Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, 10 September 2001

The EU's Rapid Reaction Capabilities: A Russian Perspective

by Dmitry Danilov, Institute of Europe, Moscow

It has to be frankly admitted that Russia appears to be unready to face the EU's determination to provide for its own operational capabilities in the framework of ESDP. While in the West these new developments have become a matter of high priority, in Russia this issue remains a subject of interest to just a few academics.

Even when the decision was taken by the EU to proceed with the creation of the European rapid reaction capability (RRC) and the Helsinki EU Summit in December 1999 agreed to set the Headline goal of establishing the RRC by the year 2003, there was no keen interest manifested in Russia. This was partly the consequence of Russia focusing its foreign policy on other aspects of security relations with the West that were considered essential (NATO strategy, use of force, role of the UN and OSCE, Chechnya, etc.). To some extent it can also be explained by Russia's scepticism about the EU's stated intention to become a more independent actor in the European security arena, especially in the area of defence policy. Russia's assessment of the situation was further confirmed by events in Kosovo. In any case, the "RRC in 2003" was perceived in Russia as a somewhat exotic notion rather than as an impending political reality. Such a political assessment (or, more precisely, the lack of it) made the special evaluation of the EU's future capabilities of crisis management meaningless. This component of the Western military structure simply was not taken into account by the Russian military planning bodies.

In principle, the RRC could be a matter of direct significance for Russian military policy for two reasons. Firstly, the RRC could be a factor in terms of the military risks it implies or as a destabilising influence in the European political-military situation. Secondly and on the contrary, if Russia's eventual interaction with the RCC could contribute to resolving some of Russia's defence and security problems. Neither of these, however, seems to be realistic.

Operational assessment of RRC in the context of Russian security interests

Let us consider whether Europe's development of a rapid reaction capability would be considered a military risk by Russia. Notwithstanding the fact that there was obviously no reason for such a consideration in a military sense (it would seem premature at best for Russia to make corresponding adjustments in its assessment of the Western military power), it was not excluded politically. In fact, in Russia, strongly opposed to NATO's use of force in Yugoslavia and employing anti-western rhetoric, the mood now appears to be concerned with new, additional risks. Conceivably, as a component of the Western military machinery, the EU's future development of a rapid reaction force could pose such a new risk, especially in the context of EU enlargement.

Such an interpretation of the RRC is highly improbable, however, not only from military perspective, but also in light of the content of the present Russian-EU relationship. The prevailing view maintains that the RRC does not present any threat or military danger to Russia. Although Russian attitudes towards the ESDP remained rigid till the autumn of 2000, such an evaluation was voiced informally by some Russian officials including, most surprisingly, high-level generals (for example, General L. Ivashov, then Head of the MoD's General Department of the Military International Cooperation). This position was confirmed definitively by the subsequent official recognition by Russia of the positive nature of the ESDP development.

Another question raised by the RRC is whether it could be useful to Russia in resolving its defence and security tasks. In the medium-term perspective, such an interest would clearly be assessed as rather negligible. The EU does not consider Russia as an operational partner in CIS space. In other European regions, where Russia might eventually have an interest in being directly involved in crisis management, the RRC doesn't offer any additional advantages. As long as the modalities of Russian participation in European-led operations are not more promising compared to those in NATO-led operations, the latter could even be preferable. Under a scenario in which EU crisis-management capabilities are deployed in a non-European area, where the US does not wish to be involved (Africa, for example), Russia could hypothetically find some interesting opportunities. In situations that did not conflict with its particular political and security ambitions, Russia could act as the EU's partner in military-technical cooperation. This would cost the EU less than if it used American assets and would not be a source of great concern to the US itself, as compared to a cooperative EU-Russian military partnership in Europe. But such illusory and rather modest ad-hoc dividends can't significantly influence Russia's assessment of the RRC's usefulness.

Therefore, Russia cannot consider its defence and security tasks to be directly influenced by or to benefit from the establishment of a RRC. And, ultimately, this is what determines the specifics of Russia's attitude, compared to other security actors in Europe. It is unnecessary to argue that for the EU itself, the RRC is an indispensable instrument of efficient foreign and security policy. From a US and NATO perspective, it will also contribute to more effectiveness crisis management as a result of enhanced European capacity and responsibility in the Atlantic community as well as optimising its military structures and resources. Specifically, shaping the EU crisis management capability is an important factor in the implementation and credibility of the NATO's CJTF concept. For European countries striving to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic institutions, the RRC represents a way to resolve security problems in this area. Moreover, the closer these CEE countries are to EU accession, the more they perceive the RRC as their own instrument. Thus, clear practical interests give visible argument for all these actors to support the RRC project, some differences in their political motivation notwithstanding.

