Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, January 14, 2002

Recoupling Russia: Staying the Course
Europe's Security Relationship with Russia

by Stephan De Spiegeleire, Research Leader, RAND Europe

Recent geopolitical changes, including the new 'alliance' between the US and Russia on counter-terrorism, have led to various clarion calls for a new bold new move to dramatically upgrade the security relationship between Russia and the West (e.g. by opening a debate on Russian membership in NATO). These statements make reference to a window of opportunity to tie Russia much more closely into the Western security community, but they may underestimate a number of difficulties that have to do both with the realities of today's Europe and today's Russia, and with the changing nature of security cooperation. It is therefore dubious whether any such radical moves are either necessary or desirable from a European point of view. Europe might be better advised to stay its current course.

Europe's Security Strategy towards Russia

Over the past decade, Western Europe has pursued a patient but determined long-term strategy of re-integrating Russia into Europe, and thence into the world. This strategy is distinctly European: it is quite long-term; incrementally integrationist; multi-dimensional; multi-level (sub-national, national and supra-national); and both functional and institutional. It closely mirrors the neo-functionalist logic that has served Western Europe so spectacularly well over the past half century: economic integration 'spilling over' in political and eventually in security integration. Thus the European approach to the 'Russian security question' has been basically (and characteristically) indirect: to assist the country's painful transformation process across the board, in the hope that at some point in time this will also yield security benefits.

Unlike in the US, Russia's salience to European and world security and stability has never been questioned in Europe. The concurrent widening and deepening of the European Union have only strengthened the shared European conviction that it is imperative to find appropriate ways of engaging and accommodating Russia. The main focus of these efforts has clearly been on 'first pillar' issues, in line with the afore-mentioned 'European' logic. But Russia has also been one of the main targets of the 'new' Common Foreign and Security Policy as defined in the Maastricht and then Amsterdam Treaties on European Union. When member-States decided to create a new CFSP instrument in the form of 'common strategies', for instance, it was self-evident that Russia would be the first country for which such a 'common strategy' would be developed.

The actual security agenda between Russia and the European Union, however, remains fairly modest, certainly in the so-called 'hard security' field. The political dialogue with Russia on various international security issues dates back to the activation of the PCA instruments and it received a further push with the EU's Common Strategy on Russia and also with the various agreements to provide Russia with some interface on the new common European Security and Defence Policy (CESDP)[1]. As a result, there are now a number of different institutional linkages between the Russian Federation and the European Union through which the two sides can exchange opinions about international security issues. So far, however, these interfaces have not yielded any visible breakthroughs, despite efforts from at least the EU side to identify and pursue possible areas for joint progress (like on Chechnya or Moldova).

In the purely military field, Europe's direct engagement of Russia remains very (arguably even disappointingly) limited. There are various bilateral military assistance, cooperation and outreach programs – some uniquely valuable, but all largely uncoordinated among each other[2]. The EU itself has a few 'military' projects it supports mainly out of the Community budget (TACIS). And even in the potentially interesting military industrial field, there have been some spectacular 'misses' (like the joint Russian-Ukrainian AN-70), and very few significant success stories[3]. Theatre ballistic missile defence appeared to be another promising avenue for cooperation, but has not led to any real breakthroughs.

Changes in the context and the terms of security cooperation

Security and military cooperation remains of course one of the most difficult areas of inter-state cooperation. NATO's successes in establishing and sustaining historically unique degrees of military cooperation may have obfuscated some of these intrinsic difficulties. But anybody familiar with NATO's (and a fortiori the EU's) daily struggles to sustain that level of military cooperation even between fairly like-minded and –structured countries is likely to be more cautious on cooperation with Russia in these areas.

Recent changes in the security agenda have only brought these intrinsic difficulties more to the fore. Traditional territorial defence probably remains the 'easiest' area to establish the durable, formal and very politically 'heavy' forms of security cooperation that NATO for instance embodies. But this is also an area where close cooperation with Russia remains a very distant possibility, even if only because of Russia's very exposed Southern borders. The two up-and-coming areas on the security agenda – peace operations and countering the new terrorism – clearly lend themselves much more to cooperation with Russia, but the nature and the terms of security cooperation in those areas are likely to be very different from the institutional arrangements that we are familiar with now.

