In 2016 two events greatly shaped and, to some extent, destabilised the world we live in: the American Presidential election in November and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom in June. Both events have faced credibility challenges, with observers arguing that both political campaigns have been mined by lies and deception tactics[1]. Political thinkers argue that we have entered a post-truth era, an era in which rationality is seconded by emotion and where facts and policy analysis are not at the centre of debates. 

However, another, exterior force, has been seeking to actively undermine and weaken the West and the values that it holds – or used to – have close to heart. Since Putin’s second term in office, which began in 2004, Russia has employed hard power – the use of military or economic means to influence foreign behaviour – and sharp power – the use of manipulative diplomatic policies to undermine the sovereignty of a power and by doing so, destabilise its political system. By employing these two tools Russia seeks to reconquer the “near-abroad” which is part of its post-Soviet space, in other words Putin has imperial and tzarist intentions to constitute a hybrid Russian Federation between Tzarist Russia and the Soviet Union and by doing so, become a regional hegemon. However, Putin’s main obstacle to complete this project is the European Union which promotes values which are alien to the Russian president, such as: human rights, free speech, peacebuilding, international cooperation, and compliance with international law.

This article wishes to discuss the statement that: Russia is a threat to the European Union. It is a subject which sells many newspapers and seems to be at the centre of many discussions within the mainstream media in Europe. However, it seems that this “Russian threat” is an over-inflated issue which should not worry everyday Europeans. I do not deny that Putin, by annexing Crimea and interfering in foreign elections, has undermined democracy and created wars which have already killed thousands[2]. Nevertheless, I will argue that Russian “victories” are in reality European “failures”. The Crimean crisis could have been avoided if the EU had a stronger foreign policy dimension, second, interreference in the Brexit referendum could have been avoided if states cooperated at the EU level to push back against InfeKtions[3], widely known as fake news.

A brief history of the relationship between Russia and Europe

Europe, as a geographical space, and the European Union, as a political entity, have always had close ties to Russia. Whether we look at Russian involvement in the two World Wars which were predominantly fought on European soil, to ideological divides between Western Europe which embraced American capitalism and Eastern Europe which embraced Bolshevik communism.

In 1994 the EU and Russia signed the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. This agreement states, in Article 1, that the EU wishes to accompany and help Russia to “consolidate its democracy and to develop its economy and to complete the transition into a market economy”[4]. Later, in 1999, talking channels emerged to consider Russia joining the European Union. These talks were taken seriously at the time since Russia was a major energy partner and cooperated closely with European nations to fight the “war-on-terror”[5]

However, during the 2004-2006 period, a brutal shift appeared. Before this date Russian foreign policy strategists mostly viewed Europe as a benign region. This analysis stems from the fact that the EU is an inter-governmental institution where decisions must be voted unanimously. Russian foreign policymakers rightly saw the EU as a structure within which each member state would defend their own interest at the expense of a clear and efficient foreign policy strategy. However, in 2005 the EU started taking a stronger stance on states which did not respect humanitarian law, states such as Russia. The EU also strongly suspects that Russian elections are rigged in favour of Vladimir Putin and has widely condemned such behaviour if found true. 

Most importantly, the EU-Russian relationship took its hardest toll in 2014 during the Russian annexation of Crimea. Often labelled as the “Crimean factor”, the Russian illegal invasion and occupation has profoundly changed the European strategy with regards to Russia. The EEAS (European External Action Service – which to some degree can be qualified as the foreign policy dimension of the EU) continuously tries to promote the idea that Russia is not a strategic ally but a destabilising factor for European integration. This destabilisation is conducted in two ways. First, through hard power, such as the Crimean annexation and ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Second, through sharp power, by actively challenging European authorities and spreading infeKtion, the most apparent case being Brexit. I will briefly introduce these two events and how they interact with the European Union.

The Crimean annexation by Russia 2014 is the most serious breach of European boarders since the second world war[6]. The motivation behind the aggression is for the Russian’s to secure their naval base in Sevastopol[7], and to fight back the perceived threat that NATO and the EU are both expanding further towards the Russian “near-abroad”. The annexation is a clear violation of state territorial sovereignty and many other legal treaties such as: the United Nations Charter; 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Russia and Ukraine; and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, to name a few. The timing of the annexation was methodically chosen as it happened during civil unrest following the Maidan square protest and killings. Anti-Kiev feelings started to appear in the population and turning towards Russia rather than the corrupt Ukrainian political elite and the EU seemed like the right thing to do. By backing Crimean separatists with Spetsnaz, the Russian special force division, Russia was able to rapidly control the Crimean Peninsula. After the invasion, the European Union swiftly condemned the unprovoked aggression by Russia on Ukrainian soil[8]. Subsequently, the EU imposed economic and trading bans with Russia and froze many personal Russian and Crimean assets located within the EU. To this day Crimea is under Russian control and the war for the Donbass region is still going on despite ceasefire attempts. 

