Part 3 | Russia & Europe

Adam Holub reads BA International Relations and happens to be IRT’s editor for Europe.


This little symposium looks at the perception of Russia as a threat across various regions. When discussing Europe, we have to face off an immediate issue: do we look at Europe as a region comprised of a large number of actors? Or is it perhaps, due to the large extent of EU integration, more useful to generalise when referring to the relations between Russia and European countries as those between Russia and the EU? Similarly, does it make sense to distinguish between the different perceptions of Russia as a threat of the individual European countries? To resolve this problem appropriately we would have to engage in a lengthy analysis of the EU’s foreign policy and look at how historical experience of European integration differed across the continent as well as how historical experience of the individual countries vis-à-vis Russia varied.

For the purpose of this article, it will be easier to look at the manifestations of the degree of perceptions of Russia as a threat. It makes sense to divide the answer into three parts: looking at the EU as a unified actor, looking at the more particular member states’ perception of Russia as a threat throughout Europe, and then finally zooming in even further to the Eastern European fringe where Russia notably oscillates between being perceived as a friend or as an existential threat. This question of how is Russia perceived in Europe is one that is absolutely crucial at the time of turbulent developments in the relations between Russia and the European countries which at times could be described as cold or unfortunate, if not yet openly hostile. The point of this bit is to show the other side of the coin as well, to point out to the opposition voices very present in some countries which doubt Russia’s dangerousness and try to peculiarly revise the mainstream opinion on Russia. Threat perceptions are in general hard if not impossible to adequately observe. Instead of trying to read the mind of people half a billion people we should look at some manifestations of perceptions of Russia in Europe and interpret them.

Whether the EU as a whole sees Russia as a threat or an enemy is not easy to assess. We could use the proclamations by senior EU representatives, such as the European council president Donald Tusk, to get a hint of a common stand. Tusk, the man who is responsible facilitating consensus in the EU, has described the policy of Vladimir Putin as “simply to have enemies, to be stronger than them, to destroy them and to be in conflict.”[1] Tusk, however, is not a spokesman for the EU member states on the matters of Foreign Policy. Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, was recently heard denying that there is a new Cold War between the West and Russia.[2] A new Cold War is a metaphor popping up every here and there in political discussions and commentaries in reference to both the Russian involvement in the conflict in Ukraine and in Syria. By ruling out a reference to a historical period which carries the connotation of arguably the largest possibility of a global nuclear face off, Mogherini’s attitude suggests that the European representative is trying to rule out Russia as an existential threat. A slight difference of accent and emphasis when it comes to Russia is not problematic per se but it shows plurality of opinion at the top political level.

Nevertheless, despite the difference in emphasis throughout the Union, Russia has been officially referred to a potential threat in the European Parliament resolution of 15 January 2015 on the situation in Ukraine.[3] The economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU countries, as well as non-EU countries like Norway for example, also show a common concern about Russia’s latest actions in Europe. The resolution talks both about the necessity of the sanctions and the Russian threat and is an example of how these two things are related topics in Europe. The assessment of the opinions on the EU level doesn’t do justice to the nuances between the rhetoric in the individual member states.

While the common imposition of the sanctions speaks of a common stance towards Russia, it is notable that according to some diplomats in Brussels, the Kremlin was trying to divide the EU on the issue of the extension of the sanctions. Among the countries that were perceived as likely to “see the sanctions relaxed or scrapped” were Italy, Greece, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic.[4] What is interesting in particular is the presence of three countries of the Visegrád Group. Reasons can be various, but what is evident, are pro Russian sympathies shown by some politicians of these countries. The Czech president Miloš Zeman, for example, has given an interview to the Russian First Channel in which he condemned the anti-Russian sanctions.[5]

In both The Czech Republic and Slovakia, it is the prime minister and not the president who has the largest executive power. While the Slovak president is critical of Russia, the prime minister Fico also condemned the sanctions and similarly to the Czech president did that while in Russia,[6] which has an extra symbolic value as it comes in handy for the Russian authorities and media. Finally, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is notoriously known for his pro Russian sympathies. In western Europe, France found itself in a position after the Paris attacks which has been associated with “signs of deepening collaboration” between the French and Russian armies in the war against Daesh.[7] Germany’s Angela Merkel sees her country’s potential to mediate between Russia and the West. At the same time, the German chancellor no longer trusts the Russian president as much as she used to. The UK’s prime minister David Cameron is more openly critical of Russia and in 2014 called for a stronger NATO presence on the borders with Russia to be able to respond to any “threat”.[8]

Finally, there is the question of countries in the nearest vicinity of Russian territory (among which it is useful to include Poland). Being Russia’s neighbour does not instantly mean being threatened by it. What seems to correlate with the perception of Russia as a threat is the political orientation of a country in combination with particular historical experience of Russian involvement. The Baltic states have had the experience of direct Soviet rule while they are establishing themselves as valuable EU and NATO members. Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves described Russia as a threat not only to his country and the Baltic region but to the Post World War order.[9] Similar case are the Poles. Russian establishment, to be frank, is not improving its perception in the Baltics by intensifying its intrusions into the airspace of the Baltic countries.[10]

An example of a country that does not seem to be threatened by Russia and is in its nearest vicinity is Belarus. Ukraine, on the other hand, long perceived as crucially historically and culturally oriented towards Russia, similarly to Belarus, is an example of how political orientation affects the extent to which Russia is a threat. In the Ukrainian case it was a change of regime following civil unrests, which were a reaction to the choice of its former president Yanukovych to give precedence to an agreement with Russia rather than the EU, something that is hardly expectable from the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko. The point made here is that Russia is not, in my opinion, an expansionist country per se but some countries and their populations do seem to perceive Russia as believing in a special claim for intervening in their matters in various ways, a perception very much enhanced by Russia itself.

Clearly, the perception of Russia as a threat varies across Europe. Despite that, certain basic approach towards Russia can be narrowed down to the perception of at least a potential threat, at least in the EU and more pro-West European countries.












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