The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine - European Union Committee Contents

The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine


Purpose and scope of this inquiry

1.  Since late 2013, the EU's relationship with Russia has reached a critical juncture. The EU-Russia relationship is of vital economic, energy and cultural importance for Member States, and the security of Europe as a whole depends upon harmonious relations. Yet the relationship is now more fractious than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The Committee's previous report on the EU and Russia, published in 2008, noted that relations had been going through a difficult phase. At the time, we concluded that the change of presidency in Russia would provide an opportunity to take stock and to consider whether the deterioration could and should be reversed.[1] Unfortunately the deterioration has continued, while the crisis in Ukraine—and the accompanying disruption of economic, political and security relations between Russia and the EU—means that an urgent reassessment is now needed.

2.  Russian actions in Ukraine need to be understood within both the particular historical context of Ukraine and a broader Russian pattern of behaviour in the neighbourhood. The situation now is very different from 1991, when the Soviet Union peacefully disintegrated into 15 countries. It was apparent even then that Ukraine, in particular, and the Baltic states to some extent, held a special place in the hearts and minds of the Russian people. The Russian democrats that emerged made great efforts to keep Ukraine as close as possible.[2] Russian actions in Ukraine today occur in the context of its continued involvement in a number of territorial and ethnic disputes throughout the post-Soviet space which threaten the sovereignty of these states. While the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), Transnistria (Moldova) and Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan and Armenia) are still unresolved—and with Crimea and Donbas now added to the list—the potential for further conflict remains high.

3.  While the current Russian government has adopted a more adversarial policy, it is too easy to assume that recent events have solely been due to one government's approach, or that the current impasse in relations is a short-term problem. Multiple witnesses have pointed out to us that Russia's policies are based on long-standing threat perceptions, historical grievances and issues surrounding Russia's identity. Such perceptions are shared by many of the Russian people and parts of the Russian elite as well. It is important that these perceptions should be better understood in the West, although that does not mean accepting the premises on which they are based.

4.  The EU, especially those Member States who play a pivotal role in relations with Russia, need to find a way either to build co-operative security, with Russian support, or else to secure themselves and the region in the context of a more adversarial relationship. The consequences of a further deterioration of relations could include the spread of instability in the neighbourhood, greater disruption of trade and a weakening of economic ties, and a breakdown in co-ordination over other global and regional issues, including Syria, Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.

5.  It was not possible for us to consider, let alone do full justice to, the full range of issues affecting EU-Russia relations. We have therefore addressed only those issues which have arisen as a result of the current crisis. We have noted the energy and economic interdependencies but have not focused on them in detail.[3] It is self-evident that the EU can only act where it has the competence to do so. While the EU does have a Common Foreign and Security Policy, which includes the framing of a common defence policy, the responsibility for national security and territorial defence remains with the Member States. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the cornerstone of defence for its EU Members, is outside the scope of this report.

6.  However, there are steps that the EU can take to strengthen its internal resilience and make its strategic intent more acutely felt in Russia. We have focused on the crisis in Ukraine but also looked well beyond it, seeking to address the question of how the EU should shape its policies with regard to Russia in order to break what appears to be a recurring cycle of conflict and growing frustration, and to set relations on a mutually beneficial and stable footing. Our purpose has not been to analyse events in Ukraine as they unfold but rather to consider the causes of the conflict and to learn lessons, even as events are still ongoing.

7.  At the outset the Chairman of the Sub-Committee on External Affairs, which conducted the inquiry, informally met the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the UK, His Excellency Dr Alexander Yakovenko, in order to explain its scope and purpose. We are grateful to the Ambassador for subsequently providing written evidence to the Committee. In June 2014, the Sub-Committee held two scoping seminars with Sir Rodric Braithwaite GCMG, former British Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russia, Sir Andrew Wood GCMG, former British Ambassador to Russia and Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, Professor Roy Allison, Professor of Russian and Eurasian International Relations, School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, University of Oxford, Dr Simon Pirani, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, University of Oxford, Mr John Lough, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, and Mr Peter Tabak, Senior Economist, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). In July 2014, the Sub-Committee also received an informal briefing from Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) officials. We would like to thank all those who provided their guidance and thoughts at these informal meetings.

8.  In inviting witnesses to give oral evidence, we have tried to ensure that we heard from a number of Russians, with a wide range of views, as well as from other nationalities. We note that the remit of our Committee is to scrutinise the work of the EU and its institutions, and to hold the UK Government to account for its role in developing EU policy. Therefore, while we have commented on the actions of the Russian government, our primary role has been to scrutinise the effectiveness of the EU's policies towards Russia and to make recommendations to the UK Government and EU institutions.

9.  In this report, we use the shorthand "Russia", "Moscow", and on occasion "Kremlin", to denote the official policy of the Russian state, though we recognise that there is a plurality of views even among the Russian elites. We have retained the distinction between the Russian state and the Russian people whose views and interests do not necessarily coincide.

10.  A full list of witnesses who provided evidence, including their affiliations, is printed in Appendix 2.

Structure of the report

11.  In Chapter 2 we outline the main interdependencies between the EU and Russia and briefly examine the institutional agreements which form the basis of the EU's relationship with Russia. In Chapter 3, we then summarise relations between the EU and Russia over the last 20 years, the evolution of the relationship, and the role of the Member States today.

12.  In Chapter 4 we consider the shared neighbourhood, the geopolitical and economic competition between the EU and Russia in the neighbourhood, and the implications of the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union. We then, in Chapter 5, turn to Ukraine, and consider witnesses' views on how the vulnerabilities and fragility of the EU-Russia partnership have been exposed during the crisis there. Finally, in Chapter 6, we consider how the relationship with Russia should be constructed, setting out the steps that could be taken in the short term, and the factors that could form the basis of a mutually beneficial long-term relationship.

13.  The inquiry that led to this report was carried out by the Sub-Committee on External Affairs, whose Members are listed in Appendix 1. We received written evidence and heard oral evidence from a wide range of witnesses, whose names are listed in Appendix 2. The Sub-Committee's Call for Evidence, which was launched at the beginning of the inquiry, is reprinted in Appendix 3. We would like to thank all our witnesses, along with those who facilitated our visits to Brussels and Berlin. Notes of these visits are printed in Appendices 4 and 5. Finally, we express our gratitude to Dr Samuel Greene, our Specialist Adviser for the inquiry.

14.  We make this report to the House for debate.

1   European Union Committee, The European Union and Russia (14th Report, Session 2007-08, HL Paper 98) Back

2   Serghii Plokhy, The Last Empire (Oneworld Publications, 2014), Chapter 9 Back

3   We have previously reported on steps that the EU could take to meet its carbon reduction targets while maintaining security of energy supply and affordability to domestic and industrial consumers. European Union Committee, No Country is an Energy Island: Securing Investment for the EU's Future (14th Report, Session 2012-13, HL Paper 161). Back

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