01.07.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Why’s Europe Divided on Positive Ties with Russia?


In a recent EU summit held in Brussels, the bloc overwhelmingly rejected joint French-German proposal to normalise EU-Russia relations. The bloc, instead of paying heed to the Franco-German message of redefining EU-Russia relations as a means to increase the bloc’s strategic autonomy in the international arena and reduce its dependence on the US for critical foreign policy objectives, wilfully decided to reduce itself to the margins of international politics by refusing to create a European space for relations with Russia, one that does not simply toe the US line of action vis-à-vis its Cold War adversary. While the Franco-German proposal asked for creating formats for discussion with Russia on as varying issues as climate change, peace and security, the proposal also shows a growing realisation within the continent, at least in the bloc’s two most powerful countries, for a policy that may allow it to shun its current status as a US periphery. As Germany’s Merkel said, “we cannot remain on a purely defensive attitude to Russia, on a case-by-case basis, while, very legitimately, we saw a structured discussion unfold between President Biden and President Putin.” In other words, the underlying logic for Germany and France remains: if the US can independently pursue discussions with Russia, the EU, too, must not hold back.

But the fact that nearly half of the EU countries voted against the otherwise progressive and rational proposal shows how many of them continue to follow an extremely narrowly defined policy of confrontation with Russia, a policy that is actively encouraged by the US as well.

For instance, in a June 5 piece written for The Washington Post, the US president underlined his visit to Europe as his attempt to rally world’s democracies against Russia. To quote Biden, “We are standing united to address Russia’s challenges to European security, starting with its aggression in Ukraine, and there will be no doubt about the resolve of the United States to defend our democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests”, adding further that “When we meet, I will again underscore the commitment of the United States, Europe and like-minded democracies to stand up for human rights and dignity.”

While one may tend to think that the Joe Biden administration is pursuing its own agenda, it remains that fanning out anti-Russian sentiments, or directly sympathising European countries’ inflated apprehensions with regards to Russian intentions, as a means to increase the margin of space for the US to intervene in European politics is structurally rooted in the US body politics. For instance, even during the era of Donald Trump, who was otherwise accused of pro-Russian policies, a US Senate appropriations subcommittee invited European countries, including those from within the EU, to give testimony with regards to “Russian activity” in their countries.

While all six of these countries – Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – testified in the hearing against the so-called Russian aggression, the testimony also highlighted how the US continues to aid these countries against Russia, a policy that directly underpins the continuity of anti-Russian Cold War mentality in Eastern Europe.

Poland’s ambassador to the US, Piotr Wilczek, said that “The Kremlin has a chief strategic objective: restore the superpower status lost after the fall of communism. The way to achieve this goal seems straightforward: altering the security architecture in Europe, thus impeding post-soviet countries from integrating with the Euro-Atlantic community.” He further thanked the US for “the deployment of your [US] troops to our region under the NATO flag. A long-term American commitment to the eFP is absolutely essential. I would like to add that the presence of American soldiers in Poland as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve is of equal and paramount importance. Further congressional support for the European Reassurance Initiative would be greatly appreciated.”

While this testimony took place in 2017, the Joe Biden administration remains obsessed with the same mentality, indicating the structural underpinnings of anti-Russianism in the US and the tendency of all US governments to flag European “fears” as true and legitimate reasons for the US political, diplomatic and even military interventions in favour of these countries.

For instance, when Antony Blinken, the current US Secretary of State, toured Europe in April, one of the chief purposes of the visit was to “educate” the Europeans about the “Russian threat.” In his meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Blinken affirmed the US’ “unwavering support” for Ukraine’s territorial integrity as it faces aggression from Russia. “The secretary expressed concern about Russia’s deliberate actions to escalate tensions with Ukraine, including through its aggressive rhetoric and disinformation, increasing ceasefire violations, and movement of troops in occupied Crimea and near Ukraine’s borders,” the US embassy in Ukraine said in a statement.

The US efforts to actively instil fear of Russian “expansionism” and Moscow’s search for re-establishing Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe represent US attempts to prevent the continent from developing its own organic foreign policy and strategic outlook. As it stands, these Eastern European countries’ threat assessment vis-à-vis Moscow continues to be largely shaped by their consistent cooperation and engagement with the US than other EU members such as Germany and France.

While this is not to suggest that France and Germany are for absolute normalisation of ties with Russia, as they continue to support establishing a NATO footprint in the Black Sea, it remains that their position represents a fast growing European desire to establish Europe as an independent player in the international arena whereby it can pursue its foreign policy objectives more independently.

While the trend will continue even after Merkel’s exit from politics. Merkel’s likely successor as chancellor, Armin Laschet, in an interview with Financial Times last week, duly called for Russia to be brought out of the cold, saying the West must try to “establish a sensible relationship” with Moscow, and that wilfully “ignoring Russia has served neither our nor the US’ interests”, it remains that Washington has established strong strings in Eastern Europe to pull to kill such European initiatives as and when needed.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.