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Now and Then: Assessing COVID-19 Impact on EU`s Relations with Russia

COVID-19

While the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging throughout the world, and its aftermath is far away from being readily available to take stock of, it is nevertheless a high time to pose a question on how the pandemic has already affected a geopolitical balance of power worldwide. The underlying assumption is that COVID-19 has become a major stress test for any given inter-governmental relations that has: 1) either exposed and accelerated existing tendencies; or 2) created additional complications and restraints in setting the record straight when relations had been previously compromised. In the sections below, this assumption will be verified based on the official documents, decisions and positions upheld by the EU and its Member States (MSs) via-a-vis Russia overtime and, most importantly recently, in times of global epidemiological threat.

Quick overview of the past two decades: EU`s growing distrust

In the last two decades, the EU’s relations with global actors, such as the US, China and foremost Russia, have been put under the ultimate test. Towards the end of 2020, it is evident that EU-Russian Federation (RF) relations resemble anything but normalcy. Long gone are the days when both sides were mesmerized and addressed each other as “strategic partners” at the beginning of Putin’s first presidential term in office in the early 2000s. Following Putin’s creeping suppression of independent media, persecution of political rivals and, finally, its brutal intervention in Georgia in 2008, no one in Brussels (both the EU and NATO) could any longer perceive Moscow differently from at best a “strategic threat.” Russia, on its part, has also been quick in retaliating by blaming the EU for extending its own “sphere of influence” over Eastern Europe and South Caucasus via its Eastern Partnership initiative, which the former has discarded from the get-go. Economic ties, nevertheless, have been important for both sides and had been carefully maintained all along despite accumulating political cleavages.

Approaching the point of no return in EU-Russia relations, however, was speeded up by Russia’s outrageous occupation of Crimea and military aggression in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 for which it has been sanctioned on four levels: political cooperation; economic restrictions, targeted at Russia’s financial, defence and energy sectors; a near-total ban on EU-Crimean trade and investment and individual sanctions comprising visa bans/asset freezes of around 150 people and 40 organisations. Today, sanctions still are extended twice a year (in January and July) and no formal mitigation has been agreed upon despite descending voices of some of the EU member states’ leaders. In addition to Ukraine being a bone of contention, over the years there have been multiple other obstacles preventing the improvement of EU-Russia relations. The list includes Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic, to name but a few; torture in detainment that led to death of Sergey Magnitsky; murdering of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov; the attempted poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal; and Russian “active measures” consisting of meddling in elections and referenda, spread of disinformation and instigation of cyberattacks aimed at destabilising the EU and its Member States.

To put its foreign policy, vis-a-vis Russia, into perspective, the EU decided in 2016 to come up with a framework based on five principles, which were confirmed by the new HR/VP in March 2020. They include: full implementation of the Minsk Agreements on eastern Ukraine as a precondition for lifting restrictive measures against Russia; attempts to strengthen relations with post-Soviet states; strengthening the EU’s resilience to Russian threats; selective engagement with Russia on issues of common concern such as countering terrorism; and support for EU-Russia people-to-people contacts.

European Parliament, while supporting the adopted five principles, has been consistently even more vocal (albeit less potent to act) regarding the “true colours” of the Putin regime and the required course of action for the Union. Among other recommendations, its 2019 resolution provided that “the EU should stand ready to adopt further sanctions, including targeted personal sanctions, and limiting access to finances and technology if Russia’s violations of international law continue.”

Despite rapidly growing evidence calling for the EU’s unambiguous response, the EU’s concrete measures, after heated debates, have been boiling down to slow and piecemeal efforts. The widely cited East StratCom Task Force at the EEAS has remained overtime nothing more than a team of a dozen EU bureaucrats fighting multimillion Russia propaganda and disinformation machinery with the help of a single website containing videos, infographics and some disinformation debunking narratives. As for countering cyberattacks affecting the EU MSs since at least 2007, after years of working on Cyber security toolbox (2017), Council framework for new sanctions regime (2018-2019) etc., the EU applied its regulations for the first time only in July 2020. It sanctioned in total six individuals and three legal entities, among them from Russia four people and one company.

Examples of the EU’s under-reaction to Russia’s “active measures” described before could go on. The point remains the same: lack of the EU’s adequate (strong and strict, effective and efficient) response to Russia’s amassing threats to security and democracy in the EU and wider region has unequally harmed the two sides. EU sanctions allegedly cost the EU 0,2% of its GDP. Yet, the damage done has been much greater. Besides, the EU’s collective weakness allowed Russia to have an upper hand and benefit politically while admittedly suffering economically.

Role of EU MS`s leaders in trying to mend relationships with Russia

In spite of the EU’s generally uncompromising rhetoric over Russia’s violations back, front and center, within the EU there have always been ample voices privileging engagement with Russia over hostility. Incentivised by Russia itself or out of their own convictions such EU leaders as Czech president Miloš Zeman and prime ministerAndrej Babiš, Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades, and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, have argued overtime that sanctions are costly, ineffective and should be abandoned. In 2018, then German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel suggested, albeit in covert language, that should fighting stop in Ukraine, some sanctions could be lifted before full implementation of Minsk Agreements.