By contrast, owing to lack of such practical interest, Russia's attitude towards the RRC is reduced to its political implications: how will obtaining a RRC change the EU political landscape and the European security architecture and to what extent could these changes correspond to Russian security priorities and aspirations?

Russian security priorities in the context of the RRC project

Russia, striving for a significant and active role in international policy and European cooperative security, has to take fully into consideration the dynamics and prospective consequences of the ESDP developments, notably its crisis management capabilities. It is also obvious that the EU-Russia strategic partnership, which became the definitive priority in Russian foreign policy under President Putin, made its opposition towards ESDP absolutely excluded. Moreover, in its relations with the EU, Russia has from the very beginning advocated dialogue on international policy and security as well as practical cooperation in these fields. This strategy was emphasised by the new Russian leadership, which expressed the intention to enhance the EU-Russian security partnership, including its military, political and technical aspects. This intention was evidenced by the Joint Statement of the Russia-EU Summit in May 2000: "President V.V. Putin expressed the positive interest towards forming EU security and defence policy" and noted in this respect the existing possibilities for cooperation. A more important result of the next Summit, in October 2000 in Paris, was Russia's step beyond its rather vague policy of simply declaring its interest and "special attention" in ESDP towards lending constructive support aimed at development of a practical partnership.

There are three general motives that seem to be crucial in explaining Russia's attitude. First, Russia is interested in increasing the EU's political weight, which is consistent with Russia's concept of a multi-polar world. Second, this would increase the potential for a two-sided strategic partnership, which is considered by Russia as especially important for its integration into Greater Europe. Third, the increasing EU autonomy in foreign and security policy in combination with the development of partnership with Russia would bring new opportunities for the latter to reach its security aims and to strengthen its own voice in Europe. Examination of the ESDP/RRC through the combined lens of these three main motives gives Russia compelling arguments to support these EU activities.

First of all, Russia recognises the significant importance of the EU developing its own crisis management capabilities for its appearance as the political power, namely in the European security arena. This "militarised" EU is not a factor in Russian defence concerns as much in a functional sense (being about the Petersberg tasks and far from collective defence), as it is in an operational sense (limited operational capacity). Moreover, paradoxically and more significantly, an EU with its own RRC would be a factor of demilitarisation of international relations: the EU military dimension will take auxiliary role in the broad security policy – in contrast with NATO, where military activities are the core of security management. This EU's broad approach to security, which is clearly manifested in the ESDP development, makes it a more attractive partner of Russia, compared with NATO.

Russia also proceeds from the premise that in order for the EU to be a strong political and security player, it has to strengthen the relationship with Russia. On the one hand, this would favour managing Russian security policy in a cooperative way. On the other hand, taking into account that Russia could not only be important in the security field, but also an equal partner (unlike many other cooperation areas where an imbalance is typical), this dimension of cooperation could be essential for promoting the strategic nature of the EU-Russia partnership in general.

Russian aspirations: (in)compatibility with the EU interests

At first sight, Russian and EU interests with respect to RRC coincide in the main, considering the EU's ambition to obtain a greater role as a political and security player as well as to strengthen its partnership with Russia. In expressing its readiness to support the ESDP/RRC, however, Russia is looking to gain certain objectives that don't necessarily correlate with EU interests.

Russia would like to influence EU crisis management capabilities in the manner that would correspond with the criteria, which are asserted by Russia in its dispute with the West, as well as that cooperation in this area would rely upon the principles of equality, including common decision-making. Taking into consideration that the ESDP is in the formative stage and, consequently, the EU could be relatively flexible in shaping its crisis management capabilities, Russia is trying to attain compatibility of its aspirations with the development of ESDP/RRC. It is thought that the EU could and should take into account serious mistakes that, from the Russian point of view, have been made by the West (NATO) in Yugoslavia with regard to the modes and methods of the use of force as well as to the relations with Russia. It is also believed that the EU, interested enough in cooperative relations with Russia and in its support of ESDP/RRC, should avoid the emergence of serious differences with Russia and respond to its main concerns. Thus, Russia is trying to activate practical cooperation with the EU in the context of the emerging RRC in order to increase Russian ability to influence it.

