BUCHAREST — On June 5, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a brief but significant memorandum on a joint EU-Russia Committee on Security and Foreign Policy (ERPSC) in the German town of Meseberg. The document proposes to “explore” the creation of a ministerial-level committee to be chaired by the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security, Lady Catherine Ashton, and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. This would be a forum for the European Union and Russia to exchange views on issues of international security and foreign policy; to “establish ground rules for joint EU-Russia civil/military crisis management operations”; and to “exchange views and draft recommendations … on specific issues.” Transnistria is explicitly cited as a possible first test case for “cooperation” and even a “joint EU-Russia engagement.”
Such a move was not entirely unexpected. Since the 2009 Ukraine-Russia gas crisis froze half of Europe, forums for the EU-Russia dialogue have mushroomed. A leaked policy paper from the Russian foreign ministry suggests that Russia, too, seeks rapprochement with the West. And many experts thought that the meeting in Meseberg would produce something that would compensate for the EU’s recent decision to postpone the extension of its visa-free regime to Russia.
The German rationale for this initiative appears to be twofold. The key goal is to resolve the Transnistrian conflict by getting Russia back to constructive engagement, and using pressure on the Transnistrian leadership to compromise. Russian troops could be withdrawn, or put under a joint EU-Russian mandate. More generally, the initiative tests the seriousness of Russian offers of cooperation. A success in Transnistria would (for instance) greatly improve chances for a renewed conventional arms regime in Europe.
But how likely is such a committee to resolve specific security issues? Would it even be able to discuss European and Russian foreign policies straightforwardly? There is no single EU foreign policy; each of the 27 member states has its own foreign policy orientation and its own threat perception, and there is very little agreement among them. In fact, many new members still think Russia remains Europe’s chief external threat. Under these conditions, the conversations in the proposed committee are likely to be as interesting as they will be unproductive. And while it is good news that Germany is seeking an EU framework rather than acting bilaterally with Russia, it remains to be seen whether the slow and bureaucratic EU can successfully broker conflict resolution with Russia in its Eastern neighborhood. Given the cautious language of the memorandum, this format might well be more symbolic than effective.
Nonetheless, the mere fact that Russia and the European Union would be willing to sit together to, “establish ground rules for joint civil/military crisis management operations,” would take the relationship to a new, unprecedented level. The EU has undertaken a number of such operations, including in Kosovo and Georgia. Over the last 20 years, Russia has also deployed “peacekeeping” troops in Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. However, Russia’s activities often violated all of the three chief principles of peacekeeping: consent of the parties involved, impartiality, and non-use of force. Had the international community confronted Russia about this before 2008, the Russo-Georgian war might have been avoided. In the case of Transnistria, Russia has broken every treaty it has signed since 1994, refusing to withdraw its troops despite Moldovan requests. Given this background, it would indeed be interesting, under the circumstances, to watch the EU and Russia develop joint “ground rules” for crisis management.
Possibly, Russia is genuinely willing to cooperate on Transnistria in exchange for economic advancement. But the real test would, of course, be an EU-Russian cooperation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (Perhaps even the Northern Caucasus?) But that would require rather more than a bilateral memorandum and an EU committee—particularly now when European interest in the conflicts in its Eastern neighborhood seems to be on the wane.
One sign is the recent proposal by Catherine Ashton’s office to abolish the posts of special EU envoys for the Southern Caucasus and Moldova while maintaining similar positions for more distant regions: Sudan, the Great Lakes region in Africa, and Central Asia. The special envoys to Moldova and Southern Caucasus, mandated to speak on behalf of the EU in negotiations for the conflicts in these regions, were almost permanently present on the ground and were able to interact with all the relevant local parties. Other existing EU programs for the region, including bilateral and regional ones, avoid addressing the conflicts head-on. With the abolition of the special envoys, the EU will lose the little political clout it has had in these conflicts. And certainly it will become increasingly difficult to hold meaningful joint civil/military operations with Russia in those crises that are closer to home.
If Germany is serious about its commitment to solving the conflicts in Europe’s neighborhood, it could use its economic leverage over Russia, and Russia’s thirst for economic advancement, as a stick, rather than having the EU offer a carrot. After all, the conflicts in Europe’s Eastern neighborhood remain a major cause of human, drug, and weapons trafficking to Europe, and a significant reason for economic retardation in a region where the EU has real economic interests. Perhaps more importantly in the short term, these conflicts remain a means by which Russia controls and manipulates oil and gas flows to Europe itself, as Germany well knows.
Alina Inayeh is Director of the Black Sea Trust and the German Marshall Fund’s office in Bucharest