Despite swift and robust economic sanctions, the EU is still collectively failing to take the necessary measures to contain Russian imperialism in the long run and create the conditions in which the Russian threat can be fully contained, in terms of both economic and political influence. Doing so needs a ‘deputinization’ of the relationship with Russia.
Renewed Russian imperialism is turning into a direct challenge to the common European project, which has historically been based on democratic values, multilateralism and the right of sovereign states to determine their own destiny. The war is demonstrating that the Russian understanding of the future of Europe is based on unilateral relations, autocracy, military confrontation and imperialism, which are exactly the opposite of what the EU was built on. This has in the short term called into question the type of relationship with Russia that several member states, in particular Germany, France and Italy, are able to develop.
Meanwhile, the prolongation of the occupation of a large part of Ukrainian territory exacerbates the problem of how to deal with Russia as a country over the medium and long term. First, this unprecedented occupation of a sovereign country poses threats to European energy and food security. The FAO estimates that more than 25 million tonnes of grain are currently stuck in Ukraine, and the blockade of Ukrainian ports is disrupting the European food supply chain impacting on the food security of millions of people beyond Europe’s borders (particularly in Africa and the Middle East).
Second, divisions about how to reduce reliance on Russian gas and oil pose another key challenge for the future of Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the EU energy policy was essentially based on getting cheap fossil fuels from Russia in order to support Member States’ economic growth. Yet, despite the announced change in direction, the EU has imported nearly 40 bilion EUR worth of fossil fuels since the war began. These divisions on how to cut Russian energy dependency are likely to continue in the upcoming years. For instance, the various member states such as Finland and Poland have already announced their intentions to put an end to the reliance on Russian energy. On the contrary, countries such as Italy and Germany are still largely dependent on Russian gas and are expected to oppose any future ban of Russian gas. This situation is also reflected in the Commission’s confusing guidance on the payment in rubles. As of today, it remains unclear whether paying for Russian gas in rubles constitutes a breach of EU sanctions. In the meantime, several media have reported that major energy companies in Europe have started to operate bank accounts in rubles.
Despite these divisions over energy policy, one can argue the EU’s immediate response to Russia’s aggression has been resolute. Since 24 February 2022, EU member states expanded economic sanctions and added a significant number of people and entities to the EU sanctions list, including Russian media outlets and propaganda tools. Member states also agreed to cut key Russian banks from the SWIFT system and froze Moscow’s Central Bank assets. Yet, the larger political and structural issues of the relationship with Russia remain unresolved. Many EU member states have taken no lasting steps to fully cut European economic and political ties with Russia. As a result, the EU has struggled to properly come up with a plan to de-Putinizef its future.
There are, however, certain Member States that are well aware of the risks associated with going back to “business as usual” with Russia. That is why countries such as the Baltic States, Finland and Poland have introduced plans to drastically reduce their dependence on Russian energy. Moreover, their public opinion is among the most vocal in relation to the future of European defence and security. A recent survey shows that at least two third of citizens in the Baltic States are concerned about the Russian growing imperialism. Also, according to Eurobarometer, the percentage of people willing to finance military support for Ukraine is particularly high in Finland (90% of citizens), Estonia (87%), Poland (86%) and Lithuania (84%). Thus, these countries and their public opinion are fully aware of the need to “deputinize” the EU. Indeed, most of Eastern European leaders are conscious of the fact that further European integration won’t be possible without radically changing the approach to the Kremlin and its imperialistic vision of Europe, which is simply not compatible with the interest of the EU as a whole. In particular, maintaining a normal relationship with Russia is likely to exacerbate the East-West divide within the European Union and jeopardise the idea that new and old member states have common interests and aspirations. As of today, various older member states are convinced that Russia does not need to put an existential threat to the EU and economic cooperation with Russia could be possible under certain conditions. On the contrary, after the war in Ukraine, Central and Eastern European member states are increasingly putting their national focus on a common European security, which implies a full deputinization of EU foreign and energy policy. Moreover, for those countries in Central and Eastern Europe Russian imperialism should no longer be tolerated in any forms, including the long-standing economic cooperation with Moscow.
However, there are countries that do not seem to fully share the view that “business as usual with Russia” can undermine the Union and its unity. For different reasons, Germany, France and Italy maintain a problematic approach vis-à-vis Russia and struggle to respond to its imperialistic ambitions to divide Europe. The consciousness of their leadership as well as public opinion in relation to the threat of Russian imperialism seems quite limited, perhaps because Germany, France and Italy’s relationship with post-cold war Russia was essentially built on trade, political cooperation and energy. In reality, the war has made it all too clear that maintaining these areas of cooperation with Russia would be detrimental for the future of Europe because they would undermine the essential national interests of EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe.
The German Chancellery has probably struggled the most with understanding the long-term consequences of the Russian aggression of Ukraine. Despite the (delayed) delivery of weapons to Kyiv and the recent change in support of an EU oil embargo, Germany’s foreign policy is still in need of a total reboot. Germany’s Ostpolitik did not prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine and made the German economy extremely vulnerable and dependent on Russian gas. Chancellor Scholz is certainly aware that the era of energy interdependence with Russia might be coming to an end, but Berlin’s desire for ‘constructive’ diplomatic and political relations with Moscow has not changed. Yet Germany is still one of the EU countries most hesitant to isolate Russia and its leadership, which remain influential within the German political landscape, particularly within Scholz’s SPD.
Emanuel Macron has also stressed the need to maintain constructive links with Russia. On Europe Day 2022, the French President remarked that “We are not at war with Russia” and warned against “humiliating” Russia in the future. Moreover, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed that Macron asked Ukrainian authorities to make territorial concessions to help Putin save face. It should not come as a surprise that Macron’s position is perceived as ambiguous and detrimental for the future of Europe in Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, the failure of the Minsk agreements and 8 years of occupation of Crimea clearly show that territorial concessions do not put a limit to Putin’s imperialism nor aggressive attitudes towards Ukraine or countries like Moldova and Georgia (which also experience Russian aggressions).
In Italy, the war has shattered the model of a relationship that has roots in the historical, solid Russophilia of Italians, both at the political and cultural level. Across the Italian political spectrum, there is a huge block of pro-Russian MPs who are triggering tensions in the current governing coalition led by the former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi. Furthermore, pro-Putin disinformation is constabeing spread through most of the major media outlets, and Italian TV frequently hosts Russian government officials such as Sergey Lavrov or Russian propagandists such as Alexander Dugin or Vladimir Solovyov. It is, therefore, not a surprise that major political figures in Italy are demanding Ukraine find a compromise with Russia and that there is growing concern about the long-term cost of the sanctions for the Italian economy.
Though it must be admitted that – many EU countries need to take a hard look at their past mistakes in their Russia policy, it is in in those three countries – which often proclaim themselves as leaders of Europe – there is a particular need for self-reflection about their position vis-à-vis the future of European integration. Supporting the fight against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the full deputinization of the future of the EU comes with a cost, particularly for countries such as Germany, France and Italy. Yet, if European countries aspire to achieve a deputinized future without military confrontation and imperialism, this is a cost that we need to pay.
Andrea Castagna is a Brussels-based policy specialist focusing on the EU Neighbourhood. In the last few years, he has been involved in projects related to digital for development, education, youth policies and sport. He is also an enthusiastic volunteer of Promote Ukraine.