But that is exactly what apparently is inducing the EU to refrain from instigating greater cooperation with Russia owing to still significant differences in their respective approaches towards ensuring European security, especially in crisis management. Strengthening Russia's voice in the ESDP and RRC would have put the EU in the position of broadcasting these Russian-Western differences into these matters. It is quite obvious that the EU doesn't want to risk making its newborn child – ESDP/RRC – the hostage to these differences. The EU is not only concerned with considerable or excessive Russian influence on a RRC, but would prefer to exclude it at altogether, in the near-term at least.

Moreover, the instrumental significance of the ESDP/RRC for the security policy of Russia, which would like to channel the development of the European crisis management potential towards the mainstream of Russian interests, is in contrast to the EU's emphasis on its practical aspects. In an attempt to avoid this inherent conflict, EU doesn't rely on practical cooperation with Russia, even if the latter possesses military capabilities that are attractive for EU-led operations in principle and that are proposed by Russia. The matter of key importance for the EU is cooperation with NATO/US in order to get access to their assets to fill RRC shortages. Establishing practical cooperation with CEE countries that are not members of the EU or NATO is also, unlike Russia, a matter of importance for EU owing to its enlargement policy and their association status in the EU/WEU. As a result, for EU the development of practical co-operation with Russia, as well as for Russia itself, could be mainly instrumental. But unlike Russia, the EU has no visible political impetus to rely upon this cooperation. Furthermore, it could aggravate the EU's difficulties with regard to obtaining its ESDP priorities and operational goals, as testified by the difficulties experienced in reaching the EU-NATO agreement on access to Alliance assets. One could argue that this has become a "technical" obstacle for the elaboration of the modalities of the third countries' participation in EU-led operation. But in the Russian case the implications seem to be more serious. Due to the key significance of the Atlantic aspect in the EU policy towards its crisis management capabilities, the EU couldn't risk jeopardising the NATO/US supportive attitude towards ESDP by "excessive" rapprochement with Moscow.

Policy implications

As a result of these differing motives, Russia and EU have exchanged their roles after the Paris Summit. Before the Summit, the vagueness of the Russian position towards ESDP limited the prospects for political security cooperation with EU. But now, on the contrary, Russia stands up for strengthening cooperation and for its moving into practical interaction on an equal basis, including in future European crisis management operations; and for adequate structuring of the EU – Russia security relationship – that equals at least, the institutional level of the NATO – Russia dialogue.

On the other hand, the EU, having gotten Russia's political support for ESDP/RRC, does its best to limit Russian influence and stresses the autonomy in its decision making when it comes to deploying the RRC. To some extent, Moscow, when negotiating with the EU its participation in the Petersberg operations, strengthens the perception, that it could be some source of trouble for the EU. Russia consistently proposes, firstly, to delineate the geographical boundaries of future operations (read: area of responsibility); secondly, to commit itself to conduct such operations under UN SC mandate. This is a clear reflection of the Russian post-Kosovo position towards crisis management intervention.

How to reconcile this position and deployment of the RRC in a pragmatic way? The EU in any case will neither have capabilities, the political ability, nor the political will to undertake unilaterally any action as in a Kosovo scenario. Also, the EU repeatedly committed itself to act in accordance with the UN Charter and other basic international agreements. But the EU can't restrict its RRC geographically, because the "area of responsibility" of the CFSP is not reduced to the European integration space. As the approach to crisis management of Europeans, allied in NATO, is different from the Russian one, it is also hard to believe, that they renounce it in the framework of the EU-Russia dialogue. In other words, the Russian pre occupation with the deployment of the RRC is far from just a contingency plan because politically the EU couldn't answer Moscow in a satisfying way. At the same time they push partners apart, limiting their practical co-operation.

