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EU Blinks As Russia Holds Its Gaze

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) with French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- who will blink first?

BRUSSELS -- When the chips are down, it is everyone for themselves in the European Union -- and among its neighbors.

Although EU politicians have been vocal in their condemnation of Russia's military presence in Georgia and Moscow's recognition of the independence of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the bloc finds itself powerless to make a difference in the conflict. Worse, a number of EU governments openly entertained fears this week that Ukraine could be next on Russia's list.

Yet the EU remains unable to marshal what limited leverage it does have. EU ambassadors in Brussels decided on August 28 that the September 1 summit should confine itself to another "strong" condemnation of Russian actions -- and pass on to the bloc's foreign ministers and its executive European Commission the task of coming up with specific measures later this month.

According to diplomats in Brussels, the EU will on September 1 also offer aid to Georgia and assistance to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as it struggles to send observers to Georgia.

Bernard Kouchner, foreign minister of France, the current holder of the rotating EU Presidency, briefly kindled hopes of a more forceful EU reaction when he uttered the word "sanctions" at a news conference in Paris on August 28.

"We are trying to draw up a strong text expressing our determination not to accept [violence in Georgia]," Kouchner said. "Now, sanctions are considered, of course, yes, they are considered, as well as many other means."

Too much has been read into that statement, however. All Kouchner did was to acknowledge that there could be calls for sanctions around the summit table on September 1. But these will be half-hearted at best, after leading hard-liners Poland and Britain indicated this week they will put EU unity first and refrain from divisive tactics.

Limited Means Available

The EU is at its strongest when its united, but it has no pinpoint political will -- all of its 27 member states retain their sovereignty in foreign-policy decisions. As a result, the member states' perceptions of the threat posed by Russia differ. As a rule of thumb, the farther they are from Russia, the lesser the urgency of the predicament of Georgia and other Russian neighbors seems to them.

Apart from its internal divisions, the EU is also severely hamstrung by the evident incongruity between the foreign-policy instruments at its disposal and the situation at hand.

Russia has over the past two weeks shrugged off all threats of isolation and exclusion, with President Dmitry Medvedev even suggesting Moscow views with equanimity the prospect of another Cold War.

The EU's stock responses to foreign-policy crises are geared toward expressing displeasure. This, however, accentuates the problem it is facing with Russia. "You can only say so many times that something is 'unacceptable' or 'inadmissible,'" one Brussels diplomat noted this week.

The prospect of a serious loss of face is most immediately felt in France, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy personally negotiated the cease-fire terms that committed Russia to pulling its troops out of Georgia and attending international negotiations on the future "stability and security" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Paris now finds itself in the unaccustomed position of having to ratchet up pressure on Russia. In a speech in Paris on August 27 to foreign ambassadors, Sarkozy did just that.

"The European Union has firmly condemned Russia's unilateral decision to recognize the independence of these two territories [Abkhazia and South Ossetia]," he said. "This decision, which presupposes a unilateral change to Georgia's borders, is quite simply unacceptable."

But as Moscow has now made Georgia's dismemberment a fait accompli, there is no obvious way for the EU or its French presidency to square the circle of conducting constructive dialogue with Russia as long as the latter does not back down.

This is something that is clearly worrying Germany, the EU's largest member state and one with an immediate and historical stake in the
stability of Eastern Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not mince words when condemning Russia's occupation of Georgia and the severing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the country. But she has also emerged as the de facto EU chairwoman, immersed in shuttle diplomacy to keep all sides on board.

Germany's philosophy in this impasse has been best expressed by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in an interview that appeared in "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" on August 28. Steinmeier said that "the task of a foreign policy is not to describe what happened." Instead, "the task of a foreign policy must be securing points of departure for making existing conflicts manageable."

Given that the EU does not, at this stage, have much leverage over Russia, its member states and neighbors who feel threatened by Moscow are left to fend for themselves. They must minimize their own vulnerabilities, and this can only be a long-term undertaking.

Most obviously, this applies to energy supplies. The German daily "Handelsblatt" quoted Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus on August 28 as ruefully acknowledging that if Russia were to turn off the oil and gas taps, "they would destroy our economy and all of the progress we have achieved over the past 18 years." Lithuania is not unique in its predicament in Eastern Europe. Steinmeier, meanwhile, can cannily point out that Germany has diversified its energy provisions "more successfully than others."

There are other weaknesses. The same "Handelsblatt" article said Estonian authorities are worried at the speed with which its Russians are taking Russian passports. Estonia and Latvia have large Russian minorities and are acutely aware of parallels with South Ossetia, where Moscow ostensibly intervened to protect Russian citizens.

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