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The EU on the Georgia-Russia Conflict

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 10, 2008

    The outcome of the deliberations at the September 1 Extraordinary European Council meeting held to discuss the Russian-Georgian conflict was not very dramatic. Gordon Brown penned a scathing article in The Observer and attempted to set a high pitch for the meeting by presenting the conflict as ‘naked aggression’ by Russia and advocating that the EU review ‘root and branch’ its relationship with Russia. New EU members who are geographically closer to Russia and still trying to emerge out of the Russian shadow also similarly exerted pressure to take tougher measures including sanctions on Russia.

    Nonetheless, the European Council’s 11-point conclusion was along expected lines and followed earlier statements issued by G8 countries minus Russia, the NATO Secretary General and the North Atlantic Council condemning Russia’s unilateral decision to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics. In addition, the EU has urged other states not to recognise these two Georgian provinces as independent entities. As a substantive measure, the Partnership Agreement negotiation between the EU and Russia has been put on hold subject to the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian soil. Apart form the appointment of a EU Special Representative for Georgia and a proposed International Reconstruction Conference for Georgia, the buzzword in the European Council resolution is the initiative to diversify ‘energy sources and supply routes’. Prior indications in this regard have been recognisable when the EU in 2007 came out with its first-ever Central Asia Strategy. The latest conflict in the Caucasus has once again highlighted the EU’s energy dependence on Russia and thus the need to cultivate alternate sources.

    Various irritants have marked EU-Russia relations in the last few years. Be it the Litvinenko affair with the UK, human rights with Germany, the War Memorial issue with Estonia, the Russian ban on Polish meat imports, all have assumed a larger EU-proportion. Larger security and strategic issues like US bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, the expansion of NATO, the recognition of Kosovo have already become part of the international security discourse. And the Russia-Georgia conflict has once again sparked the debate whether a new Cold War is in the offing and whether a resurgent Russia would deliberately flaunt international norms and isolate itself.

    Over the last fifteen years, the EU has been able to follow its agenda of ‘widening and deepening’ amongst old members and expanding to include the Central and East European countries (CEEC). At present the EU, under the French presidency, with an ambitious agenda, has a difficult balancing task at hand. The Russia-Georgia war has suddenly brought back the Cold War-type high politics to EU’s table. For the Union, it is the time to go back to the drawing board and take a hard look at its expansion programme and the list of candidate countries, among which the latest is Serbia. For some new and small member countries of Eastern Europe, the Russian threat is an existential issue. Many of these countries have a considerable number of ethnic Russians. Interests and claims of these ethnic Russians may in future cause tension between Russia and these EU members and thus have implications for European security. Keeping this in view the European Security Strategy of 2003 may also be worthy of a revisit.

    As a collective Euro-Atlantic security organisation, NATO should also take a fresh look at its expansion programme and the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. NATO’s response to an attack on any of its new members remains the issue of paramount importance. It is apparent that what irks Russia most is not the EU or NATO’s eastward expansion but the growing proximity of the United States with Poland and the Czech Republic and the proposed military bases in these two countries. The recently concluded US-Polish strategic cooperation text deserves a scrutiny here. According to the declaration, both countries intend to deploy a US Army Patriot air and missile defence battery in Poland and by 2012 a garrison would be established in Poland to support this battery. Given the present temperature and on-going diplomatic counter-measures by Russia on one hand and the EU and NATO on the other, further military cooperation between the US and Russia’s neighbours is likely to generate unpleasantness time and again in coming years.

    Some issues emanating from the Russia-Georgia War need to be highlighted in conclusion. Though the Franco-German core of the EU still remains intact as far as European affairs are concerned, it is likely that the Union’s energy would be devoted to the affairs of new EU member countries. The centre of gravity of the Union would still lie in Western Europe but the centres of activities would be the new member countries. EU disunity manifesting itself in failure on crucial matters like Iraq, the Tibetan uprising, and now Georgia, is not anything new. But the EU must take this challenge as an opportunity as the European Parliament urged in its resolution on Georgia on September 3 that ‘the current crisis underlines the need to strengthen the European foreign, defence and security policy’