Although the discussions about the future of Greece in the Eurozone currently overshadow almost every other issue in European Politics, we should not forget that for more than a year now, an armed conflict has been going on just across the EU’s Eastern border. The Russian invasion of Crimea and Eastern parts of Ukraine has put the EU in a situation where it is struggling to find an adequate response to what is effectively a new war right at its front door.
For many years, the EU has worked to build a mutually beneficial strategic partnership with Russia based on shared values and principles, such as democracy and rule of law, and on common interests. During that process, it has become clear that the Russian leadership has lost every interest – if ever there was any – to stick to international rules and to conduct good neighbourly relations. Putin fears European soft power, since it is a force to which he has no response. The EU has always been able – even during its crises – to count on its attraction to neighbouring countries. Russia on the other hand lacks this attractiveness and this is one of its most serious weaknesses. It is now counterbalancing this by an ideology which has become a new nationalism, with the resurrection of a Russian empire as its central goal.
In light of these fundamentally different visions and cultures, reaching an agreement with Russia seems very difficult now. Cooperation can only be resumed if Russia respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, including Crimea, implements the Minsk agreements in full and ends the destabilising military and security activities at the EU’s borders.
Meanwhile, the EU will need to consolidate even further in order to keep its power to speak with one voice. In that sense, solving the Greek crisis and securing economic and social prosperity for all Europeans is directly linked to its ability to persuade in its policy towards its Eastern Neighbourhood. Europe will need to integrate still further; it should also promote defence integration and build up more robust processes so that it can maintain a coherent foreign policy position. Ironically, Vladimir Putin plays the role of a catalyst and an external federator of Europe.
Putin has realised that the current European political climate can be poisoned by nationalist and anti-European far-right parties that gives him an opportunity to drive a wedge into the EU. The European far right are lapping up the Russian leadership’s nationalist slogans and are using the situation to unite with Russia against European values. Putin’s financial support and constant dialogue with these European parties poses a serious threat to the European consensus on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The new anti-EU, anti-immigration far right group in the European Parliament has gained the perception of being a Trojan horse which the Kremlin uses to divide Europe from inside.
Change in Russia must, and will, come from within. A strong and active civil society poses one of the biggest threats to autocratic rulers. Encouraging and supporting Russian civil society for building new paths for a peaceful future must be one of the EU’s top priorities. Meanwhile, the EU will have to continue sending strong messages to the Russian leadership that we stand united with the victims of its aggression and those who stand for the values the EU is founded on.