Having been on the defensive in the past few years in the face
of the eastward expansion of the European Union (EU) and NATO,
Russia has taken an increasingly assertive approach in dealing with
its western neighbors this year holding energy as its trump
A few anecdotes during the year are notable in the evolving
relationship between the two powers in Europe: Russia's temporary
halt of gas supplies to Ukraine at the beginning of the year;
Russia's row with Georgia over alleged spying activities, which
caused a stir within the EU; the murders of Russian journalist Anna
Politkovskaya and ex-Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko; and the
stalled process of negotiating a new EU-Russia partnership deal by
the end of the year.
The year started with an abrupt stoppage of Russian gas supplies
to Ukraine over a price dispute, triggering supply disruptions in
several EU countries. The incident signaled a somewhat tactical
shift in Russia's approach towards the EU, and was a precursor to
the major developments in bilateral ties for the whole year.
The gas conflict prompted the 25-nation bloc to speed up its
energy strategy review with energy security topping the agenda. EU
leaders on various occasions reiterated the role of Russia as a
strategic partner, and decided that engagement and cooperation with
it are of paramount importance.
The EU is carefully seeking a balance between its increasing
need for Russian energy supplies, and its criticism of Moscow over
human rights and other ideological issues. But the divisions among
its 25 members, over how to handle Russia, have not made the task
Commenting on EU-Russia relations in a speech in October, Benita
Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations, said
"in many ways the entire EU-Russia relationship has been focused on
"Ultimately, the equation is simple: we need Russia's energy,
and Russia needs the enormous energy market Europe provides," she
told a Russian academic audience, emphasizing "stability,
predictability and reciprocity are in both our interests."
This view is shared by the Russian leadership. Russian President
Vladimir Putin said after a dinner with EU leaders in October that
in terms of energy ties, Russia has a greater dependence on the EU
market than the EU on Russian energy supplies.
Sixty percent of Russia's oil exports and 50 percent of Russia's
natural gas exports go to the EU, representing more than a quarter
of total EU oil and gas consumption. Russia is also an important
market for EU goods and services, with considerable potential for
In the foreign policy area, the EU also needs Russia on a lot of
issues -- Iran, the Middle East, Kosovo and North Korea.
Energy has certainly dominated EU-Russia interactions this year.
From January's Ukrainian gas crisis to October's dinner of EU and
Russian leaders in the Finnish town of Lahti, energy has been
almost omnipresent in both EU-Russia talks as well as meetings
between Russia and single EU nations.
The EU is keen to persuade Russia to ratify an international
energy charter, which regulates energy cooperation between Western
and Eastern Europe, and would give foreign investors free access to
Russia's oil and gas deposits and export pipelines.
But Russia objects to the charter, saying it would allow central
Asian countries to benefit from free access to Russian transit
pipelines, which could make their natural gas 50 percent cheaper
than Russia's when it arrives in Europe.
Moscow would also like the charter to address the issue of
nuclear power development, and recognize Russia as a supplier of
While agreeing to join hands with the EU to promote energy
efficiency at home, Moscow again declined to ratify the energy
charter earlier this month during a meeting of Russian Energy
Minister Viktor Khristenko with his EU counterparts.
Russia said the issue can be resolved through the new Russia-EU
Partnership and Cooperation Agreement currently being discussed,
which can include some of the charter provisions.
Negotiations on a new partnership deal was blocked by Poland at
a Russia-EU summit held in Helsinki last month, with Warsaw
insisting that Moscow first lift its ban on Polish meat products
and ratify the energy charter.
The new agreement will replace the current accord, which expires
at the end of next year. The all-encompassing framework deal is
expected to encourage closer cooperation in the fields of energy,
trade, justice, security, foreign policy, and education and
The EU, in particular the old EU members, which are home to big
oil multinationals, has long hoped the new deal to grant EU better
and secure access to Russia's vast oil and gas resources, and to
include Russian commitments to secure energy supplies to the
The close scrutiny by Russian regulators, of the deals with
Western energy firms this year, and the Russian oil giant Gazprom's
decision in October to develop the huge Shtokman gas field without
foreign partners, has made the EU feel the need of such an accord
Poland's veto came despite two weeks of lobbying by the 24 other
members of the EU. It once again highlighted the EU's delicate
position while walking the tight rope of matters concerning
Divisions within EU
Different voices within the EU have been a norm in EU
decision-making, but the situation is more complicated when Russia
While most of the older EU members, mindful of Russia's
increasing economic and diplomatic leverage, put greater emphasis
on engaging Russia, the new members in central and eastern Europe
tend to be more vocal in their criticism of Russian policies and
more unyielding in protecting their own interests.
These former Warsaw pact countries, once inside the EU and NATO,
have been quick to take up new weapons to fight back perceived
Russian influence and to pronounce their own identity within the
At the Lahti summit, new EU members insisted that the bloc focus
more on human rights issues when having dinner with Putin, while
older EU members preferred to tone down the rhetoric in return of
Russia's pledges for better cooperation in energy and other
In the case of the vetoed talks on the EU-Russia partnership
deal, the Polish argument was that the old EU-15 must show
"solidarity" with the new EU members, or risk seeing Russia bully
certain EU countries as it has done with Poland.
