Poisonous relations

The EU needs to figure out a way to come together to fight back against Russian aggression. An article published in Newsweek.

This article was published in Newsweek, issue dated 28 July, 2008.

In the past eight years, Russia has had serious rows with almost half of the EU’S 27 member states.

Contrary to popular opinion that such disagreements are fueled by historic grievances in Eastern Europe, these disputes have affected both longtime members of the EU and new ones; both Russia’s neighbors and states farther afield; both those who thought they had good relations with Moscow and those who were happy to admit they were bad. For instance, Russia banned Polish meat in 2005, claiming it was unhygienic; it attempted to charge the German airline Lufthansa special fees for flying over Siberia in 2007; and it allegedly engaged in cyberterrorism against Estonia in May 2007 and against Lithuania in June 2008.

For each of these countries, these were more than just foreign-policy problems. They have become an internal problem for the EU as well, creating divisions among member states. For instance, Poland, and then Lithuania, delayed the start of negotiations on an agreement that would help regulate EU-Russia relations, causing frustration among other member states that wanted to proceed. In another instance, the Russian-sponsored North Stream and South Stream gas pipelines have sparked disagreements about preferential energy access, the undermining of current transit states like Ukraine and Europe’s own Nabucco project, which is supposed to bring in gas from the Caucasus and Central Asia via the Balkans.

Indeed, it seems that too often Russia has been able to punch above its weight by using underhanded divide-and-conquer tactics—while Europe has failed to recognize that collectively it is much stronger than its members are when they act alone. EU states have seemed confused about when to show solidarity in the face of Russia’s games—when, for instance, Moscow offered certain member states, like Germany, preferential energy deals while picking fights with others, like Estonia.

Europe needs to figure out a way to come together to fight back. When it has done so, the results have been impressive. Two years ago, the nationalist Nashi youth group began shadowing the British ambassador, in flagrant breach of various conventions on diplomatic immunity. Especially worrying was the fact that these toughs seemed to be armed with insider information on his daily whereabouts. The United States would have responded harshly toward them. But London failed to comprehend that this was a classic Russian modus operandi: probe for soft spots and push hard. Britain’s initial protests were muted, creating a perception of weakness that only invited further Russian aggression. But finally, when the European Union began to protest, it helped solve the problem. Nashi stood down.

The EU has shown a similar capacity to shape Russian behavior when it has agreed on common positions. For instance, in 2004 it persuaded Russia to sign the Kyoto Protocol in exchange for a clearer path to World Trade Organization membership. In 2006 it faced down Russian demands for free passage for its citizens through Lithuania to their stranded enclave of Kaliningrad. But now Russia and Britain are at odds again, in what is possibly the biggest and most significant bilateral confrontation yet. At the G8 conference in Japan two weeks ago, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised, in what has been described in diplo-speak as “extremely frank talks” with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the 2006 London murder of British citizen Alexander Litvinenko. For months now, Britain has been seeking the extradition from Russia of the chief suspect in that case, Andrei Lugovoi. But Russia has refused. At the G8 conference, Medvedev, in his first face-to-face with Brown, stood firm, yielding no ground on that matter or on an unrelated commercial dispute between the British oil company BP and investors in its joint venture in Russia.

To be sure, the Litvinenko mystery was never going to be an easy issue to resolve. It had echoes of a John le Carré novel, with a full plot list of spies, mysterious émigrés and bizarre poisoning methods. In many ways, the media circus surrounding the affair has made it difficult for Brown to manage it. But rather than cooperating, Russia has pushed back aggressively. In response to the request to extradite Lugovoi, the Russian Foreign Ministry asked for extradition of the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev, both currently in London. When Britain explained it had no power to force its courts to comply, Moscow responded (albeit without formally linking the issues) by accusing the British Council, a cultural institution, of not paying taxes and acting as a cover for espionage, using crude intimidation of the staff to close down offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. While the British government could have kept a small staff in the parts of the offices that were on consular premises, it pulled the council out, effectively proving to Russia it could get away with its behavior. Now it has lost cultural influence in Russia while getting no closer to extraditing Lugovoi, who enjoys full domestic immunity after being elected as a Russian M.P. in December 2007.

This one lingering issue is but a glaring illustration of the kinds of problems Russia poses to the rest of Europe. It is therefore time for the EU to agree, at least on principle, to a common response to these shows of Russian aggression. The EU’s population is more than three times the size of Russia’s; its economy is 15 times larger. But its biggest strength lies in interdependence, solidarity and consensus. When the next crisis comes, all European states will need to be prepared.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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