Written by Tyana Barry, edited by Paolo Stohlman

The European Union has a longstanding relationship with the Russian Federation. Russia is the European Union (EU)’s largest neighbour and the two share historical and cultural ties (European Union External Action, 2021). For three decades, the EU and the Russian Federation faced and tackled global issues together, despite contrasting policies and beliefs that would often impact bilateral relations (2022). However, since the Crimean Peninsula annexation in Ukraine in 2014, the EU and Russia’s relationship has become evidently fragmented and worsened further at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (European Union External Action, 2021). By February 2022, the existing EU foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia had shattered and subsequently shifted. While the shifting policy was met with unity by most EU member states, it poses a dilemma for the EU’s approach to its relations with Russia, namely for European security and economic stability (Meister, 2022).

This research article will explore the shifting EU policy and how the EU has managed the crisis so far. Moreover, it will explore the consequences this conflict posed for the EU’s weakened position. Lastly, this article will further highlight what the Russo-Ukrainian conflict means for the EU’s foreign policy.

1. The European Union’s shifting policy vis-à-vis Russia

The EU’s bilateral relations with the Russian Federation have always been tense, and the two powers are often at odds on the international scene. Nonetheless, a mutually beneficial economic and political relationship has been forged for three decades, namely in the area of energy and economic interdependence (Kusa, 2022; Meister, 2022; Bosse, 2022). By February 2022, as a consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the relationship between the EU and Russia, as it existed and was built over three decades, was over (Maurer, Wright & Whitman, 2023). Hence, it marked a decisive shift, namely in the EU’s foreign policy towards the Russian state and its economic relationship.

However, the shift in EU foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia can be observed as gradual over the multiple military crises caused by the latter. Russian aggression, resulting in mistrust from the EU’s member states, dates long before the Ukraine outbreak in 2022. Back in 2008, Russia had already tested the EU’s limits by invading Georgia, followed by the violation of the Minsk Agreements in Ukraine by annexing the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and the subsequent presence of Russian forces in the Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) since then (Siddi, 2022; Siddi, Karjalainen & Jokela, 2022). While in 2008, the swift five-day Russian invasion in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia territories in Georgia was condemned by the EU, no actions against Russia were formally taken. However, in the Crimean case, targeted sanctions were launched, marking an unprecedented cut in cordial relations with Russia (Isachenko, 2019).

While the Crimean crisis and the occupation of the Donbas in 2014 led to worsening relations and a decline in trade after a series of mutual sanctions, the EU member states disagreed over how to deal with Russia, and no military assistance was offered to Ukraine (Siddi, 2022; Bosse, 2022). Multiple states were still seeking cooperation on common interests and continued to depend on Russia for its energy and gas. Energy security was then still dictated by Russia for many member states, and not much was changed in the EU’s neighbourhood policy (Meister, 2022; Siddi, 2022). However, the case in 2014 represents a stark difference from the response to the invasion in February 2022 where the EU member states united and rallied together to cut Russia out economically with five rounds of harsh sanctions by early April, less than two months after the start of the invasion (Central Bank of Ireland, 2022). 

In total, nine rounds of sanctions were adopted by December 2022 (Central Bank of Ireland, 2022). These rounds of sanctions targeted the Russian government, financial, business, defence, technology, and media sectors, and ended the energy trade overall. As a result, Russia plunged into rapid recession and became excluded from the geopolitical scene (Archick, 2022; Mbah, & Wasum, 2022). In addition, the EU packages also included offering assistance to Ukrainian civilians, assisting militarily by sending and financing equipment and supplies and opening the door for EU accession and enlargement (Archick, 2022; Mbah, & Wasum, 2022). 

All in all, the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted in regional insecurity, with the growing energy insecurity exposing European gas dependency and economic stability deteriorating as a result (Maurer, Wright, & Whitman, 2023; Mbah & Wasum, 2022).

2. Consequences of this shifting policy

The EU has become a centrepiece of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Its response towards the Russian state was unexpected, with remarkably swift punitive sanctions and the decision from EU member states to allow Ukrainian civilians to live and work in the EU and Schengen area (Bosse, 2022; Archick, 2022). The rapid and successive actions taken by EU member states mark the EU’s newfound geopolitical awakening (De Hoop Scheffer & Weber, 2022). However, while the EU seemingly looks more united than before, its position on the global scene was affected by the economic downturn (Arce, Koester, & Nickel, 2023). 

