Global Europe Brief, powered by Facebook: Europe-Russia relations hit rock bottom (again)

Your weekly update on the EU from a global perspective.

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In this week’s edition: Russia relations down, NATO looks into the future, Belarus migration woes.

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The Russia-West storybook has become known for tit-for-tat: The 2006 Litvinenko murder, the Czech ammunition depot attacking 2014, the 2018 Skripal poisoning in Salisbury and a range of cyberattacks over the years.

Subsequently, various European countries expelled scores of Russian diplomats and alleged spies. Moscow retaliated by designating Western officials as persona non grata and ending diplomatic mandates.

Now add into the mix Russia’s increasing military presence near Ukraine after 2014 and its treatment of imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny, and the situation becomes even more strained.

As if relations between NATO and Russia were not tense enough, now Moscow announced it would halt the activities of its mission to NATO and that of NATO’s diplomatic mission in Russia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave the news in a press conference on Monday (18 October). It came after the alliance expelled eight Russians in a spying row earlier this month.

Russia made its intentions clear but is yet to deliver an official notification to the alliance, NATO diplomats confirmed this week.

The NATO-Russia Council has been a way to keep communication open since the 1990s. It was established to address political conflicts rooted in the Cold War and served as a platform to manage those conflicts until Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

Bottom line: Russia is not interested in any dialogue with NATO in Brussels. Lavrov confirmed as much when he said, “if NATO members have any urgent matters, they can contact our ambassador to Belgium”, adding, he didn’t expect to see any change in relations in the future.

After years of deteriorating relations, sanctions, tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, and an escalating “information war,” some in Moscow are asking if there is any point in seeking renewed dialogue.

NATO says there is, but it takes two to tango.

Then, there is the situation with the EU. Access to Russian gas is dividing the bloc amid the recent energy crisis.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been mocking the EU over sky-high energy prices, but the latter doesn’t have any instruments to force a change of behaviour in Moscow.

Kremlin-friendly Hungary last month signed two 15-year deals for Russian gas; Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said his own country’s failure to secure similar long-term deals for political reasons was “a mistake”.

But many are wary of renewing such long-term ties with Russia. Since Borrell’s ill-fated trip to Moscow, one camp does not trust Brussels to handle Russia; the others fear a reduced diplomatic interaction could cost them dearly.

Poland’s stance (unsurprisingly) remains unshaken.

Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš said that given the EU’s vulnerability to Russia, Putin’s statement that good political relations lead to good gas relations were akin to blackmail.

EU energy ministers are set to discuss those issues at this week’s extraordinary Energy Council on Tuesday.

But what then?

The fundamental disagreements between the EU and Russia over democratic values and European security are most likely to persist, possibly beyond Putin.

The EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell has argued in his recent report the EU should push back against, contain, and engage with Russia, bracing itself for rocky diplomatic interactions with the country.

But the fact is that the space for EU–Russia cooperation has become too narrow to allow for serious engagement, which leaves the EU grappling with the other two options.

This has boosted the confidence of Russia, with Moscow earlier this year calling on the EU to stop interfering in the domestic affairs not just of post-Soviet states but even Western Balkans countries, which happened to ask for EU accession.

Many Russia watchers believe that better dialogue with Russia will come about once the EU starts being more decisive about what it wants (or starts to ‘speak the language of power,’ if you will).


EU IN THE WORLD

BELARUS BORDER | EU leaders discussed migration and the situation at the EU’s eastern border with Belarus on Friday, and Eastern Europeans asked for a review of the bloc’s legislation to reflect the ongoing crisis.

SAKHAROV PRIZE | Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was awarded the European Parliament’s annual human rights prize for his efforts to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.

DEFENCE CORNER

HYBRID THREATS | NATO defence ministers adopted several strategy papers and agreed on a new master plan this week to defend against any potential Russian hybrid attack, diplomats and officials said.

The confidential strategy goes beyond existing regional defence and deterrence plans. It aims to prepare for any simultaneous attack in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, possibly including nuclear weapons and cyberattacks coordinated from space.

EU-NATO | NATO called on the EU to cooperate more closely with the military alliance after the latest EU defence efforts in recent months raised concerns of parallel structures that might be competing with NATO.


WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…

We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe’s everyday business is back from summer break.

  • European Parliament’s AFET Committee on Gender Equality in EU Foreign and Security Policy, Indo-Pacific & Belarus
    | Mo-Tue, 25-26 October 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • African Union-European Union ministerial meeting
    | Mo-Tue, 25-26 October 2021 | Kigali, Rwanda
  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visits Finland and Sweden
    | Mo-Wed, 25-27 October 2021 |
  • ASEAN summit and related summits
    | Mo-Thu, 25-28 October 2021 | Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
  • Barents Euro-Arctic Council meets
    | Tuesday, 26 October 2021 | Tromso, Norway
  • EU energy ministers meet on gas price surge, Russia
    | Tuesday, 26 October 2021 | Luxembourg
  • European Parliament’s SEDE Committee on Strategic Compass, NATO, Eastern Partnership
    | Wed-Thu, 27-28 October 2021 | Brussels, Belgium

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