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Russia: From the EU’s Strategic Partner to Terrorist State  

02 Dec 2022
By Dr Anna-Sophie Maass
Arrival of Ursula von der Leyen at the meeting of the ministers of Defence in the Scheepvaart Museum in Amsterdam. Source: Jaarrapport van bevindingen RZO /

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s instigation of war against Ukraine has caused a demonstrable break in EU-Russia relations. Moving from strategic partner to terrorist state, however, has come slowly and haphazardly for the EU. 

In 1999 the High Representative of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana characterised EU-Russia relations as a “strategic partnership,” which he went on to say provided “the greatest opportunity to affect the [course] of world affairs for the better.” Heads of governments of EU member states, such as the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, considered Vladimir Putin’s appointment as Russian President in March 2000 as a moment of nurturing the EU’s and Russia’s interdependence in energy policy. However, since 1999, the EU’s stance toward Russia has been marked by increasing internal divergence. Leaders of the Baltic States and Poland, for instance, were much more critical toward continuing business as usual with Russia while it continued human rights violations during the second Chechen War.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and the downing of MH17 on 17 July 2014, the EU has responded by seeking to coerce President Putin to move away from his increasingly aggressive foreign policy toward Ukraine. In the immediate aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, visa liberalisation with Russia was suspended and the EU-Russia summit in July 2014 was cancelled. These restrictive measures failed to coerce Putin.

Two years later, in June 2016, the EU’s Global Strategy for its Foreign and Security Policy was published on the premise of an “ambition for a stronger Union, willing and able to make a positive difference in the world, […] a credible, responsive and joined up Union.” However, maintaining a unitary stance in the EU’s relations with Russia was difficult due to the member states divergent attitudes toward Moscow. The Strategy incidentally went on to state that “managing the relationship with Russia represents a key strategic challenge.” The shift from Solana’s characterisation of EU-Russian relations as a strategic partnership to the Strategy’s reference of Russia as a strategic challenge reflects the deterioration of EU-Russian relations.

Since the publication of the Global Strategy, the Russia challenge for EU diplomacy has become demonstrably ruinous. Putin’s war against Ukraine has become a brutal contest for energy and mineral independence in the EU, and test for the survival of human rights regimes more broadly, but also an existential threat for Ukrainian civilians as Russian-Iranian drones target Kiev. More significantly, the war has now crossed NATO borders. On 15 November an alleged Russian missile strike killed two civilians in the Polish city Przewodów. Given that this strike coincided with Russia’s biggest attack on Ukraine in over a month, some controversy emerged as to whether the missiles were Russian and whether they had intentionally targeted Poland. An emergency meeting by NATO ambassadors was held in Brussels, and investigations are still ongoing, but several initial reports suggested that the missiles had originated in Ukraine, and that they had been fired from Ukraine air defence positions.

This missile strike in Poland took place on the same day as the EU Foreign Affairs Council where EU member states agreed to a six point plan for EU-Russia relations going forward: The first included the need to “isolate Russia internationally” by imposing sanctions while “preventing their circumvention.” Second, looking at how to “ensure accountability by holding Russia and the perpetrators [as well as] accomplices” responsible for violating human rights and international law. Third, support for the EU’s neighbours and those in NATO accession negotiations. Fourth, close cooperation with NATO and international partners in seeking to “defend [the] international rules-based order.” Fifth, to “reject the notion of spheres of influence.” And sixth, to support civil society and other advocates for human rights, independent media, inside and outside Russia, and to address “the increasing threats to security and public order.”

These six points, to be sure, are strong in rhetoric, but lack coherent follow-through in terms of how to coerce Putin to end hostilities. This might not be surprising since Putin and his entourage have long emphasised their aversion to external influence on Russian domestic politics, as reflected in the sovereign democracy concept coined in 2006 by Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of Putin’s administration. Surkov stated that “sovereignty was vital to a country like Russia, which faced a gamut of new threats, ranging from international terrorism to European human rights diplomacy, as a result of globalisation.” The comments were made in support of tougher rhetoric endorsed in Russia  in the aftermath of a series of revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Over time, and particularly since Putin’s second term, such claims have been used to support increasingly oppressive behaviours, which has manifested into, among other things, the silencing of investigative journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya, who uncovered Russia’s human rights violations in Chechnya.

Internationally, Putin’s ongoing war against Ukraine has further isolated the country geopolitically. The latest manifestation of this isolation is the European Parliament’s (EP) resolution from 23 November characterising Russia as a “state sponsor of terrorism” and as a “state that uses means of terrorism.” The resolution was adopted by 494 votes in favour and included 58 opposition votes and 44 abstentions. The EP urges the EU and its member states to put in place the necessary legal requirements for adding Russia to the EU’s terrorist list.

A day after the resolution’s adoption, Russian hackers retaliated with a cyber-attack on the EP. Its president, Roberta Metsola, stated that this was a “sophisticated cyberattack” to which a pro-Kremlin group claimed responsibility. The EU’s struggle in continuing to hold Putin accountable to his actions continues. On 30 November, the President of the European Commission, Ursula van der Leyen, declared that the EU will cooperate with the International Criminal Court to establish a specialised court supported by the UN to “investigate and prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression.” This announcement gives some hope for the eventual return of justice and peace.

Dr Anna-Sophie Maass is Lecturer in International Relations and Diplomacy in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, UK. Her PhD in International Relations from La Trobe University in Melbourne examined reasons for the deterioration of EU-Russian diplomatic relations from 1999 until 2008. Her monograph on EU-Russia relations was published by Routledge (2017). Its Chinese translation was published by Hunan People’s Publishing House (2020).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.