This Russian duality is in fact proof of the suspicion of Moscow's counterparts, that there remain motives to counter pose the "good West" (EU) to the "bad West" (NATO/US) in Russian approach. It is true, that in Russian political debates the perception of the European security and defence identity as a counterbalance to NATO, existed. But now Moscow understands more clearly, that the "European project" is definitely developing in the framework of Atlantic solidarity and Alliance, and the access to NATO capabilities is conditional for RRC to be credible. The problem is that this understanding is not put in the right manner into practical policies, especially as a result of remaining differences between Russia and NATO. So, the EU is considered by Moscow as a more appropriate partner than NATO, with RRC establishment opening the possibility to develop the co-operation on crisis management with the West from a clean page. These Russian aspirations strengthened due to the political crises that erupted after-Kosovo between Russia – NATO, having induced Russia to bring new dynamics into the security dialogue with the EU. But having succeeded in this, Russia faces the situation, where the development on this base of co-operation in crisis management is hindered by lack of due progress in its relations with NATO, which are, in turn, determined to a large extent by the content of Russian-American relations. Their aggravation, decrease of the Russian weight in the US foreign policy would make Europeans face a more pressing choice between US and Russia, damaging EU – Russia security relations. So, to be successful, Russian striving for their stepping up has to be combined with a course for consolidation of positive dynamics of the relations with US and NATO. This course would meet strong support among Europeans.

Thus, Russian attempts to establish some kind of "special relationship" with the EU in crisis management and to succeed in this by changing the respective Western approaches, seem unsuccessful. Furthermore, they could result in the opposite effect, increasing Atlantic accents in policy of Europeans. From the practical point of view, these attempts are also far from realistic, if to take into consideration limited EU's operational potential and its integral role in the Euro-Atlantic security structure, and especially its reliance on NATO. So, the qualitative progress in the NATO-Russia security co-operation is of key importance for the establishment of the workable EU-Russia mechanisms of crisis management.

There is a growing understanding of this dialectic in Russia. It is symptomatically, that the idea of the tri-lateral NATO-EU-Russia co-operation in crisis management has been voiced firstly (but unofficially) by Russian diplomats. However, this demonstrates Russia's in principle readiness to co-operate on an equal footing with all interested partners, as well as the fact that there are no anti-NATO motives in the Russian position towards the EU-Russia crisis management interaction. In practice, Russia is rather unable to explore constructively such a relationship formula owing to remaining differences with NATO and particularly on the eve of the challenge "2002" of NATO enlargement. So does the EU, which, firstly, didn't settle the issues of its own interaction with NATO and which, secondly, doesn't want to actualise the problem of the Russian participation in the Petersberg operations before RRC is in disposal, i.e. at least until 2003-2004.

Some prospects

The most likely near-term scenario of EU-Russia co-operation on crisis management issues will be a development of the political dialogue in this field without visible progress in practical co-operation. This trend has been evidenced already by the results of the Russia-EU Moscow Summit in May 2001, where besides the rhetoric about the significance of the mutual partnership one could find the European stand up to keep restraining from meeting Russian aspirations for practical co-operation in the context of the RRC formation. After they succeeded in getting Russia's loyalty, Europeans are focused now on its consolidation. The Summit decision "to intensify the security policy dialogue, including on the work of the EU on military and civilian crisis management" should be sufficient to support the status quo.

But Russia apparently will keep itself to holding its higher-standards position of concretising the crisis management co-operation, including establishment of the appropriate mechanisms of common activities. At the same time, Russia, most likely, will not be too persistent, acknowledging the shortages of the EU potential, as well as existing impediments (first of all, coming from Russia-NATO angle), as well as the importance to progress towards other partnership areas, considered to be essential. However, after stepping over the lines "2002" (i.e. reviewing the enlargement process by NATO) and "2003" (i.e. reaching the headline goal by the EU), Russia, if not satisfied with the level and format of the political and security co-operation with the EU, could become the aggravating factor for practical application of the new peace-keeping forces of the EU. So, it would be logical to look forward to some EU steps to come closer to the approach of Russia, which could be an important political partner of the EU, but also an attractive military-technical one. In this respect, the logic of the EU, arguably, when working on RRC, that its application is conditioned by its availability, could be extended to co-operation with Russia. Indeed, EU and Russia have no instruments for eventual common crisis management actions. To take decisions about the possibility and necessity to act in common, preparatory work is needed to shape the adequate mechanisms of consultations and, perhaps, of decision-making, on contingency planning of common operations, on interoperability, including the joint exercises etc. Respective proposals has been tabled by Moscow on the eve of the EU-Russia Summit in May, 2001. Such a practical co-operation could be organised before the deadline of 2003. It would not undermine the EU crisis management autonomy while would allow to rely, if and when it would be the mutual interest and agreement to act, upon created instruments of interaction. Beyond these practical considerations, one could find also political advantages. Firstly, this would ensure more consistent support of the EU component of crisis management by Russia. Secondly, this would become strong instrument for strengthening the EU – Russia partnership as a whole. Thirdly, this would inevitably promote the development of the Russia – NATO relations and interaction.