New Faces on Old Tensions: Understanding the Decline of EU-Russian Relations

Following the fall of the Soviet Union’s European empire in 1989, there was some hope within security circles that the end to near-constant confrontation and conflict in Europe had finally been achieved. In 1991, three quarters of a century had passed since the outbreak of the First World War; very few in government could remember a time when the threat of continent-wide conflict was lower than in that year.

The newly-formed European Union (EU) saw the potential to establish a new security situation on the continent; as late as 1999, the EU declared it its aim to see “a stable, democratic, and prosperous Russia…governed by the rule of law and underpinning a prosperous market economy”. Fifteen years later, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill incorporating Crimea into the Russian Federation, directly violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine in the process. So what happened? How, in less than two decades, did we get from the end of history to the new Cold War?

Helmut Kohl (l) and Boris Yeltsin share a laugh in late 2000
Tensions simmer between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin in early 2014

It’s possible that the EU and Russia simply diverged in strategic interests over the early years of the twenty-first century; the EU’s expansion into Russia’s so-called “near abroad” through the accession of former Soviet states into the Union drastically increased the prospects for political, territorial and military friction, meanwhile Russia’s increasingly authoritarian turn under Vladimir Putin has seen it diverge from the EU’s stated normative goals of a free and democratic Europe. Additionally, few in the mid-1990s could have predicted just how high oil prices would rise in the early part of the new century, and fewer still could have imagined how much leverage this would give the Russian government over its European neighbours, including and especially Germany.

This latter fact relates to another trend; Putin’s Russia is, for all its failings, strong enough to assert itself abroad, whilst Yeltsin’s quite plainly was not. Since 2008, Putin has overseen an expensive overhaul of the Russian military, and has utilised it to great effect in Georgia, Chechnya, as well as eastern Ukraine since. Cyber-offensives against the West and electoral disinformation campaigns since 2015 have only served to demonstrate the extent to which Russia has recovered both its strength and great power ambitions under Putin’s rule.

For its part, the EU has repeatedly failed to form a coherent strategy to achieve its stated vision. Part of this is, of course, down to the organisation’s amorphous structure and divergent interests of its members, as well as the aforementioned reliance of certain states on Russian goodwill for their energy supplies. It took EU leaders over a year to publicly refer to the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, for example, and there has been a consistent failure to fully understand the depth of Russia’s interference in the electoral processes of other countries. Kuzio also highlights that the EU has been ignorant of Russia’s increasing perception of the bloc as a hostile bloc interfering in its “zone of privileged interests”.

It is this last point, more than any other, which I feel explains the long collapse of EU-Russian relations. The fall of the Soviet Union, whilst geopolitically significant, did not fundamentally alter the strategic balance of European geography. Under Tsarist, Soviet and now oligarchic systems, Russia has consistently pursued a policy of building up a barrier zone between it and any potential enemies. In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, the distance between Moscow and its nearest NATO capital was 2,300 kilometres. With the accession of a number of former Soviet satellites into NATO ranks, that distance is now just 1,000 kilometres. Should Ukraine join NATO or the EU anytime soon, the gap would shrink still further. This reality is recognised in Russia; when Putin referred to the collapse of the USSR as a “genuine tragedy”, he was referring to Russia’s loss of strategic depth.

The EU’s failure to understand this has hamstrung it at every turn when it comes to confronting Russia. By expanding into Russia’s ‘near abroad’, the EU went from being a sedate, amorphous neighbour to a large, potentially hostile threat to Russian interests, a threat with an economy ten times that of Russia’s, and one closely aligned with the United States and NATO. The European Neighbourhood Policy and Eastern Partnership only served to heighten this impression, and EU overtures to Ukraine may have been perceived as the final straw for Russian policymakers.

The primary cause, then, for the decline in relations between the EU and Russian Federation is more structural than incidental; whilst both have seen their interests diverge and come into conflict, most explosively and recently in the Crimean Peninsula, persistent and historical Russian strategic concerns and the EU’s eastern expansion have ensured that confrontation, not cooperation, will be the watchword for the foreseeable future.

By Conor Hilliard

Conor Hilliard is a third year History and International Relations student and working group member of the Defence and Diplomacy Policy Centre at King’s Think Tank. His academic interests include British diplomatic history, Irish nationalism and peacekeeping studies

Image from Flickr, some rights reserved by European Parliament.


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Image Sources:

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