Magazine article European Affairs

Russia and the EU: The Difficult Path to a New Partnership

Magazine article European Affairs

Russia and the EU: The Difficult Path to a New Partnership

Article excerpt

The transition of leadership in Russia could have paved the way for a new chapter in Russian history and Russia's role in the world. Russia, which has always identified herself as an offspring of European civilization, seemed on its way to bolstering ties with the West. An era of consolidation during the Putin years--as Henry Kissinger pointed out recently--appeared to be over, and a new era of modernization seemed set to emerge. This trend is now in doubt after the trauma of events in Georgia. With its excessive use of military force and now its political escalation in extending unilateral diplomatic recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, Russia is challenging the foundations of European security after the cold war.

In 1979, Soviet armed forces invaded Afghanistan, but that intervention--nominally at the invitation of the authorities in Kabul--ultimately proved abortive. This time in August 2008 Russian forces crossed the borders of another country, its neighbor Georgia, into South Ossetia, a region within Georgia's internationally recognized borders. Although described as retaliation for Georgia's military adventure in South Ossetia and an effort to help people there who have obtained Russian passports, Moscow's use of force sends a chill down the spine of all of Russia's neighbors, in particular Ukraine and those seeking closer ties with the West--plus the Caspian's "stans" caught between Europe's desire for their oil and gas and Russian objections to see it flow westward via pipelines running outside Russian territory and control.

Now that Russia has demonstrated a new readiness to "throw its weight around" in its immediate neighborhood, there is an obvious risk of a new confrontation with the West, the like of which has not been known since the cold war-era. The European Union, under the leadership of French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel, brokered the cease fire between Russia and Georgia. Now it must worry about Russia's capacity to act as a reliable partner not only vis-a-vis the EU but in the NATO-Russia Council and in other international and European bodies. The EU held off on sanctions, for now, in their decisions at a special summit on the Georgian conflict at the start of September. But leaders warned that the talks about the new partnership and cooperation agreement are now suspended until Russia withdraws its troops from Georgia to the positions before the Russian incursion. The Georgian crisis highlights Europe's energy dependence on Russia. Georgia is a crucial link, geographically, in Europe's efforts to diversify the incoming routes of its oil and gas supplies. Should Russia seek control over Georgia, it would pose a threat for Europe.

In any attempt to seek the basis for a renewed partnership with Russia, Europe must remain firm on some key principles--for instance, not allowing Moscow any veto rights over its relations with other countries. A final-status agreement for South Ossetia and Abkhazia can only come from negotiations conducted without a fait accompli and a threat to use force. The EU would be well positioned to mediate a final status agreement between the parties involved in the conflict. It would be a clear and reassuring signal if Russia accepted the presence of a strong EU peacekeeping role in Georgia's conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Instead, Russia's move to recognize the independence from Georgia of South Ossetia and Abkhazia seems to amount to a policy of annexation by Russia.

The current tensions in the Caucasus can derail the EU-Russian partnership negotiations that were set to resume, and they could open up new dividing lines in Europe for a long time to come. On the other hand, both Russia and the West need each other for political and economic reasons. The issues of Iran's nuclear ambitions, energy, climate protection, nuclear arms control and non proliferation are examples of a commonality of interests. …

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