Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 14

By Dov Lynch

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States and NATO have succeeded in taking security relations further with Russia, while the European Union has not, mainly because it has not tried to do so. The EU is caught up in a massive transformation process, one that leaves it little time to pursue coherent policies toward third parties.

The crisis over Iraq has challenged key features of the system of international relations. The United States and Britain intervened in Iraq without the specific support of the United Nations, avoiding a second resolution in February of 2003 precisely because they feared coercive action would be vetoed. The UN has taken a serious blow and the parameters of international law on self-defense and the use of force are being redefined by the U.S. and British actions. France, Germany and Russia coordinated their positions against coercive actions within the UN Security Council, adopting a number of joint declarations in 2003 on how to strengthen the inspection regime and, subsequently, how to run Iraq after the war. With all the talk of a new Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis and emergent divisions across the continent and the Atlantic, the very notion of the West as it existed in the Cold War is now being questioned.

The divisions between the United States and Europe and within Europe raise two vital questions for Russia: Is the West finished as a concept? And if so, with which West should Russia seek to align itself? It is important to understand that the divisions reflect a confluence of unique circumstances: A vulnerable yet all-powerful America led by neo-conservative thinkers; the presence of Germany and Spain in the UN Security Council (alongside permanent members Britain and France); a French president no longer constrained by “cohabitation” with a parliament controlled by a different party; and a populist German leader. Moreover, the EU faces the double revolution of enlargement and a constitutional convention, both of which are giving rise to as much anxiety as excitement in European capitals. The West is not dead, but it is changing. And this is a natural process.

In the long term, the emergence of a multipolar West may be a positive development because it provides Russia with exactly what it needs most–options. At the same time, recent events challenge President Vladimir Putin’s move to align Russia with the Euro-Atlantic community, since he might now find himself forced to choose which part of the West he wants to make his ally. That would be dangerous for Russia: Putin is well aware that Moscow needs all parts of the West, since each has the potential to serve Russia’s interests in its own way. Thus, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said at the height of transatlantic tensions that “the preservation of a unified Euro-Atlantic community, with Russia now part of it, is of immense importance.” [1]

Since 11 September and despite the crisis in Iraq, Putin has accelerated his strategy of aligning Russia with the states and security organizations of the Euro-Atlantic community. Putin still sees Russia retaining a unique position in world affairs, but Russian interests are thought best advanced in close alignment with the Euro-Atlantic community rather than in opposition to it. Putin’s foreign policy is founded on a cold recognition of Russia’s internal weakness and its limited ability to control external developments. In blunt terms, Russia has become more an object of international relations than the subject it once was. Because the main threats to Russia are rising internally and are linked to challenges from the south and east, Moscow perceives the West to be a source of solutions to many of Russia’s problems.


The EU’s security dialogue with Russia took off at the EU-Russia summit in Paris in October of 2000. The dialogue has come to encompass a wide range of topics. The EU and Russia cooperate in non-proliferation through an EU Joint Action in cooperative threat reduction. A discussion on peacekeeping concepts has started with Russian officials. At the Seville Council in 2002, the EU agreed to arrangements for Russian participation in EU military operations. Russia has pledged five officers to the first EU mission–the EU Police Mission–in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to be launched in January of 2003. After September 11, the two have developed ties in counter-terrorism, including intelligence sharing at the national level. EU-Russian cooperation in the struggle against organized crime overlaps with counter-terrorism, since it focuses on money laundering and arms and drugs smuggling.

The Russian government is keen to develop technical cooperation in areas of perceived comparative advantage. Europe’s lack of strategic airlift (such as the U.S. C-130s) has long been noted, and Russia (with Ukraine) has eagerly put forward its capabilities as a logical option for the EU. The Russian government has also proposed that the EU draw on Russian satellite imaging to bolster European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) capabilities. The EU satellite center in Torejon has bought Russian satellite images in the past but no special relationship has been established. Moscow and Brussels launched a Space Dialogue in 1998, and Russian-EU space cooperation has run parallel to the wider development of a European joint space strategy. In addition, Russia and the EU decided to conduct a regular dialogue on mine-clearance during the May 2002 summit.

The security dialogue is now heavily institutionalized. In addition to biannual summits, the EU and Russia entertain consultations on security and defense matters between the EU Political and Security Committee (COPS) and the Russian Ambassador in Brussels. Russia and the EU also agreed to start expert-level discussions on the issues of disarmament and arms control. In October of 2001 Brussels and Moscow decided to increase the tempo with the introduction of a monthly meeting between the Russian ambassador and the COPS troika “to take stock of consultations on crisis prevention and management.” In addition, contacts have developed at the military level. The first meeting of the EU Military Committee chairman with officers of the Defense Ministry occurred in May of 2002. In November of that year the Russian defense minister assigned an officer to work as liaison with the EU Military Staff in Brussels. The last EU-Russia summit in St Petersburg agreed to create a permanent joint committee between Russia and the EU.


But although this security dialogue is quite wide, it lacks real depth. One limiting factor is that Russia wants a model of European security that ensures Moscow an “equal” voice in all security dimensions, in which case ESDP would serve to create a “Greater Europe.” ESDP is nothing of the sort for the EU. Russia has sought to ensure equality with EU member states at every level of decision-making in crisis situations, but Russia’s insistence on “co-decision making” is completely inappropriate in Brussels view.

A second limiting factor is that there are a number of gray areas surrounding EU operations that concern Moscow. The EU is vague on the question of whether it will seek a UN mandate for its operations. Russia is also concerned that ESDP might be turned against Russian interests with operations deployed on its borders, possibly with a strong link to NATO.

A third factor involves the fact that both parties are caught up in their own transformation projects–the EU toward deepening and widening and Russia toward state consolidation and economic revitalization. The different priorities of Russia and the EU dilute any urgency either party may feel in making significant efforts with the other.

Finally, it must be remembered that Russia and the European Union are different kinds of actors. Russia is a sovereign state, with a unified political, economic and military system, an elected leadership dedicated to advancing the state’s interests, and institutions for coordinating means to desired ends. The EU is nothing of the sort. It is a unique, not to say strange, political actor, with divided and clashing institutions, unclear sovereignty, and a weak sense of common interests. These differences have made the development of a genuine strategic partnership difficult. The security agendas of Russia and the EU are radically different. This is an encounter between a state that is deeply defensive about its sovereignty and territoriality and an association in which sovereignty is pooled and traditional notions of territoriality are diluted. These differences are reflected–and deepened–in their divergent institutional structures. In Russia, security policy is heavily presidential, while in the EU decision making is dispersed across various EU institutions.


Despite these limitations, the EU must start to consider proactively how to develop a security dialogue with Russia. Enlargement will bring the EU and Russia ever closer. Moreover, as the United States withdraws from peacekeeping in the region and NATO is transformed, the EU will become Europe’s peacekeeper. The political dialogue with Russia must focus on questions of direct and urgent interest to both parties. Peace support operations fit these criteria. A joint approach to the conflict in Moldova, a country that falls in the new periphery between the EU and Russia, could be an important test for the modalities of the EU-Russia relationship. There is also a need for a new institutional mechanism, such as a High Level Group on Wider Security, to catalyze the EU-Russia dialogue in peace support and other areas, including non-proliferation and military reform.

1. In his article in the Financial Times, 14 February 2003.

Dov Lynch is a research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies in Paris and holds a doctorate in international relations from St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. The full report on which this comment is based can be found on the web at