Situation in the Donbass region as of 29 September 2020[9]

         In a report order by the UK’s House of Common it was confirmed that Russia did in fact interfere in the 2016 Brexit referendum[10]. The “Russian Report”, as it is called, concludes that Russia did not interfere directly with the ballot by corrupting officials which count the votes or by electronically changing the results. However, Moscow did interfere through disinformation, creating thousands of fake social media profiles to sway the result in favour of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Although this had very little impact on the result of the referendum, it is widely considered that such exaction is a blatant violation of British domestic affairs[11]. The goal was to cripple and delegitimize the European Union by encouraging the British people to leave the European organization. 

         These two events, and the role, minor or major, that Russia played in them poses the following questions. Is Russia a threat to Europe? If yes then how so? If not what are the issues with the European Union which allowed Russia to annex part of the European Union and interfere in domestic affairs with a sense of impunity?

Russia is not a threat to the European Union, but sheds light on structural issues with the Union

         With regards to the interference in British politics Russia is not a threat. Quite the opposite, the fact that Russia wasn’t able to impact the results in a significant way shows Russia’s weakness: it is not an attractive state politically. While, on the one hand, China is able to creep slowly into Western culture by exposing a bright and attractive façade, while hiding blatant crimes against humanity[12], on the other hand Russia is failing to get the awe of Westerners. Yet, exactions in the affairs of others is intolerable and the European Union should take a stronger stance in denouncing Russian interreference activities. While the EU does have an official debunking program through the European Digital Media Observatory, it needs to put in place a strong counter strategy by refusing Russian media, such as RT (Russia Today) to broadcast in Europe. Educational programs to learn how to identify disinformation has to be put in place.

On the other side there is the Russian annexation of Crimea. The European Union has the infrastructure to create a joint-military command. States which wish for further European integration could deploy soldiers under a common EU banner. This militaristic branch of the European Union should be placed under the vigilance and command of the EEAS. It should be mentioned that France’s Operation Barkhane in Mali is partly under the supervision of the EEAS. Close cooperation with NATO is also advised to maximise deterrence. Such deterrence exercises are taking place in Finland, Poland and Lithuania which, according to RAND Corp war games, are regions which are in the scope of Moscow[13].

Overall, the European Union is a strong and resilient political structure which has little to fear from Russia. While Moscow has created wars to feed its territorial greed and interfered with the sovereignty of domestic elections, it can be argued that labelling Russia as a threat is an exaggeration. The EU should be aware of Putin’s ambitions and take the necessary measures to counter and push back. Relying on fear of Russia is not an advisable solution.

What Russian exactions have shown is that the European Union is naïve with regards to other states. While the EU concentrated on economic development it forgot to develop a strong foreign strategy. Today, China is slowly taking more and more space within the EU[14], big corporations such as the GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) are destabilising the job market[15]. The US, which was an historic ally of Western Europe is turning its back on the Atlantic and facing the Pacific. States like Hungary or Poland are digressing into populism and obscurantism, while the extreme right is consolidating itself in Germany[16] and had access to the second round during the French presidential election. The European Union is not threatened by Russia, but by its own i


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/13/boris-johnson-donald-trump-post-truth-politician

[2] https://www.euronews.com/2020/07/27/cease-fire-in-war-torn-eastern-ukraine-begins-after-six-years-of-conflict

[3] https://nyti.ms/2STUEsZ (watch this NY Times video documentary on the history of fake news and how KGB agents invented this tool of mass disinformation under the name of “InfeKtion”)

[4] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:21997A1128(01)&from=EN

[5] https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=65-uDAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=EU+russia+military&ots=tpCo7UDHHJ&sig=-YlkfXQh83WPgql1TQR3tlElWmo&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

[6] https://warsawinstitute.org/crimean-factor-european-union-reacted-russias-annexation-crimea/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/07/ukraine-russia-crimea-naval-base-tatars-explainer

[8] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/european-council/2014/03/06/

[9] https://www.polgeonow.com/2020/09/ukraine-war-2020-map.html

[10] https://docs.google.com/a/independent.gov.uk/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=aW5kZXBlbmRlbnQuZ292LnVrfGlzY3xneDo1Y2RhMGEyN2Y3NjM0OWFl

[11] https://www.csis.org/blogs/brexit-bits-bobs-and-blogs/did-russia-influence-brexit

[12] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-54277430

[13] https://www.rand.org/blog/2015/03/stop-putins-next-invasion-before-it-starts.html

[14] https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/05/09/on-china-s-expanding-influence-in-europe-and-eurasia-pub-79094

[15] https://www.eyes-on-europe.eu/the-european-union-and-the-gafa-issue/

[16] https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-far-right-extreme-afd-surveillance/

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