But big EU member states, such as Britain, Germany and France,
have not been very comfortable with the "new small brothers" making
such noises. Some diplomats in Brussels say that the EU-Russia
treaty should not be held hostage over vegetables and meat.
Continued squabbling weakened the EU's hand in dealing with
Russia, but the difficulty to seek a common ground and maintain a
consistent policy toward Russia, also underlines the extreme
importance of Russia, when it comes to EU countries' external
Former foes in the Cold War era, Russia and the EU have long
been at odds over a number of issues like the definition of
democracy, the Chechnya war, human rights, and Russia's handling of
issues concerning its former satellite states.
The murder in October of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian
investigative journalist and an open critic of the Kremlin, caused
fresh concerns in the EU about Russia's perceived suppression of
Brussels urged thorough investigations into the killing, while
the Kremlin claimed it was a victim of politically motivated
The mistrust was only enhanced by the mysterious death, a month
later, of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Soviet agent and a fierce
critic of Moscow, who fled to Britain in 2000 and was granted
asylum and eventually citizenship. He was investigating the death
of Politkovskaya shortly before his death in London.
While a skeptical EU called for Russia's full cooperation in
helping clear up the case, Putin called Litvinenko's death-bed
letter, which accused the Russian president of ordering the murder,
"political provocation" and suggested that it may have been written
by anti-Kremlin forces after his death.
The Russia-Georgia row this autumn also underscored the
complexity and subtlety of EU-Russia relations. Brussels expressed
"grave concern" over Moscow's tough stance toward the Georgians but
stopped short of any concrete actions to press for Georgian
demands, much to the disappointment of Tbilisi.
The clash was triggered by Georgia's brief arrest of four
Russian officers it accused of spying in September, which prompted
Russia to impose a total blockade on its ex-Soviet neighbor. It
also launched a crackdown on Georgian-run businesses and Georgians
living in Russia, deporting hundreds of people it said were in the
Georgia, which has long annoyed Russia by seeking closer ties
with the EU and NATO, said the economic squeeze cost it billions
and sought the EU's help.
But the EU, with upcoming energy talks in mind, said both
countries have responsibilities and urged Georgia to refrain from
any action that could heighten the tensions.
While the EU was careful not to provoke Russia in the particular
case, it can very well act the other way next time, as historical
mistrust and long-running deep rifts between the EU and Russia over
democracy, rule of law and other issues are hard to patch up.
While both sides stress their interdependence and highlight the
need for a strategic partnership, the two pursue different aims in
Russia hopes to reinvigorate its economy through comprehensive
cooperation with its western neighbors and eventually re-establish
itself as a major world power.
One of Russia's foreign policy priorities is to fully integrate
into Europe and build "a greater Europe of Europeans," which could
counterbalance the influence of the United States.
The EU, however, seeks to infiltrate Russia with Western values
and the concept of Western style democracy, and gradually transform
the country into a proper "democracy."
Brussels played a conspicuous role in the "color revolutions" in
Russia's neighbors in recent years. One of the key objectives of
the EU's current European neighborhood policy, an EU political
integration package for nearby countries like Ukraine, is "to
advance freedom and democracy" in these countries.
The EU makes no secret of its support to opposition parties and
dissidents in ex-Soviet states, such as Belarus, where the present
government has close ties with Moscow. It channeled large sums of
funds to the so-called pro-democracy non-governmental organizations
in these countries.
Such moves have repeatedly annoyed Moscow and sometimes become
underlying triggers of bigger confrontations.
On Chechnya and other issues that Moscow sees as domestic, the
EU's finger-pointing is also taken by Russia as unwelcome
"interference" in its internal affairs.
Balance is the key word
During the past year, the EU and Russia have appeared to be more
prepared to put frictions aside and focus more on their common
interests and future cooperation.
Officials from both sides highlighted areas where the two are
cooperating, such as industry, security, foreign policy and
environment. The EU called Russia a key ally in security and other
issues, while Putin referred to his country as "a natural member of
the 'European family' in spirit, history and culture."
Putin also sought to allay EU fears about its dependence on
Russian energy, saying those who warn of the danger of
over-dependence are trying to fit EU-Russia relations into the
obsolete mould of "friend or foe."
He said the persistent influence of such stereotypes could
create fresh divisions in Europe and called for "a constructive
approach in the EU."
"The past must not be used to divide us, because we cannot
rewrite history," Putin stressed.
Despite the proclaimed strong political will, whether Russia and
its EU partners could accommodate each others concerns and clinch a
substantial cooperation pact next year remains to be seen.
But one thing is certain, the talks will be long and tortuous.
So will the process be, of building a genuine and reliable
EU-Russia strategic partnership, as is trumpeted by both sides.
(Xinhua News Agency December 13, 2006)