Worries have been growing for some time, but the guns of August dramatically exposed the European Union’s dilemma in dealing with an assertive and energy-rich Russia, especially its foreign and security presence in its eastern neighbourhood.
As Moscow flexes muscles in Georgia and other countries, the EU’s capacity for decisive action is hampered by deep divisions on how best to deal with resurgent Russia. This worries many former Soviet states who fear that, if left unchecked, Russia in its present aggressive mood will sabotage their efforts to draw closer to both the EU and NATO, thereby putting their hard-fought independence and sovereignty at risk.
Already the tough stance taken by the US towards Russia is causing some discomfort among its European allies, highlighting the fissure with the alliance. The war in Georgia marked “the end of the post Cold War period of growing geopolitical calm in and around Europe,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband warned recently echoing Washington’s concern. He added that Ukraine could be next in line to face Russia’s wrath.
The EU’s so-called “old” member states France, Germany and Italy have historically lobbied for a more conciliatory approach towards Russia, not least because of their dependence on Russian oil and gas resources.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said recently the West had made a "mistake" by humiliating Russia from 1991 to 2000, asking Moscow to be "a supplier of energy and welcome our investments" without being given a "political role" in return. "Russia has nourished a frustration which today exploded," Frattini said.
In contrast, “new” formerly communist EU states, including Baltic nations as well as Poland - joined by Sweden and Britain - press for a tougher line on Moscow, arguing that Russia should not be allowed to become the dominant power in the region.
Complicating the picture further are deep divisions within some EU governments over Russia. The schism within the German coalition is most marked, with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was born in east Germany, much less willing to compromise with Moscow than her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier whose Social Democrat party favours a close partnership with Russia. Steinmeier once served as chief of staff for former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who is now co-manager of a Baltic Sea pipeline project involving Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas monopoly.
Recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his chief diplomat Bernard Kouchner also appear to be singing from distinctly different song sheets. The French president appears uneasy about ruffling Russian feathers, but known human-rights advocate Kouchner has accused the country of seeking to start another cold war.
Equally critically, Russia’s tough stance casts a question mark over Europe's plans for further expansion into what Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin regards as a "post-Soviet space". While EU policymakers have so far only identified western Balkan states as future candidates, the bloc is seeking to strengthen relations with Georgia and Ukraine through an ambitious “neighbourhood policy” which includes the granting of trade and aid concessions and access to easier travel facilities. Russia has made no secret of its wariness of such initiatives.
The stakes are high for the 27-nation bloc. “Should the European Union not be able to find a clear, strong, common position,” on Russia and its eastern neighbours, “we can write off the EU as a political project for some time to come,” says Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.
EU governments acknowledge that given Russia’s view that the current US administration is too friendly with Georgia, it’s up to Europe to play honest broker. However, to carry weight in Moscow, the Union must speak with one voice - an elusive goal so far.
As illustrated at an emergency meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on September 1, the 27-nation bloc’s efforts to craft a credible policy towards Moscow continue to be trammeled by deep discord due to history, geography and countries’ varied dependence on Russian oil and gas.
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