EU and NATO Policies in Eastern Europe: Contradictory or Complementary?

In view of Russia’s own efforts to build closer relationships with many Western countries as well as the West’s major organizations, its anxiety about the “near abroad’s” further inclusion into Western structures looks illogical. A hypothetical NATO and EU membership of Ukraine, for instance, would – if it ever happened – create a powerful impulse for the deepening of Russian-Western cooperation.

When evaluating the role of various Western organizations in current Western policies towards Eastern Europe, one should keep in mind that the 28 NATO and 27 EU member countries have 21 countries in common. These numbers alone indicate that the differences between the policies of these two organizations are of a tactical rather than a strategic nature. Even more important than this quantitative indicator is the qualitative aspect of this commonality – i.e. the sense of community that exists between both organizations and their member states. While such EU countries as Austria or Sweden are not NATO members, they share most of their basic values and have a close relationship with countries like the United States and Canada, which are NATO members, but are not EU members. The only partial exception to this rule is Turkey, which, though a long-term NATO member, is not (yet) fully part of the community of Western values. Even Turkey, however, has now been an official candidate for EU membership for several years. It may one day enter the Union, and would then more or less fully immerse itself in this Western community.

When Russia or other countries that are neither NATO nor EU members deal with both organizations, they are largely engaged with this same “camp.” When politicians or diplomats from non-Western countries meet with official representatives from key member states of both organizations, these are, obviously, often the same people. Against this background, Ukraine and Georgia’s simultaneous status as participants of the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, on one hand, and as potential candidates for NATO membership, on the other hand, hardly constitutes a contradiction. On the contrary, the two countries’ parallel rapprochements with both major Western organizations complement each other.

The frequent talk in Russia about an alleged militarization of Ukraine and Georgia is premature, to say the least. While these countries’ continuing cooperation with NATO may bring them closer to the military standards of the Atlantic alliance, even a substantial upgrade of their defense capabilities would not constitute either an actual or a potential threat to Russia. The Russian Federation, even after the implementation of START III, will remain a nuclear superpower. True, NATO and its members have been engaged in various out-of-area campaigns in the past. Yet, they have mostly done so reluctantly, and have been mainly concerned with getting out of, rather than into, the various international conflict zones. NATO is a reactive rather than an active organization.

Equally, NATO is not courting countries to apply for membership. New members means new responsibilities and sometimes novel problems for the organization and its old members. Until recently, it was Georgia and Ukraine’s political elites constantly and emphatically voicing interest in NATO membership for their countries that drove the Alliance to promise them an accession option for the future, at the 2008 Bucharest summit. In any case, Ukraine has now explicitly announced its intention to maintain, for the time being, its current non-bloc status.

In view of Russia’s own efforts to build closer relationships with many Western countries as well as the West’s major organizations, its anxiety about the “near abroad’s” further inclusion into Western structures looks illogical. A hypothetical NATO and EU membership of Ukraine, for instance, would – if it ever happened – create a powerful impulse for the deepening of Russian-Western cooperation. The resulting strengthening of ties between Russia and the West would be a step forward for the whole of Europe, which is, in no small part, in the interest of the Russian people. It would seem that Moscow should be more worried about instability at Russia’s southern flank rather than concerned with developments across its Western borders. Neither EU nor NATO expansion constitute a security problem. On the contrary, these processes will make Russia’s Western borders more secure. It may even be that, in the future, Russia will need the West as an international ally more than the reverse.

In view of the above, it is regrettable that Russia has reacted negatively to both an invitation in 2004 to participate in the European Neighborhood Policy, as well as a February 2009 offer to play some role within the Eastern Partnership. Recently, Moscow has been viewing this EU initiative more and more critically. What Russia should do instead is find ways to increase cooperation with both the EU and NATO. While Russia is a large and powerful country, the challenges that it will be facing in the coming decades – sustaining its socio-economic system, energizing its domestic development and re-framing its external relations – will be enormous. Russia will need both NATO and the EU, as well as their member countries, as partners to adequately meet these challenges.

That Russia is not more closely involved with the Eastern Partnership initiative is largely its own fault. The EU and some of its most important member countries, such as Germany, France and Italy, are strongly interested in substantially deepening and widening European cooperation with Russia. If Russia is ready to become “more European” with regard to both its internal and foreign policies, the entire West would be most happy to upgrade Russian-Western cooperation (if necessary, against Central-Eastern European resistance). For that, however, Russia will need to put more efforts into becoming part of the community of Western values in its domestic affairs, especially as regards genuine political pluralism and substantive rule of law. Currently, Russia is faking a multiparty system, and has again installed a de facto one-party state. Vladimir Putin’s “dictatorship of the law,” announced earlier, has so far remained unimplemented, or at least has not become reality in the way it was once hoped.

Without changes in its domestic affairs, Russia will only superficially participate in the European integration process. Instead, its authoritarian regime will continue to require confrontation with the West, and in particular the United States, in order to legitimize its continuing existence and the lack of popular control of the government. The idea that Moscow can have a confrontational relationship with Washington while simultaneously developing friendly ties with Berlin, Paris or Rome has for too long been an idle dream of the Russian political and intellectual elite. Instead, the Kremlin needs to develop equally close relationships with “both Brussels” – the NATO Headquarters and EU institutions in the Belgian capital. To do that in a sustainable way, Russia, quite simply, needs to become a law-based democracy. Oddly, it has the necessary institutions already in place. All that needs to be done is for Russia to implement what its own constitutional provisions, its relevant laws and its ratified international treaties have been explicitly requiring for years now. While it may need considerable political will to push through such new reform, the actual necessary adaptation of Russia’s current legislation will not need to be so fundamental.

The EU’s engagement in Eastern Europe remains one-sided, insofar as the Eastern Partnership program does not include the largest East European country. That is, however, largely a result of Moscow’s own failure to respond adequately to the EU’s various offers to deepen relations.

Another source of Russia’s increasing isolation in Eastern Europe is its sometimes preposterous behavior on the European political scene. While many Russian politicians and diplomats still think in terms of traditional power politics, European, and to some extent world, politics have become increasingly “post-national” and “post-geopolitical.” There is a new spirit taking hold, which means that older categories of raw power, not to mention rankings according to cultural or historical “greatness,” are not as prevalent as they used to be. Small countries can exert influence on international politics – if they use available institutions smartly. Even non-governmental organizations may play a certain role in international diplomacy if they manage to develop a good reputation and sufficient political prowess.

European politics especially have become more egalitarian, cooperative and communication-oriented. Russian leaders need to adapt to this new context, and become less fixated on the – doubtlessly – special territorial, military or cultural greatness of their country. They need to learn to communicate cooperatively, and to develop trust-based relationships not only with the few major leaders of the Western world, but also with representatives of lesser powers as well as relevant governmental and non-governmental organizations – not the least with the successor states of the former Tsarist/Soviet empire.

In the EU’s Eastern neighborhood, the Union’s engagement should be seen as a chance rather than challenge for the Russian Federation. Presumably, both the EU and Russia are interested in a stable, dynamic and democratic Eastern Europe. Every step that the current EaP countries take towards the West can be seen indirectly as also a move towards more intense interactions between Moscow and Brussels. To put it simply, the closer the EU comes to Russia, the more common interests will emerge, and the more solid the relations between both sides will become. Ideally, Russia may itself become part of the European Neighborhood Policy. In a best-case scenario, an upgraded Eastern Partnership would emerge in which Moscow could develop a new relationship with both Brussels and its former colonies. Such a pan-European integration process could provide a framework within which the European former republics of the Soviet Union could develop among themselves a new relationship of trust and cooperation.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.