agreement’s shortcomings, it is the only document that Russia and Ukraine have both signed, and so is the only opportunity to hold Moscow to its word. Europe made implementation of the Minsk agreement a condition for lifting sanctions against Russia, and so far has maintained the position that only full implementation – that is, Ukraine regaining control of its border – is sufficient. While the EU could do more to drive and shape the Minsk-related political process, this stance at least avoids the possibility that Russia might trade symbolic and reversible steps for the removal of sanctions and then continue destabilising Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the sanctions policy itself has worked fairly well. Many doubted the measures after they did not produce immediate results in 2014. However, sanctions usually work by cumulative effect – political as well as economic. The Russia sanctions were designed as a “slow squeeze”, to modify Russia’s political behaviour without crashing its economic system. Given Europe’s track record with Russia – Moscow got away with the Georgia war largely without consequences – Europe has done well this time, but will still need to demonstrate staying power for the sanctions to produce the desired outcome.
Economically, sanctions cost the Russian economy 1-1.5 percent of GDP a year according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but the political costs, though more subjective and harder to measure, are probably more important. For now, Moscow has significantly scaled back its ambitions in Ukraine and the sanctions are probably one factor in this (developments in Ukraine are another). But Moscow needs more time to give up on its goal of retaining some leverage over Ukraine’s decision-making.
Sanctions and the stalemate in eastern Ukraine may also have contributed to Russia’s military intervention in Syria in the autumn. Moscow’s aspiration to escape the deadlock by widening the context of its relations with the West was a policy driver here, although not the only or even the main one. Moscow’s other motivations can be found in the domestic context, in its stance against revolutions in general, and in its wish to preserve the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which Moscow sees as a key both to the survival of the Syrian state and to its own presence in the country.
By the end of 2015, the refugee crisis and Islamic State (ISIS)-sponsored attacks against European targets had made resolution of the Syria crisis a political priority for Europe’s governments. Moscow will not be an easy partner: European powers view the Assad regime as the root cause of the Syria crisis, while Moscow views the regime as an essential part of the solution. The EU’s attempts to persuade Moscow to pressure Assad to relinquish power have been based on wishful thinking or a misreading of Russia’s outlook, and are rooted in an absence of more realistic policies. Different perspectives and different priorities also limit the prospects of Europe and Russia forming an effective anti-ISIS coalition in Syria.
This also means that trade-offs involving Syria and Ukraine – much feared and talked about in Ukraine – would not produce the desired results. A token concession on Ukraine would not make Russia change its strategy in Syria, although it might pretend to. Nor, probably, would major concessions on Ukraine – such as accepting that it belonged in Russia’s “sphere of influence” – but they would cause major turmoil in Ukraine, and place Russia’s future relations with Europe on a dysfunctional foundation.
In terms of unity in its relations with Russia, the EU has done well despite differing views among member states. These differences manifested in December, when Italy protested against the rollover of sanctions and demanded a political discussion. This annoyed other member states, but Italy’s request was in part the result of Germany’s decision to endorse the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would transport Russian gas to Germany, bypassing other countries – a policy which seems inconsistent with Europe’s energy policies and with its efforts to bring Russia into a rules-based system. The lesson is obvious: unity takes solidarity, and solidarity ought to be a two-way street.
In the context of unity, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the European Commission took some awkward steps in 2015, embodied in High Representative Federica Mogherini’s Russia paper in January and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s letter to President Vladimir Putin in November. Both sent muddled messages, and betrayed a wrong-headed understanding of Russia’s policy drivers and the view among some member states of sanctions as a box-ticking exercise, rather than a policy to achieve strategic goals.
In terms of strategy, Europe’s policy on Crimea leaves something to be desired. While the EU maintains that it does not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Crimea-related sanctions will remain even when the Minsk measures are lifted, the EU should have a more comprehensive non-recognition policy.
In early 2016, the EU’s search for the right balance of carrots and sticks in its relationship with Russia will continue, with the Minsk agreements, sanctions, and Syria as obvious agenda items. In addition, Europe will be faced with the question of how to relate to the two Eurasian integration projects: the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the China-led “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Some European policymakers hope that starting talks with the EEU will make Russia amenable to cooperation with the EU on Ukraine as well as Syria; others fear that this would amount to legitimising Russia’s aggressive instincts, and ultimately disappoint both sides.
Leaders: Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Sweden, the UK
All member states put aside their differences and agreed to a renewal of sanctions against Russia twice in 2015, though country action on implementation varied and the EU finished the year with Italy showing wobbliness over the second renewal. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the UK continued to push for a tough sanctions policy. Germany’s contribution to keeping the EU united on sanctions was essential, though Berlin’s simultaneous search for ways to engage Russia has created some unease among the countries that took a harder line. France deserves credit for cancelling the sale of Mistral warships to Russia.
Support for Eastern Partnership countries
Leaders: Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden
Slackers: France, Germany
We asked what role specific countries played in maintaining or strengthening the EU’s commitment to reform in Eastern Partnership countries, and to the Eastern Partnership policy itself. Six member states showed leadership in their support for a strong declaration at the Riga summit in May, and for ratifying and implementing Association Agreements with Georgia and Moldova. France and Germany attempted to water down the declaration in order not to irritate Russia.
Business as usual between the EU and Russia has been suspended since 2014, in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. There are some sensible exceptions, such as cross-border cooperation on education through the Erasmus+ programme, and some dialogue on issues of mutual importance, for example on the Iran deal. But beyond that there is little regular interaction.
In January, the high commissioner’s paper on Russia explored the options for opening a positive conversation with Moscow alongside sanctions. Coming at the peak of fighting in Donbas, this step was (correctly) deemed premature by the EU’s foreign ministers.
There is ongoing bilateral cooperation between Russia and many EU countries. France and Germany are holding talks with Russia (and Ukraine) through the Normandy format negotiations. This year, the Commission, via its trade department (DG TRADE), was involved in trilateral talks with Russia and Ukraine on the implementation of the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement and trade deal (AA/DCFTA). The Commission’s energy department (DG ENER) also facilitated negotiations between Russia and Ukraine on the follow-up to the “winter package” deal on gas supplies to Ukraine.