The crisis triggered a shock to the global economy in terms of energy and food markets (Arce, Koester, & Nickel, 2023). With limits in supplies and prices rising, the EU became a vulnerable primary party due to its dependence on energy imports from Russia, accounting for more than half the EU’s energy use in 2020 (Arce, Koester, & Pierluigi, 2022; Adolfsen, Kuik, Lis, & Schuler, 2022; Arce, Koester, & Nickel, 2023). While Russia was the main energy partner of the EU, Ukraine played a large export role in terms of food and fertilisers (Arce, Koester, & Nickel, 2023). As an open economy, the EU is more vulnerable to disruptions in the global markets than other economies (Arce, Koester, & Nickel, 2023). Hence, the Euro area suffered from inflationary pressures, with inflation increasing from 0.3% in 2020 to 2.6% in 2021 and to 8.4% in 2022, and with food and energy categories representing more than two-thirds of this result. Trade further deteriorated and so did natural gas consumption, by almost 20% in 2022. Labour markets in the EU, while showing tremendous resilience, are at risk from the effects of the war and remain fragile (Arce, Koester, & Pierluigi, 2022; Adolfsen, Kuik, Lis, & Schuler, 2022; Arce, Koester, & Nickel, 2023). The tremendous burdening consequences this conflict posed on member states shed light on the EU’s shifting approach, which is progressively becoming a complete overhaul of its foreign policy with its amiable neighbours and with Russia.

3. What the Russo-Ukrainian conflict means for the European Union

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict has led the way in exposing the EU’s need for a new foreign policy. With a debilitated position, a dilemma in deciphering the economic crisis with soaring inflation across Europe, and a vital need to find alternative energy sources, an overhaul in foreign policy has become unavoidable (Siddi 2022; Meister, 2022). While there are cracks in European unity at times, the crisis affected how the EU prioritises its neighbourhood policy, energy independence and security, and its role as a peace-building actor in the region.

The need to renew its neighbourhood strategy has become increasingly evident, and steps forward have been taken. The EU is especially vulnerable as it shares borders with Ukraine and allies who are at risk of Russian threats (Liadze, Macchiarelli, Mortimer-Lee, & Juanino, 2022). In the place of cooperation policy, the EU has turned to a containment policy of Russia, with the isolation of the latter and a gradual opening to neighbours such as Ukraine and Moldova (Pirozzi, 2022). Concrete initiatives in strong cooperation with Ukraine and Moldova with potential accession negotiations have been underway; with several EU summits with the two countries, renewed displays of unity and assistance, and both Ukraine and Moldova received candidate status for EU accession in June 2022 (Pirozzi, 2022; Meister, 2022). Moreover, the EU has further expressed intentions to strengthen its relations with the Western Balkans, the Southern Caucasus, and the Black Sea region and to promote coordination and resilience of partnership with these regions. This new approach directly threatens Putin’s geopolitical intentions and proves to be a turning point in multilateral relations between the EU and its neighbours (Meister, 2022).

In terms of energy independence and security, the EU started moving away from Russian hegemony while finding alternatives and fostering an energy independence strategy (Khudaykulova, Yuanqiong & Khudaykulov, 2022). Energy reliance has proven to be fundamentally harmful to European states’ economies, with prices skyrocketing and plunging the EU into an economic slowdown. Hence, diversifying sources and finding other suppliers has been a complicated task for EU states, but one that is preferred over renewed energy ties with Russia (2022). Independence from Russian energy prevents future supply shocks and ensures economic stability (Khudaykulova, Yuanqiong & Khudaykulov, 2022; Meister, 2022). Thus, to strengthen energy security and independence, EU member states and neighbours ought to start integrating energy and electricity networks (Meister, 2022). While in the past Russia used its influence to dictate European energy access, an interconnected energy industry in the EU and with neighbouring allies would effectively end this precedent (Khudaykulova, Yuanqiong, & Khudaykulov 2022; Meister, 2022). 

Moreover, this crisis is a turning point in how the EU presents itself as a peace and norms-based actor in the geopolitical scene. The EU advocates for rights-based and values-based norms in both domestic and foreign policies; hence it should uphold them in the face of the crisis it is facing (Bosse, 2022; Beauregard, 2022). The EU is now increasingly acting as a geopolitical and security actor in light of this crisis and following through with its norm-based strategies. In the face of repeated Russian aggression, the unity of EU member states promoted the shift in upholding the rule of law and strengthening the role of EU institutions and global governance institutions (Pirozzi, 2022; Pingen, 2023). The EU has further reinforced the use of multilateral institutions such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, of which it is a member, by condemning and launching formal demands for prosecutions against Putin’s role in invading Ukraine (Paul, 2022; Wesslau, 2023). Open investigations are now underway and examined and supported by a large portion of the international community (Marchuk & Wanigasuriya, 2022).

In conclusion, the European Union is now facing unprecedented challenges in its foreign policy. Its relationship with Russia, while at grand odds, has highlighted a united approach from most EU states in condemning Russia’s actions. A shifting EU foreign policy is now taking form, which foreshadows the need for a new EU neighbourhood policy, fostering EU energy independence and security and facilitating peace-building in the region (Meister, 2022). The EU possesses the capabilities to promote a securitized environment despite its current fragile position. As the EU and Russia enter a fundamentally different era of bilateral relations, the EU needs a sharper strategy and vision to counter increasingly aggressive Russian tactics and influence in the region. The EU has the potential to establish itself as a strong democratic actor in this new geopolitical era if it furthers its cooperation and assistance with Ukraine and other neighbours at risk. 


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