One step beyond: Why the EU needs a Russia strategy

The EU needs a Russia strategy that looks beyond the war in Ukraine. Such a policy should centre around support for countries that border Russia, the reduction of Russia’s influence worldwide, and preparation for scenarios of change within the country

Grunge flags of Russia and European Union divided by barb wire illustration, concept of tense relations in Ukraine crisis
Image by picture alliance / Zoonar | Dalibor Brlek

The European Union needs a Russia strategy. Since February 2022, it has pursued a Ukraine policy; it still does not have a separate one for Russia. Yet, the EU’s relationship to Russia cannot be reduced to the war in Ukraine, even if that will remain the most determining element. Over several years, Russia has consistently undermined the instruments regulating arms control and strategic stability in Europe; engaged in domestic interference and subversion attempts in the EU and its neighbourhood; and used energy supplies and migration to gain leverage over or attempt to coerce the EU and its member states. Europeans therefore need a common strategy for Russia that deals with issues beyond the war on Ukraine. 

The first step towards such a strategy is for the EU and all its member states to accept that Russia will remain integral to their security, whether they like it or not. The real challenge is to develop a strategy that can account for the Russia factor in European security without compromising Western interests and values. Europeans have limited capacities to influence domestic developments in Russia. This means they need to focus on a modernised containment strategy that is fit for the current reality and open to a different future. The strategy should comprise three parts: helping the countries that border Russia to strengthen their resilience and consolidate their sovereignty; reducing Russia’s global influence; and preparing for various scenarios of change within Russia.

Supporting Russia’s neighbours

The security of the EU and its member states starts with the security of their neighbours in eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and central Asia, as well as in the southern neighbourhood. The EU should therefore continue to work with governments in these regions to foster their resilience to external pressures and create the conditions for cooperation and stability. The EU and its member states can help address these countries’ existing dependencies on Russia, particularly regarding energy, finances, investment, and infrastructure.  

This is particularly relevant for Ukraine and Moldova. The EU should offer both these countries a clear pathway towards accession, including security assistance and support for the consolidation of state institutions and the fight against corruption – as weak institutions and corruption have traditionally been vehicles of Russian influence. The EU should also help these countries more tightly integrate their energy infrastructure with that of the bloc, and it should provide targeted financial assistance to mitigate the societal impact of the energy transition.

Moreover, the EU needs to remain consistent in its engagement with the South Caucasus countries. It should help them to overcome current factors of instability, whether that is domestic political polarisation in the case of Georgia or inter-state war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The EU needs to try to re-engage with both Georgia’s government and the opposition, using all the bloc’s leverage to get the sides to conclude and implement an agreement to end the political crisis. Armenia and Azerbaijan have already achieved significant progress on paper, with European Council president Charles Michel facilitating talks at the highest level. But the degradation of the situation on the ground and the looming humanitarian crisis in the Nagorno-Karabakh region threaten to jeopardise the entire process. In the immediate term, the EU should aim to help secure the lifting of Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor to permit unimpeded humanitarian access to Nagorno-Karabakh. It should then look to quickly resume talks on a political settlement.   

Finally, the EU needs a Belarus policy that aims to preserve the possibility for an independent and democratic Belarus to exist in the future. The EU should continue to support Belarusians in exile and establish informal channels with the Lukashenko regime to explore avenues for a cautious transactional relationship. The liberation of all political prisoners and the end of political repression should be a precondition for any engagement beyond these channels. Europeans should also respond with new sanctions on Russia if it takes further steps to absorb Belarus, even if this happens with the consent of the latter’s illegitimate leadership. In the framework of a future settlement of the war in Ukraine, Europeans should propose new security arrangements and arms control mechanisms to address Russian weapons deployed in the territory of Belarus. Decoupling Belarus from Russia’s strategic space would be fundamental to enhancing its neighbours’ security, particularly that of Ukraine.

Reducing Russia’s global influence

Over several years, Russia has developed an active strategy to project its influence across the world, from Syria to the Central African Republic and Venezuela. Since February 2022, this has involved strong promotion in the so-called global south of its narrative that the war against Ukraine is part a worldwide struggle against Western hegemony. The EU’s Russia policy therefore needs a global arm.

Europeans should ensure they go beyond listening and consistently act on the concerns of poor and middle-income countries. This should incorporate acting on food and energy shortages in the context of the war in Ukraine, but also in such areas as climate finance and sustainable development. Unfulfilled pledges only feed frustration and serve Russia’s narrative about Western inconsistencies and double standards.

Europeans need to counter Russian influence operationsin these states, which function through Russian state media presence, the strategic corruption of elites, or the Kremlin’s efforts to buy influence in academia and think-tanks. The EU and its member states should support investigative journalism and media freedom in those countries that polls show Russian narratives have gained traction among the public, for example Brazil, Malaysia, and South Africa. Ukraine and other European states that were once part of the Soviet Union should be encouraged to play a key role in countering the Russian narrative about the war in the so-called global south, for example by emphasising the neocolonial nature of Russia’s aggression.  

Finally, the EU should actively challenge Russia in multilateral organisations. This does not mean that Europeans should always seek to exclude Russia from these organisations. In some cases, such as in the G20, they should try to isolate Russia because its position on the issues involved is wholly unconstructive. In other organisations, Russia’s role should be contained, such as in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in which various mechanisms can be used to overcome Russia’s attempts to block consensus-based decision-making. In some cases, a degree of cooperation with Moscow makes sense, including with a view to a future settlement of the war against Ukraine. This is clearly the case at the United Nations Security Council, in which working channels with Russia should be preserved, given its capacity to block important decisions. Part of the effort to challenge Russia in international organisations will involve using mechanisms to address war crimes and hold the Russian leadership to account, though Europeans will also need to turn their attention towards other cases of impunity worldwide to make this case.

