How to Rescue the Partnership?
No. 2 2008 April/June
Sabine Fischer

Heads the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin

The label ‘strategic partnership’ has
been extensively used in EU-Russia relations since the second half
of the 1990s. However, the viability of such a strategic
partnership is being questioned nowadays by policymakers and
observers on both sides, and the development of the relationship is
stalled. Hiski Haukkala in an article “The Tomorrow Is Now” (Russia
in Global Affairs, No. 4/2007) argues that Russia and the EU face
an existential choice of making their partnership a success. In the
light of this argument it would be worth exploring options for
cooperation which have not been sufficiently used over the last
couple of years. In the first place, one should analyze “hard
security issues” which are at the core of the disagreements between
the EU and Russia – multilateral cooperation and arms control,
security cooperation in the CIS, and energy.

In the global dimension, the UN
Security Council (UNSC) is by far the most important among the few
institutions in which Russia, EU members and the U.S. are on an
equal footing. In recent years, Russia has increasingly used its
permanent membership in the UNSC to block mainly U.S. initiatives
perceived as running counter to Russian interests. On the other
hand, there have been signs of Russia’s growing interest in a
stronger involvement in UN activities.

The UN Security Council seems to offer
little room for manoeuver in multilateral cooperation, since
Russia’s approach is focused mainly on strengthening its national
interests and position as a global player and its preparedness to
participate in (and indeed its commitment to) multilateral
decision-making is rather limited. However, the EU/EU members
should highlight common positions (which regularly occur on a
variety of problems, such as Iran, North Korea and the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and in so doing keep Russia involved
in multilateral debates in the framework of the UN.

The EU/EU members should take up
Russia’s verbal commitments concerning its involvement in UN
peacekeeping activities and humanitarian aid, which could become
another field of intensified interaction and cooperation. However,
the EU will have to face the fact that the Russian approach is
diverging significantly from its own in many aspects. Moscow is
campaigning for the recognition of organizations like the CIS, the
Organization of the Collective Security Treaty or the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization as regional peacekeeping bodies by the UN
– which would certainly create controversies among EU members.
Russian technical support for developing countries is not tied to
political issues, while the EU claims that good governance and
democracy are cornerstones of its concept of development aid. Thus,
attempts to coordinate activities in these fields should be
accompanied by an open dialog about the underlying principles and

Multilateral arms control and
nonproliferation regimes are in a deep crisis. The existing
tensions between the U.S. and Russia have culminated in fierce
debates about American plans to deploy parts of a global Ballistic
Missile Defense System in Poland and the Czech Republic. Back in
2002, Moscow did not show strong resistance against U.S. withdrawal
from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, now Russia shows increasing
readiness to confront Washington. High-ranking members of the
Russian military even called for Russia’s withdrawal from the
Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), while Moscow
officials announced that Russian nuclear weapons might be
retargeted at Europe should the U.S., Poland and the Czech Republic
implement their plans. Ultimately, the Russian reaction was
twofold: in July 2007, Moscow announced its withdrawal from the
stalled Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and suggested
that Washington jointly use the Russian Gabala radar station in
Azerbaijan as a substitute for deployments in Poland and the Czech
Republic. The American reaction to this suggestion has been
cautious, emphasizing that joint use of the infrastructure in
Gabala would not be excluded, but could only serve as an addition
to the deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic.

As a party to the negotiations about
the Iranian (and North Korean) nuclear programs Russia has often
pursued ambivalent policies. Moscow has sided with the West in its
desire to prevent Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons, while at
the same time trying to avoid strict economic sanctions in order to
protect arms trade with Iran and the Russian-Iranian contract on
the construction of the nuclear power plant in Bushehr.
Furthermore, Russia put forward the suggestion to create an
international consortium for the enrichment of uranium on Russian
soil, which would provide Iran with the possibility for civilian
use of nuclear power, but prevent it from running a military
nuclear program.

The EU’s room for manoeuver in
addressing the crisis of multilateral arms control and
nonproliferation regimes is very limited, since further
developments largely depend on the attitudes of the U.S. and
Russia. The EU lacks a common position regarding American ABM
plans, as well as Russian reactions to it. The only sphere where
Russia and the EU currently share interests is the prevention of
the Iranian nuclear program. Therefore the EU should consider the
Russian suggestion on the international consortium for uranium
enrichment and try to convince all parties concerned to enter into
serious negotiations about it. The same holds true for Russia’s
offer regarding the radar station in Gabala. There is little hope
that either Russia or the U.S. will accept the other side’s
conditions as they have been formulated during the first half of
2007 – but negotiations would keep multilateral processes going and
increase the chance that compromise solutions can be found. By all
means the EU should emphasize the importance of multilateral arms
control and nonproliferation vis-à-vis both Russia and the

In the regional dimension, tensions
between Russia and the EU have been on the rise in recent years.
While the EU has increased in stature, Russia is struggling to
maintain economic and political control over the former USSR. Thus,
the “common neighborhood” has become the subject of a competition
for influence between Russia and the EU. Again, the underlying
principles and strategies, as well as goals, differ. At the same
time, Russia and the EU face common security threats that emanate
from political and economic instabilities in the “common

The resolution of the protracted
conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan is perhaps the only
challenge as regards relations in the former Soviet Union that has
been oriented toward maintaining the status quo situation, because
it provides Moscow with a strong political, economic and military
leverage over the states affected by these conflicts. At the same
time, Moscow would not dispose of the forward-looking vision of how
to treat the breakaway regions, which increases its reluctance to
see any changes in the status quo.

