Winning the normative war with Russia: An EU-Russia Power Audit

Press release

Winning the normative war with Russia: An EU-Russia power audit

New ECFR study maps the European Union’s strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis Russia 

Russia now finds it harder to split EU member states on the political level than it did ten years ago but, in the interim, it has upgraded its efforts to divide these countries internally. This is a key finding of a new EU-Russia Power Audit published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on DATE.

This survey of EU policymakers in the 28 EU countries shows that Europe is now remarkably united in its assessment of Russia, viewing it as a challenge that is first and foremost normative in nature. 22 countries subscribe to the notion that Russia is a threat to the EU primarily because it wants to do away with the post-Cold War liberal international order, which the European Union has no choice but to defend.

Russia’s interference in European domestic politics is one of the front lines of this normative war. Most EU countries do see at least see some evidence of Russia’s attempts to influence their domestic debate, but view its effects as limited. Russia can make use of the cleavages that exist in the European societies, but it is no position to create new ones out of the blue. 

Europe’s response to Russian interference should, therefore, focus less on Russia and more on its own resilience. If Europe wants to “win the normative war with Russia”, as the report’s title implies, it needs to restore the credibility of the liberal international order by rebuilding it from the ground up.

EU members should invest into their own resilience by introducing adequate cyber hygiene, looking into party financing legislation, being vigilant on money-laundering, and investing in horizontal links between different institutions.

More importantly, the EU should work to improve a more fundamental dimension of resilience – the one that presupposes political elites that enjoy relatively high levels of trust, political institutions that are independent and credible, state finances that are transparent, media outlets that are not entirely sensationalist, minorities that are reasonably well-integrated, and historical traumas (if any) that have been thoughtfully addressed. These measures will also be steps towards restoring the credibility of the liberal international order. 

In its intergovernmental relations with Russia, the EU should translate its unity of assessment into a policy that reflects not just European values, but also Russian realities. In addition to sermonising, it should start strategising. 

Report author Kadri Liik says: “Russia supports anti-establishment forces in Europe because it lacks friends among establishments. In doing so, it often uses unconventional methods – but this is not a demonstration of newly found strengths, but an attempt to compensate for weaknesses.”

Most of the time, Russia’s efforts to intervene in European domestic politics are not well thought-through or coordinated – rather, they are an improvised collection of activities engaged in by various actors who are linked together by an ideology that labels the West as an adversary. This makes the Russian threat diffuse and hard to counter head-on, implying that European responses should focus on resilience rather than counter-attacks. “Instead of fighting raindrops, one should fix the roof,” says Liik.

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