Preparing for the possibility of change in Russia

Europeans need to be clear that there will be no return to the status quo ante in their relations with Russia. But they should be open to the possibility of change in the country, and continue preparing for various possible scenarios. The EU and member states should not be under any illusion with regards to their ability to effect change, but – where possible – they should continue supporting Russian independent civil society organisations. They should also keep strong capacities to observe, analyse, and share information about developments within the country.

As part of this, the EU and its member states should maintain a diplomatic presence in Russia – however challenging this may prove – which would allow them also to preserve some diplomatic channels and continue to engage with Russian society where possible. Severing all ties with Russians would be highly detrimental to any possibility of rebuilding a relationship in the future and would only serve the Russian leadership’s anti-Western propaganda. The EU and member states need to find ways to continue engaging with Russians and in Russia to enable Europeans to anticipate change in the country and to resume some form of ties with its society and leadership when and if possible.

Europeans should start devising a more forthcoming approach toward the Russian diaspora in the EU, based on a deeper understanding of the nuances of this community

Europeans should also start devising a more forthcoming approach toward the Russian diaspora in the EU, based on a deeper understanding of the nuances of this community. Many of them will probably remain in the EU for at least as long as there is no meaningful political change in Russia, but some continue to travel to Russia, and may therefore help Europeans to preserve channels of communication with Russian society. The EU should therefore seek to raise the diaspora’s awareness (and by extension that of their contacts in Russia) about the implications of the war for Ukraine and for European security, including by funding independent Russian-language media. At the same time, member states should pragmatically address barriers faced by Russians fleeing their country when trying to enter the EU or settle in one of its member states (for example, defectors and people unwilling to be drafted).

Sanctions will remain a key part of Europe’s long-term effort to deal with Russia. With its latest sanctions packages, the EU has started adapting the existing measures to remove bypass mechanisms and loopholes. It now needs to develop a clear doctrine on how it imposes secondary sanctions, which may incentivise countries such as Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan to cooperate more closely with the EU to avoid being used by Russia to dodge sanctions. The EU should also start to identify which sanctions and export controls would need to remain in place and which lifted in the event of a settlement of the war. Whatever the outcome of the war, certain limitations will have to remain to constrain Russia’s capacity to launch future offensives. The EU will therefore also need to develop strategic communications vis-à-vis European and non-European publics about the rationale and legitimacy of sanctions.

Europeans will still need to talk to and seek deconfliction with Russiaon an ad hoc basis. Stronger security for Europe requires keeping open European channels to work with Russia on certain issues, including by establishing military channels and in multilateral frameworks, rather than relying on other powers to always speak on the continent’s behalf.

A common vision of Russia

Whatever the future holds for Russia, Europeans should agree on a common vision of what they aspire to in their post-war relationship with the country. This should build on current realities and not assume a radical change of regime or a collapse of the Russian state altogether. The process of defining this common vision would help Europeans determine what steps could contribute to establishing such a relationship, but also what actions could compromise it and thus should be avoided.

The bottom line of such a definition could be the following: Europe wants a relationship with a Russia that sees itself as a normal country – a country that views its borders as fixed; that does not define itself as an exceptional civilisation, entitled to dominate its neighbours; and is not obsessed by imaginary Western attempts to subvert or destroy it. This would of course require a shift in the self-perception of Russians, and especially of the Russian elite.

The Russian public yearns for normality – understood as the possibility to live a normal life – which explains why the regime’s propaganda tries to normalise the war and minimise exceptional events such as the Wagner mutiny. Europeans could make use of various instruments and channels to challenge the regime’s normalising narrative and make clear that actual normal life is not possible during a war. In doing so, they should also make clear that such a normal life will be possible once the war is over and if Russians accept a normal Russia.

This would also require Europeans to examine their own perceptions of Russia and break with essentialist understandings, whether they are of Russia as a great and unique civilisation or as an overwhelmingly threatening evil. Other countries, such as France and the United Kingdom, experienced similar shifts to normality after the loss of their empires. Under certain conditions, Russia could achieve this too.

A strong foundation

This is a Russia strategy that moves beyond Ukraine. Of course, continued support to Ukraine is a prerequisite, not least because a Ukrainian victory is fundamental to the future of Russia and European security. But the duration and outcome of the war, as well as Russia’s future, remain uncertain. This uncertainty cannot be an excuse for Europeans failing to define the relationship they want with Russia when the war is over. Europeans should start formulating their Russia strategy now and resist the temptation to wait and see what kind of Russia emerges.

Of course, transatlantic unity and domestic resilience are necessary conditions for an effective Russia strategy. Europeans need to get their own house in order when it comes to dealing with disinformation and strategic corruption, coping with migration crises, and fully decoupling from Russian energy supplies. The EU has accomplished incredible feats in these areas since February 2022. But, with the prospect of a long war, and an ever-broader confrontation with Russia, maintaining unity and progress will become ever more difficult. A more resilient EU that is aware of its own interests and able and willing to support them will be well-placed to manage this confrontation and to ultimately prevail. By contrast, the costs of disunity could be existential.

With those pieces in place, a modernised containment strategy can protect European interests, provide a perspective of a better future for Russia’s neighbours, and ensure preparedness to capitalise on any domestic change within Russia.  

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


Director, Wider Europe programme

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.