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New EU Policy Document Calls Russia 'Strategic Challenge'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in St. Petersburg on June 16. The policy document leaves an opening for improved relations between Brussels and Moscow, stating that "the EU and Russia are interdependent."

BRUSSELS -- A new European Union policy document describes Russia as "a key strategic challenge," wording that constitutes a compromise between member states that are more hawkish toward Moscow and those resisting an escalation of rhetoric.

The document, which is set to be endorsed at a June 28 summit of leaders, was produced by the bloc's diplomatic corps after EU heads of state last year tasked EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini with providing a strategic assessment to "guide the European Union's global actions in the future."

Member states urging a harder line toward the Kremlin, such as Lithuania and Poland, had wanted the document to use the phrase "strategic problem" when describing Russia's role in European politics -- wording that European Council President Donald Tusk of Poland has previously used.

Other, mainly southern member states wanted something more similar to the phrase "strategic partner" that was used to describe Russia before its 2014 seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory and the ensuing war between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists.

The 32-page document, seen by RFE/RL, says that the EU "will not recognize Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea nor accept the destabilization of eastern Ukraine.

"We will strengthen the EU, enhance the resilience of our eastern neighbors, and uphold their right to determine freely their approach towards the EU," it says.

The document does not mention the EU sanctions policy in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, with the economic sanctions targeting Russia set to be prolonged soon for another six months.

It does, however, leave an opening for improved relations between Brussels and Moscow, stating that "the EU and Russia are interdependent."

"We will therefore engage Russia to discuss disagreements and cooperate if and when our interests overlap," the document says. "In addition to those foreign-policy issues on which we currently cooperate, selective engagement should take place over matters of European interest too, including climate, the Arctic, maritime security, education, research, and cross-border cooperation."

It adds that "engagement should also include deeper societal ties through facilitated travel for students, civil society, and business."

Looking Eastward

Russia's shadow looms large even in the section describing the EU's approach to its other eastern neighbors.

Georgia, which fought a brief 2008 war with Russia and has two Moscow-backed separatist regions on its territory, is singled out in the document as a country whose "success as prosperous, peaceful, and stable democracy" can "reverberate across its region."

Countries such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine -- all former Soviet republics -- already have free-trade deals with the EU, and Moldova enjoys a visa-free regime with the 28-member bloc. Both Tbilisi and Kyiv hope to achieve a similar deal later this year.

The prospect of those three former Soviet republics joining the bloc at some point is not mentioned, but the document notes that the EU in the future can offer them "the creation of an economic area with countries implementing DCFTAs [Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas], the extension of trans-European networks, and the Energy Community, as well as building physical and digital connections."

The EU's enlargement policy, which currently encompasses Turkey and several countries in the Western Balkans -- including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia -- is described as "a strategic investment in Europe's security and prosperity" and as having "already contributed greatly to peace in formerly war-torn areas."

No timetable is sketched out concerning when these countries could become EU members. The strategy paper worryingly notes that "the resilience of these countries cannot be taken for granted" and adds that "the EU enjoys a unique influence in all these countries.

"The strategic challenge for the EU is therefore that of promoting political reform, rule of law, economic convergence, and good neighborly relations in the Western Balkans and Turkey while coherently pursuing cooperation across different sectors," the document states.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.