Russia clearly has some experience (albeit quite a chequered one) with peace support operations both in its own 'near abroad' and in Europe's 'near abroad' – some of which shoulder-to-shoulder with European forces. There is also a clear possibility for closer Russian-European cooperation in such operations in areas where for some reasons US participation might be problematic. The Caucasus and Moldova have for instance been mentioned as possibilities here[4]. But it has to be recognized that with the important exception of the Balkans, peace operations are frequently coalitions of the willing that tend to be cobbled together relatively quickly outside of the existing institutional arrangements, and therefore are more difficult to use for setting up new durable (and costly – both financially and politically) mechanisms. Furthermore Europe's recent activism in this area has led to situation where its military resources are extremely stretched (and likely to remain so for quite some time) because of existing commitments, thus hardly leaving any room for taking on sizeable new commitments in any of those areas.

Another potential limiting factor for closer European-Russian military cooperation in the field is the fact that Russia remains a problematic security partner. Despite some encouraging recent trends, Russia's current military policy seems largely untenable (for reasons that would ring home not all that dissimilar to Europe's own military establishment), with extreme financial constraints[5] and many urgent needs to even sustain minimal military capabilities, let alone modernize. Quite a few European militaries now also have real life experiences in fighting alongside Russian soldiers – an experience that has not always strengthened Russia's reputation. Russia's track record in civil military relations is likely to remain another sensitive topic. And finally, President Putin has embarked upon a little noticed but quite dramatic international military retrenchment (withdrawal from Vietnam, Cuba; cutbacks in the Balkans; signs of a rethinking of Russian military presence in the near abroad[6]; and the decision not to participate in the peace operation in Afghanistan), that makes Russian participation in 'new' international peace operations less rather than more likely.

Finally also the 'new-style' security threats ('hyperterrorism') that have gained so much attention since 9-11, are even less likely to require the types of security arrangements that are frequently discussed between Russia and the West. In first instance, these threats require multi-dimensional responses including parties of our governments that have little experience (and quite a few professional impediments) in sustained institutional – let alone politically visible – cooperation. But maybe even more importantly that that, the network nature of these new opponents is probably best combated through (looser) network coalitions than through more formal arrangements with pre-established mechanisms and procedures.

None of this is to argue that security cooperation with Russia cannot or should not be improved. But it does suggest that the terms of such an enhanced cooperation may look different from the ones we have grown accustomed to thinking about.

The Transatlantic dimension

Europe and the United States are currently pursuing different security agendas with respect to Russia with different policy instruments and through different institutions. Without exaggerating the differences, it is important to note that Russia's 'ideal' security policy looks somewhat different as seen from European capitals than from Washington, D.C.. While both Europe and the US are interested in a further normalization and demilitarization of Russia's foreign and security policy and of genuine military reform, they also differ in their views on the desirability of genuinely multilateral approaches to security challenges; on the relative weight of the military arrow in the external affairs quiver (and hence spending), and also on the political weight of the military in the decision making process.

Also with respect to instruments, European member states tend put more emphasis on indirect levers over Russian security policy than on direct security negotiations. The institutional translation of this difference is that Europe is also investing more political and other capital into the EU as a main vehicle for dealing with Russia than in NATO. This is all the more relevant since the 'new' security agenda focuses more on non-military aspects of security, which belong to the Justice and Home Affairs portfolio and therefore to the EU. Since the mechanisms of information-exchange and coordination between the 'principals' dealing with Russia in the EU and in the US remain far less developed than the analogous mechanisms in NATO on purely military issues, this may lead to a dangerous disconnect. There is therefore probably still quite a bit of room for improving the direct US-EU-interface on issues such as Russia[7], of which an improved EU-NATO interface could be the 'military arm'.

To give just a few concrete (modest but with significant value-added) examples in the security sphere where this direct EU-US interface could be useful:

Potential Dangers of Putin's Rapprochement to the US

In Europe, President Putin's first steps in the international arena have been warmly welcomed (far more so than President Bush's first steps). The higher emphasis put by Russia on Europe as an international actor, but also the more relaxed attitude towards the US role in Europe could not fail to please European capitals, who had been pushing hard for such an outcome for quite some time.

Yet in recent months, President Putin has gone significantly further than those initial changes, seemingly reversing some long-held Russian reservations on some key security issues such as US plans for missile defense, cooperation with the US in general, and NATO enlargement. Many European governments seem to have been taken aback by this apparent Russian volte-face, and one of their big fears concerns the sustainability of this new Russian policy, and the potential consequences of a backlash.

In Russia, President Putin's bold new overtures towards the West may be sustainable in the short- to medium-run within the current political environment. Yet Russia's political scene remains fragile. For the first time under Putin's stewardship, just as he is about to embark on his 'third wave' of reforms[10] and a quickly dwindling petrodollar buffer, real opposition is emerging from various quarters[11]. Against this background, the sustainability of this new more pro-western policy will to a large extent be predicated on some concessions from the West which are likely to prove quite difficult[12].

On the Western side too, the sustainability of the current course seems questionable. The overall picture of developments in Russia continues to look decidedly ambiguous from a Western point of view. Encouraging signs in the economic and legal realms are being counterbalanced by disturbing realities and trends in others (the re-centralization of power, the way in which the war in Chechnya is fought, freedom of the press,…). Although some of these more negative elements have recently been downplayed by the West in recent months for obvious tactical reasons, this is unlikely to continue forever – neither in Western Europe (where the first signs are already visible[13]), nor in the United States

This seems most likely in the US, where Russia's salience has shrunk to a level that many in Europe find frighteningly low. The political economy of the US relationship with Russia is radically different from that of Western Europe, with fairly insignificant economic links, no direct neighborhood issues and no real political (or economic) constituency for a sustained activist Russia policy. If – as now looks likely – some of the last residual Cold War issues (mainly in offensive and defensive strategic nuclear arms) get solved, Russia will become even less important in US foreign and security. And even with respect to the 'new' agenda on which the allegedly 'new' strategic partnership is based, Russia's 'value added' may start to look very differently after the current stage of the war on terrorism.

But even in Europe, it is unclear whether the current system could 'carry' a new qualitative improvement in the security relationship. Already as a consequence of 9-11, the European Union has ratcheted up its institutional relationship with Russia by providing a new consultation mechanism with the new Political and Security Committee (a mechanism that doesn't even exist with the US[14]). Given the current disappointing state of CFSP and ESDP, it is unclear whether this new channel will really live up to Russian expectations, especially since as in NATO it is essentially restricted to an exchange of information.

If Russian disappointment with the 'quid pro quo' it receives for its pro-Western security aggiornamento leads to a new reversal in Russian security thinking (or even a backlash), the consequences might be quite severe. Russian recriminations would probably be even more virulent than in previous episodes like German reunification or the first round of NATO enlargement, and Russian-Western relations might be set back for at least a couple of years.

Two Scenarios

Looking ahead to the near to medium-term future, the security relationship between Russia and Western Europe will to some extent depend on the course of the current Russia-US rapprochement. If the security relationship between the US and Russia remains positive – an outcome all Europeans undoubtedly prefer – the Russia-Western European security relationship will likely remain at its current low levels with few incentives for any substantial policy changes. The fundamental integrationist strategy will be pursued on its own terms, and the security relationship between the two will be gradually but slowly upgraded.

If on the other hand the current US-Russian rapprochement does indeed prove to be unsustainable and is either stopped or reversed, all sides involved might have an interest in keeping the (modest) Russia-Europe security channel as alive as possible, and as isolated as possible from the vagaries of US-Russia (and possibly also NATO-Russia) relations.

If correct, this assessment would suggest that Europe's current strategy is robust against both scenarios, and it would only strengthen the argument to shy away from any radical new moves.

What Is to Be Done?

Most of the proponents of a bold new upgrade of the relationship argue for some new institutional arrangement. The extent to which both Russia and the West appear to be enamored with 'institutional solutions' to the Russia problématique is sometimes striking. Russia expands a lot of political capital to get a foot into various institutional doors; and both NATO and the European Union are frequently equally tempted to satisfy either Russia's or their own dissatisfaction with Russia's current place by creating 'new' institutional instruments, like the Permanent Joint Council, the new NATO-Russia format at '20', the new COPS mechanism in the EU, etc. This institutional fetishism is all the more regrettable since these new constructs are superimposed on existing mechanisms that have frequently not been used to their full potential – a point that applies to both the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Russia and the EU; but also to NATO's Partnership for Peace, EAPC and PJC.

President Putin's new openings towards the US should be welcomed and no doubt be reciprocated in some way. It is unclear, however, whether Europe can or even should be the one to reciprocate. From a European point of view, the relationship with Russia is arguably too important to leave it hostage to various conjunctural impulses. Europe has a long-term strategy for Russia in place. It may not always be clearly or convincingly articulated in official EU documents. It is also not easily mediatized and may lack the drama of the US-Russia relationship. But it is also far more intrusive, as it reaches into the fibre of the Russian society and polity in a way that no other external actor could currently come close to[15]. And it is probably also robust against a couple of short- to medium-term scenarios that could be envisaged for the future relationship between Russia and the West. It would be a pity to squander the advantages of that strategy for short-term political expediency.

[1] Starting under the French presidency with the "Joint Declaration on strengthening dialogue and cooperation on political and security matters in Europe".

[2] The coordination of these different military-to-military programmes of EU MS, for instance, seems like a quite worthwhile task for the new EU Military Staff; or even the new EU Institute for Security Studies.

[3] Possible exceptions here are agreements between Russia and the W/EU Satellite Center on the provision of Russian satellite imagery; and on long-haul air transport with the now-defunct WEU itself.

[4] See e.g. Michael Emerson, The Elephant and the Bear, CEPS, October 2001.

[5] Russian military budget increased with 8% in 2000, and 5% in 2001; but is still only at €9bn (e.g. US President Bush's FY02 proposal for just BMD about the same). This sum has to sustain a still bloated military infrastructure, a costly war in Chechnya that is cannibalizing extremely scarce resources (at a very high opportunity given the puny size of the Russian federal budget), and a military reform.

[6] The costs of maintaining the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, peacekeeping in the Balkans, Georgia and Moldova, the 201st motorized infantry division in Tajikistan and other military facilities abroad add up to $50 million a month, more than half a billion dollars a year – more than 5 percent of the total Russian defence budget, and that for a military contingent that represents less than 1 percent of the Russian armed forces

[7] The EU's Common Strategy on Russia foreshadows such a triangular formula, but its implementation to date has been disappointingly limited.



[10] Igor Bunin, Alexei Zudin, Boris Makarenko, Alexei Makarkin, Mark Urnov, Nachalo "tretei volny": Analiz i prognoz politicheskoi situatsii, Tsentra politicheskih tehnologii, 04.12.01.

[11] Including in his own 'constituency', the so-called 'power structures'.

[12] Dmitri Glinski-Vassiliev nicely summarizes Putin's record so far: "The ABM Treaty has been discarded; the militaries of several NATO countries are present on the soil of Russia's immediate neighbors and, at least in a formal sense, allies, and are not rushing to leave; and NATO has apparently opted for the 'big bang' scenario of admitting all nine East European applicants, while the plan to re-format Russia's relations with the Alliance into the 'group of twenty' giving it an equal voice with others has been shelved.", Dmitri Glinski-Vassiliev, The Myth of the New Détente: The Roots of Putin's Pro-U.S. Policy. PONARS Policy Memo No. 239, December 2001.

[13] See for instance Marie Jego, "Oubliées par l'Occident, les exactions russes en Tchétchénie se multiplient", Le Monde, 27 December 2001.

[14] Although the EU's relationship with the US has other mechanisms – both formal and informal, and both within the 'New Transatlantic Agenda' and outside of it.

[15] This is clearly borne out by various public opinion and elite polls, showing that Europe and the European Union are significantly more popular in Russia than the United States.