14 Feb 2022

IMEMO researcher Nadezhda Arbatova: New EU strategy on Russia may help it gain full-scale role in politics


Nadezhda Arbatova
Courtesy photo

A sharp increase in foreign political contacts between Russia and the United States has not escaped Europe’s notice, hence the visit by French President Emmanuel Macron and the upcoming visit by German Chancellor Olaf Sholz to Russia. Interfax correspondent Vyacheslav Terekhov discusses the implications of the visits with IMEMO European Political Studies Department head Nadezhda Arbatova.

Question: Have EU leaders decided to show their resentment and to begin negotiations of their own with Russia?

Answer: Let's begin with EU-Russia relations. Indeed, relations between the European Union and Russia are at their lowest point for the whole post-bipolar period of international relations. Profound differences between Russia and the EU on key issues have led to a complete loss of mutual understanding between them. It's no accident that in the context of these differences Moscow has been focusing on bilateral relations with EU member states. However, growing tensions surrounding Ukraine that have created the threat of a real war in Europe and urged Brussels to intensify diplomatic activity on the Russian track, in particular to search for compromises with Moscow.

Actually, a great many February initiatives by EU leading politicians were dedicated to this - the visit by French President Emmanuel Macron and the upcoming visit by German Chancellor Olaf Sholtz, and the meeting of leaders of the Weimar Triangle (France, Germany and Poland) in Berlin. In fact, this shows the willingness of EU leaders to engage Russia “constructively, in meaningful and result-oriented discussions on security issues of mutual concern.” Reformatting the previous approach of the EU to Russia and the formulation of the new strategy on the Russian track based on the common imperative of preventing a big war in Europe could be a decisive moment in the EU getting a full-fledged role in international relations.

Now regarding the “resentment” against the U.S. Indeed, as we remember, the EU leadership was disappointed about getting no separate invitation to negotiations on European security between Russia and NATO. And you could even say it felt sore about this. The statement of EU foreign political chief Josep Borrell is illustrative in this regard. Regretting that the EU didn't become a participant in the negotiations, he said: "Anyone who wants to negotiate the future security architecture in Europe must of course also talk to the Europeans. European security is our security. It is about us." Honestly! But one should keep in mind that it wasn't today or yesterday that this position was formed.

For decades, ranging from the Pleven Plan to the today's strategic autonomy of the European Union, Europeans have been discussing Europe's global role. Security and defense have always remained the area with the largest gap between expectations and results on this long voyage. The focus on the EU's strategic autonomy declared in its 2016 Security Strategy should destroy the cliche, as Borrell said, that the European Union is "an economic giant, but also a political dwarf and a military worm." The world which in Borrell's opinion is characterized by aggressive competition between the states where American-Chinese strategic rivalry is the main 'structuring force' in international relations, the European Union should have military and political weight along with other powers, the U.S., China and Russia.

To tell the truth, there is some kind of cognitive dissonance in relations between the EU and the U.S., which is the cross-membership of the majority of European countries in the EU and NATO. For the U.S., which has always treated European integration with suspicion, these are primarily European allies in NATO. However, an informal meeting of foreign and defense ministers of EU member states took place in Brest attended by Josep Borrell and Jens Stoltenberg on January 13-14, immediately after the negotiations in the Russia-U.S.-NATO format. The participation of the NATO secretary general in the Brest meeting was intended to confirm EU's role in ensuring European security. At this meeting, EU member states fully supported diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Ukraine within the Normandy Format, which today is an exclusively European format.

Q.: Are there reasons to believe that the today's focus on strategic autonomy in the military sphere is serious?

A.: Despite skepticism over the establishment of the European defense potential in the EU, it is possible to say that the European Union, is moving, albeit slowly, towards strategic autonomy. Of course, the development of the security and defense policy wasn't linear. The history of integration in this sphere can boast many abbreviations, CSDP, ESDP, EDA, EDF, PESCO, CDP and many others which make even the well-prepared reader dizzy. If we perceive security and defense policy as a building, more and more new elements were added to it, and they augmented existing functions with new ones in a constantly changing situation.

This can be seen vividly in the history of the development of EU Security Strategy of 2003, 2016 and 2020. The 2003 strategy was adopted amid post-bipolar euphoria. Its task was peacekeeping and the prevention and settlement of regional conflicts. The 2016 strategy prioritized its own security, the security of its territory and its people, and it considered relations with external states though this lens. The 2020 Security Strategy goes even further setting an ambitious goal of building so-called security ecosystem. This phrase, which is popular here as well and which is likely to have come from the U.S., provides for countering non-traditional and non-military security threats in the context of effective international cooperation.

In other words, the evolution of security threats gives new tasks to the EU in the sphere of military construction which are gradually coming to life.

Q.: Will the EU reach this goal and when could this happen?

A.: This will depend on many internal and external factors. This primarily is the viability and effectiveness of the European Union in the borders of 27 very different countries from the point of view of historical experience and national approaches to ensuring European security. As we know, 27 EU member states is not the end. In other words, the issue is primarily about political will and solidarity in elaborating a common EU approach to European security. As famous British military historian and theorist Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart said, it's easier to deal with open opposition rather than with a general agreement which in fact hides unwillingness to make it come true.

No doubt, EU member states have materiel and technical capabilities to create military potential. EU's first specific military and political strategy, Strategic Compass, will be adopted in the first half of the year under the French presidency in the EU. This document defines European security threats, EU potential of conducting military operations without the assistance of the U.S. and NATO and projecting the influence of Europe as a regional and global player. Moreover, the EU plans to work out together with NATO a new political declaration by the next NATO summit in June 2022 in order to strengthen the Euro-Atlantic link.