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Will Brussels Get Tough With Moscow?

  • Brian Whitmore

Brown (left) and Medvedev: cool in Japan on July 7

Brown (left) and Medvedev: cool in Japan on July 7

When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown set off to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for the first time, he carried an agenda.

For starters, Brown wanted to press the new Kremlin leader on the 2006 killing in London of Aleksandr Litvinenko. Virtually as the meeting began, the BBC was airing allegations that the Russian state appeared to have orchestrated the former security officer's death by radiation poisoning.

Brown also wanted to confront Medvedev on the closure of two British Council offices in Russia, and on the treatment of foreign staff working for the TNK-BP joint oil venture.

The prime minister got nowhere. When the two met on July 7, on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan, Brown's protestations were met with cool indifference.

With sky-high oil prices filling the Kremlin's coffers, and most of Europe's large frontline states eager to do business with Moscow, the Russian president appeared studiously unconcerned about the ongoing dustup with London.

"The big European countries are all energetically making peace with Russia. You've got France, Germany, and Italy all in the Russian camp as far as energy is concerned," says Edward Lucas, deputy foreign editor of the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "The New Cold War: How Russia Menaces Both Russia and the West." "And so I think to some extent, Britain worries it may be a bit isolated on this."

But if he so chooses, Brown may yet have a powerful card to play. Relations are deteriorating just as Russia is negotiating a landmark partnership agreement with the European Union that will lay out details of cooperation between Moscow and Brussels in key spheres like trade, energy, and security.

Choosing Sides

Germany, France, and Italy -- which have been eager to cut energy and other commercial deals with the Kremlin -- have long preferred that the EU take a conciliatory line with Russia. Newer EU members like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states -- with still-fresh memories of Soviet domination -- have meanwhile pushed for a much tougher stance.

The drama lies with the countries that remain somewhere in between. Sweden has sometimes joined forces with the new members, particularly in backing Georgia in its ongoing conflict with Russia. And if Britain were to fully put its weight behind what Lucas calls an emerging "anti-Kremlin axis developing in Europe," it could change the dynamic of the Russia-EU relationship decisively.

"To me, the really interesting question is whether Britain will then throw its lot firmly with the nascent anti-Russian bloc that is taking shape around the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Poland," Lucas says.

There are some indications that London is moving in that direction. British diplomats managed to get a protocol inserted into the EU's framework for negotiations on Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the ex-KGB agent accused of involvement in Litvinenko's death.

Britain's move dovetailed with initiatives from new EU members like Lithuania and Poland designed to toughen Europe's stance vis-a-vis Russia.

Lithuania, for example, also inserted a protocol on several issues Russia would rather not talk about, including resolving "frozen conflicts" in the pro-Moscow separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Transdniester in Moldova.

An EU summit in June endorsed a Polish initiative, backed by Sweden, for the union to build closer ties -- with the prospect of eventual membership -- for its eastern neighbors like Ukraine and Moldova.

Not Simply 'Old' Or 'New'

A key sticking point within the EU -- and between Europe and Russia -- will be how to deal with the ongoing crisis in Georgia. Tbilisi's push to join NATO and the EU has infuriated Moscow, which has sought to pressure Georgia via its proxies in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In a clear show of support from Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice traveled to Tbilisi last week where she warned Russia against escalating tensions.

Georgia's leaders would no doubt like to see similar bucking up from Brussels, but Germany and France have been reluctant to antagonize Moscow, thereby tempering the EU's stance.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Sabine Freizer, director of the International Crisis Group's (IGC) Europe Program, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that Brussels is becoming more aware "that the Caucasus is part of its neighborhood" and more "willing to make strong statements and perhaps take measures vis-a-vis Russia."

But Freizer added that Georgia needs to work to get "all EU member states on board" to protect its interests in its showdown with Moscow.

"It is not helpful to try to divide Old and New Europe and to try to get New Europe to support Georgia against the Old Europe," Freizer said. "If Georgia wants to succeed, it's going to need to get the big states -- Germany, France -- on its side as well, and not just the Baltics and some of the Central European countries."

Eyes On The Kremlin

But there are, nevertheless, powerful forces at play preventing the EU from confronting Russia on Georgia, the Litvinenko assassination, or other issues.

Medvedev has been much more conciliatory in his rhetoric than his bombastic predecessor Vladimir Putin, and many European leaders prefer to give the new president a chance to back up his words with actions.

Moreover, many Kremlin-watchers believe there is a debate under way among the Russian elite about the long-term efficacy of the hard-line foreign policy that has been prevalent in recent years.

"What the EU is doing at the moment is [seeking] to facilitate a change in Russian policy," says Michael Emerson, a specialist on Russia-EU relations at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "I think the majority balance among EU foreign ministers is still hoping that they should play their cards in order to facilitate such a positive movement rather than to flip over into a more confrontational mode."

This policy inclination, analysts say, coincides with powerful commercial incentives like Germany's participation in the North Stream pipeline project with Russia and joint projects between energy companies like Russia's Gazprom and Italy's Eni.

Eugeniusz Smolar of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw says you can see "horror on the faces" of business leaders in Europe when relations with Russia deteriorate.

"The problem is that there are vested interests -- mainly economic interests, but also strategic interests -- that do not allow [these countries] in these circumstances to see Russia as an enemy, [or even] as a major adversary," Smolar says.

Such calculations, however, may change as the Anglo-Russian dispute unfolds.

A defiant Brown, unswayed by angry calls from Moscow to "deny or confirm" the BBC report, told the House of Commons on July 10 that the Litvinenko case "would not be closed."

He added, "We have justice to do on the part of someone who was murdered on British soil, and it is not an acceptable position to be where we are."