The most worrying of all “‘appeasement crowd” voices, however, belongs to French President Emmanuel Macron. Driven by desire for the EU to get strategic autonomy from the US and distance itself from what he called a “brain dead” NATO, he sees Russia as at least a situational partner in achieving these aims. He acknowledges himself, though, that restoring relations with Russia will be a tiresome process as there is and can be no quick fix for lifting up sanctions and betraying neighbouring countries, foremost Ukraine and Georgia. Being one of the most long-standing leaders on the entire European continent, Putin is masterfully playing tricks plotting “a new beginning” for EU-Russia ties in view of worsening economic realities and projections. The truth is that despite Moscow’s intensification of economic relations with China, the EU remains its main economic partner accounting for 42% of Russia’s export as of 2019. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that from portraying the collective West as its biggest external security threat, Russia is zooming in on the US while gradually warming up its citizens’ public opinion towards Europeans. According to Levada Center, in 2019, the EU’s approval ratings among Russians, reached more than 50% for the first time since Russia’s military intervention, picking up from 20% a few years back. This upward trend is not apparently shared among EU MSs. A Pew Research Center study done in 2019 revealed that only three (Bulgaria, Greece and Slovakia) EU Members look at Russia rather favourably than warily.

COVID-19, recent developments and EU deadlock over relations with Russia

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have hit hard economically most of the countries around the world (with China being among the few exceptions). Neither the EU, nor Russia, have been lucky to escape the virus’ detrimental effects. However, not only hasn’t COVID-19 pacified Russia’s aggressive politics both inwardly and outwardly; seemingly it has brought up the ugliest of the Kremlin in a condensed form.

Over the course of 2020, Russia has actively engaged in “virus diplomacy” offering the so-called help to the most affected states, particularly Italy. The low quality of its produce has been rapidly uncovered. Nonetheless, it hasn’t prevented the Kremlin from bragging about its benign motives while promoting its geopolitical and geo-economic motives. The irony is that throughout the pandemic Moscow has been actively busy with what it does best: sowing discord among EU MSs and distrust vis-à-vis EU neighbours, undermining EU unity and creating info-chaos by means of infodemia (stuffing media outlets with low-quality conflicting messages about the virus and its cures). Yet, Putin has not shied away from calling a general moratorium on sanctions claiming that any restrictive measures are counter-productive against the backdrop of the global pandemic.

While the claims regarding the effects Russian disinformation has had on the European public cannot be realistically measured, the EEAS in its report published in April 2020 concluded that coronavirus-related disinformation in the EU was predominantly stemming from Russia and aimed at spreading confusion as well as discrediting the EU’s response to the crisis, and it had reached millions of European social media users.

By scattering the EU’s attention over an unexpected wave of COVID-related challenges, Putin has “masked” the Russian Constitutional Referendum from international oversight. Meanwhile, for any Russian scholar it doesn’t take being a genius to discern that under the pandemic pretext the Russian President has slipped in constitutional amendments that prolong and bolster his authoritarian rule in Russia and effectively turn him into a “tsar,” according to some commentators.

It comes as no surprise that any attempted protests, including the ones in Khabarovsk over the detention of governor Sergey Furgal, were suppressed and international media was distracted from reporting on the true magnitude and intensity of popular discontent. Where international media attention could not be avoided is the attempt to take the life of another opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. The EU was relatively quick in adopting individual sanctions against six individuals, days after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that the substance used to poison Navalny was Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.

This extension of sanctions is regrettably the only tangible measure taken by the EU following the events involving Russia over the months of pandemic. For the rest, the EU remained concerned about the growing list of “hot spots” with Russia’s footprint: now extending to Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia and Azerbaijan) and Kyrgyzstan, but again, as always, did little to materialise its concern.

Despite Russia’s own healthcare system’s misery, the Kremlin cannot miss a race for developing a COVID-19 vaccine. According to Russian scientists, its Sputnik V (named after the first satellite launched into space by the Soviet Union in 1957) has a 95% effectiveness rate, and Russia would be happy to share its “recipe” with anyone willing and able to produce it. Thus far, out of all the Member States only Hungary has declared its willingness to test the Russian vaccine, paying little attention to EU’s plea not to risk “unknown substances.”

By way of conclusion

As evidenced from this brief overview, the battle of narratives between the EU and Russia rages on. While the latter steps up its aggressive policies on many fronts, both at home and abroad, the EU keeps on trying to preserve its unity and clarity regarding Russia’s actions. Its “real politik” vis-à-vis Russia has been virtually absent while “soft power” tools are not bearing much fruit when it comes to attempts to change Moscow’s course of action. For its part, Russia deplores the EU’s continued adherence to its 2016 five principles, and it insists that relations can only be improved if the EU and NATO meaningfully change their policies. Thus, the ping-pong game goes on. The question is how much longer and how much more will the EU tolerate before putting its foot down and interrupting Russia from undermining it from within, inflaming the neighbourhood and other selected states around the world and critically harming the Russian state itself?

Maryna Yaroshevich

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