The EU has a vital interest in the
resolution of the protracted conflicts because they are a major
impediment to the development and stability in the region. However,
EU member states are deeply split over the issue, which weakens the
position of the EU in the region. Brussels has tried to gain a
higher profile by appointing two EUSRs for, respectively, the South
Caucasus and Moldova, and has deployed the EUBAM mission on the
Ukrainian-Moldovan border, as well as a small rule-of-law mission
in Georgia, EUJUST Themis. It also strives at shaping the domestic
environment in the affected states through its ‘European
Neighborhood Policy.’ However, such measures have so far been
solitary instances resulting not from the EU’s forward-looking
approach, but from pressure from regional actors.

The EU should claim a bigger role in
conflict resolution, not only in the Transdnestr region, but also
in the other conflicts. The fact that Moscow, after initial
reluctance, ultimately accepted EUBAM, should encourage the EU to
engage more deeply on different levels – confidence building,
border monitoring, and mediation.

It seems that the greatest potential
for cooperation regarding the protracted conflicts lies in
Russia-EU peacekeeping activities. Russia has always displayed a
great interest in closer security cooperation with the EU in the
framework of ESDP. Here, the EU could offer Moscow cooperation,
which could possibly lead to joint peacekeeping. This would
contribute to the development of the Common Space on External
Security and the stabilization of this fragmented and crisis-prone

The main stumbling block here is the
discrepancy between the sides’ approaches to the build-up and
command structures of joint peacekeeping forces. Russia demands
cooperation “on an equal footing,” i.e. its equal participation in
the command of joint ESDP and Russian forces. The EU, on the other
hand, insists on decision-making autonomy, which precludes equal
participation of the Russian side. To resolve the contradiction,
both sides should be prepared to enter an open dialog about these
opposing positions.

In the energy sphere the former Soviet
republics remain entangled in a complex network of energy
interdependence. Russia holds a monopoly of pipeline routes for
Central Asian gas to Western Europe. The former Soviet republics
are almost 100-percent dependent on Russian energy deliveries. On
the other hand, they control the transport routes for Russian
exports to the EU, while Russia is becoming increasingly dependent
on Central Asian gas to supply its own domestic market.

Given technological backwardness and
ever-increasing internal consumption, Russia will face serious
problems in supplying its domestic market and fulfilling export
commitments in the medium term. The Russian Energy Strategy until
2020 outlines measures to meet these challenges. Among other things
it envisages increased use of fossil energy sources other than gas.
It remains questionable, however, whether such steps can ensure the
sustainability of both domestic supply and exports. Considering the
political implications of a sharp increase in domestic prices,
urgently needed reforms in the gas sector are not very likely under
the current domestic conditions.

The EU’s dependence on gas imports from
Russia has been on the rise ever since the beginning of the 1990s.
At the same time, both sides have found themselves increasingly at
odds regarding the conditions of energy trade. The EU expects a
liberalization of the Russian energy (essentially gas) market so
that EU companies can enter it. Moscow’s refusal to ratify the
transport protocol to the European Energy Charter in order to
protect its transport monopoly over energy deliveries has been a
major point of contention for over 10 years now. The Russian side
has produced a number of arguments against the ratification of the
Charter and the transport protocol, which have not been considered
on the European side. Russia also responds to the EU’s accusations
by pointing out that the EU tries to limit the activities of
Russian companies in its own markets, thus denying equal conditions
for all sides.

The EU and Russia are both dependent on
mutual energy trade relations. The EU will not be able to quickly
diversify its gas imports (which would also mean switching to
potentially less stable trade partners). The fast diversification
of exports to other world regions requires huge investments, which
Russia will not be able to make in the foreseeable future. Russia
cannot abandon the EU as its main energy customer any time soon.
Thus, functioning and stable energy relations are at the core of
both sides’ interests.

The crucial precondition for more
cooperation in the field of energy is liberalization on both sides,
based on reciprocity. Russia has to modernize its energy market if
it wants to remain capable of guaranteeing domestic as well as
export supply. Considering its relative backwardness in
technological development, Moscow should be highly interested in a
controlled opening of the Russian energy market and closer
cooperation with energy companies from the EU and other
industrialized countries. This concerns not only production and
transportation, but also – and in particular – energy efficiency,
which must become a crucial issue on the Russian agenda.

If the EU wants Russia to soften its
stance on energy market liberalization, it has to demonstrate that
Moscow’s accusation of protectionism is invalid. The Commission’s
recent initiative aiming at unbundling energy production and
distribution might be a useful step toward the liberalization of
the European energy market. It remains questionable, however,
whether it makes sense to one-sidedly hinder foreign companies’
access to European networks (the ‘Gazprom Clause’) without flanking
such measures with more constructive moves toward mutual
understanding. The European Energy Charter still seems to be the
best available instrument to defuse tensions in EU-Russia energy
relations. It entails rules for investment and non-discriminatory
trade as well as a mediation mechanism. Therefore it provides
important tools for the regulation not only of bilateral energy
relations between the EU and Russia, but also of relations with the
transit countries. In order to restart the Energy Charter process,
the EU should seriously consider Russian concerns with respect to
the transport protocol, open up negotiations on them and be
prepared to partially adapt the Charter in order to get Russia on

To conclude, it is difficult to call
Russia and the EU strategic partners. However, due to the many
interdependencies the EU and Russia have considerable potential for
fruitful cooperation on all levels of their relationship. If both
sides make use of this potential, there is a realistic chance that
a substantial strategic partnership might develop in the