Jean-Yves Haine and Asle Toje
After 18 months of procrastination, Europe has finally agreed on May 26 to open negotiations with Russia on a partnership agreement. On the same day, Poland and Sweden unveiled proposals for an “eastern partnership” with Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Belarus. The delay of the first largely explains the launch of the second. When the European Union is absent, regional dynamics take over. Both initiatives illustrate Europe’s difficulty in addressing strategic issues with a united voice; they demonstrate the necessity for Europe to be pragmatic, realist and flexible.
Much has recently been written on Russia’s new assertiveness in foreign policy, based on few but crucial instruments of power: natural resources and nuclear capabilities. Russia remains a status quo power internationally, but is a (born again) rising power regionally. Russia greatly benefits from favourable international and domestic conditions to press on its advantage in the “near abroad”. With energy prices at record highs and considerable freedom of manoeuvre domestically in foreign policy, Moscow is able to pursue classic high politics in its sphere of influence. Yet assertiveness should not be equated with hostility in ths case: Russia has with remarkable ease played a game of divide and rule without going to extremes.
Europe presents much the opposite picture. Internally fragmented and pressured by rising commodity prices Europe is finding difficult to influence Russia at the international level. To achieve leverage, it needs the essential support of the United States and other great powers in the world. But Europe is too heterogeneous to present a united position to Moscow on regional issues. Where and when it matters most, – Kosovo, energy, frozen conflicts-, Europe remains divided. Worse, over the last couple of years the European big powers have been willing to accommodate Russia’s pressuring tactics, engaging in a sort of beauty contest for the privilege of forging special bilateral relationships with Moscow. European big powers are not “European” when they deal with Moscow, they are nation states.
This silent return of great power politics to Europe has significant impact on small and medium sized European countries’ sense of security. Estonia, Lithuania and others have suffered greatly in the absence of European solidarity and the lack of European unity. For Russia’s neighbours, in the face of America’s gradual but persistent withdrawal, Europe represents the best hope of influence. Yet their concerns are not “Europeanized”, they are not actknowledged by the EU. This problem is acute. If the EU fails to address the legitimate concerns of members, these states are bound to seek other arrangements. This will, in turn, increasingly reduce the scope of EU foreign policies. So what should be done?
One, it is time to end this largely fruitless debate between idealism and power that Brussels seems to enjoy. Whether Europe likes it or not, Moscow’s diplomacy is not conducive to a “civilian” approach that the Commission is keen to develop. Vis-à-vis a very “modern” Russia, the EU cannot pretend to remain a “post-modern” actor very long. The EU still evolves in an international system determined by the power of states which they do not contyroll. As the international system increasingly becomes multipolar, power politics will likely grow stronger.
Two, there is a need to differentiate between global and regional interests when dealing with Moscow. The United States has an approach based on the first while Europe has crucial stakes in the second. Precisely because the US is less and less a European power. Washington regards its relations with Moscow at a global power level. Moscow’s assets in the Iranian proliferation issue are far more important than its “brinkmanship” in Georgia and Kosovo. For Europe, it is the other way around: Moscow’s actions in its neighbourhood will largely determine EU’s position vis-à-vis Moscow. This does not mean that transatlantic interests regarding Russia are necessarily divergent, but they are strategically different. Global interests are systemic, – they are negotiated for the benefit of the international system itself-, regional interests are linear, -they are articulated for the pursuit of national gains. This last level is where a European consensus should be sought.
Three, as a rule of thumb, the strategic interest of the weakest of the European club should become the benchmark of the European approach, not those least concerned. It means in practice that the European big powers circle must be enlarged to those who have the most stakes in any agreement with Russia, like the Baltic States. That is what European solidarity (a “solidarity” clause has been added in the Lisbon Treaty) means strategically. If Europe wants to avoid fragmentation in its relationship with Moscow, the benchmark of its common denominator must meet the concerns of Estonia rather than the complacency of Austria. This may represent a gigantic leap for the Union; a flexible group may therefore be the best way forward.
Published by The Atlantic Journal 04.08-2008
Jean-Yves Haine is senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and a visiting Professor at the University of Toronto. Asle Toje is senior fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies