The Rude Awakening

EU leaders believed Russia's economic development would make it more European. Not anymore.

The criticism of the European Union’s weakly worded resolution on the Russian-Georgian conflict—warning Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia without naming specific consequences should Moscow fail to comply—was as predictable as it was seething. “Europe can keep sucking our oil and gas,” mocked the Moscow tabloid Tvoi Dyen. Western commentators likened Europe’s message to Robin Williams’s spoof of unarmed British cops: “Stop! Or we’ll say ‘stop’ again!”

Once again, the limitations of Europe acting as one on foreign policy were painfully obvious. The one measure the 27 leaders could agree on at their emergency summit in Brussels was to suspend talks on a planned EU-Russia agreement regulating such things as trade and visas—a largely symbolic act considering the talks have been stalled for more than a year. But the more interesting news was how closely aligned EU members were compared to the last emergency summit in 2003, when the continent’s split over the Iraq War led to the worst foreign-policy crisis in the EU’s history. This time, they unanimously agreed that there had been a red line, and that Russia had crossed it by invading Georgia and unilaterally declaring two of its provinces independent.

What’s more, the lack of tough action was more a reflection of coolheaded realism than of disunity. “Europe’s short-term options are close to zero,” says Jan Techau, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Fighting a nuclear-armed Russia over Georgia? Forget it. Trade sanctions would hit Europe with a painful backlash—its citizens depend on Russian deliveries for 25 percent of their oil and gas consumption, and its companies are heavily invested in Russia. Given Russia’s phobias about Western conspiracies and encirclement, threats would likely harden Russian policies. Even if it wanted to take a tougher line, says Techau, the EU hasn’t even begun to develop strategic options for a more bellicose Russia, instead choosing to live comfortably with the narrative that Russia’s economic integration would align it with a soft-power, multilateral, postconflict Europe.

The Russian-Georgian war has shot down this illusion. “Georgia shows that a military conflict in Europe is not as unlikely as it seemed just a short time ago,” says Klaus Reinhardt, a retired Bundeswehr general and former NATO commander. The real test of Europe’s resolve is how it intends to deal with these threats in the future. That would start with uncomfortable questions of how the bloc would react if one of its members were threatened. Several EU countries (including Estonia and Latvia) have sizable Russian minorities, which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said two weeks ago Moscow has the right to “protect.” It would include turning rhetoric into action on cutting Europe’s growing energy dependence on Russia—finding new suppliers, building new pipelines, boosting alternative energy and nuclear power—and getting serious about a European energy market that would make it harder for Russia to play off one country against another. And it would include finally getting serious about resolving exploitable frozen conflicts from Moldova to Armenia.

That assumes that the EU can find the will. The weakest link may be Germany, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s shuttle diplomacy that kept the bloc unified last week. Germany has traditionally nurtured a special relationship with Russia, and there is a strong undercurrent in public opinion blaming the United States (and its Trojan-horse allies like Georgia and Poland) for any trouble with Russia. In recent weeks, Russian diplomats and lobbyists, including former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, seem to have been on a propaganda offensive to boost public opposition to any robust EU reaction. The emerging divide between the pro-Russian Social Democrats and Merkel’s more hawkish Christian Democrats also threatens to draw Russia policy into next year’s national-election campaign.

So far, though, the biggest effect on Europe of Russia’s actions is a tenuous unity. Europe’s leaders seem desperate to avoid the fracas that divided them over Iraq—or, for that matter, over the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, another conflict that battered Europe’s illusion of itself as a soft-power superpower. Now there seems to be growing agreement that Russia will be a more uncomfortable neighbor in the future. Whether that is the catalyst for the EU to develop a common strategy and effective foreign policy remains to be seen.