What will be the impact of the pandemic on the EU and Russia?
Part 4: Security and defence policy

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives beyond recognition. It has disrupted relations within and between states and societies throughout the world, including between the EU and Russia. Moreover, the virus fully absorbs peoples' minds and leaves little space for the reflection about the post-pandemic future.

The EU-Russia Expert Network is in a unique place to start such a reflection process. Over the coming weeks our members will discuss here how the pandemic impacts on the EU and Russia. How will it change the fabric of their political, economic and societal relations? How will it affect their common and contested neighbourhood and their international context? What can and should both sides do to control the damage and prepare for a future that is likely to be quite different from what we imagined just a few weeks ago?

EUREN Members Answer
22 June 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to fundamentally change or reverse international trends, including basic trends in European security. Its enormous economic implications will, however, shape and limit the amount of resources international players, including Russia and the EU, can invest in their foreign and defence policies in the coming years. What does this mean for the EU's Security and Defence policy, and for the European contribution to NATO? What will be the consequences for Russia's foreign and security policy? How will it impact on the OSCE? Following from your analysis, do you foresee positive or negative structural changes for European security in general?

RICCARDO ALCARO | Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome :

The economic calamity created by the COVID-19 pandemic – the worst since the 1930s Great Depression – has the potential to break the EU.

If the Union goes down, however, it will not be for a lack of trying by its leaders.

In stark contrast to the past, EU member states and institutions have rapidly deployed a vast array of regulatory, fiscal and monetary counter-measures. The European Central Bank's massive asset-purchasing programme provides liquidity to cash-strapped governments, and member states – most notably Germany – have launched fiscal stimuli in the order of hundreds of billions of euros. Moreover, the Commission has suspended rules limiting budget deficits and proposed an EU-wide transfer scheme. The EU is likely to come out of the crisis poorer, but there is also a chance it will be more cohesive and better geared towards a sustained recovery.

Greater cohesion – if indeed it happens – will eventually be more consequential for the EU's foreign and defence policy ambitions than the expected cuts to both diplomacy and military spending. The fact that defence, in particular, has not exited the radar screen of EU policymakers is a modest, yet eloquent sign of strategic foresight. In the short term, greater defence cooperation may not be enough to make up for the expected cuts, yet it sets a pattern of integration that may become irreversible.

An open letter by the EU's four largest military spenders – France, Germany, Italy and Spain – has made the case for more extensive EU control of military and dual-use assets and operational planning autonomy. EU governments expect their ambitions for autonomy to be less of a concern for a US administration that is distracted by its own domestic problems (and a presidential election). EU-wide efforts are, after all, a credible way to prevent further imbalances in the transatlantic burden-sharing, an issue that President Trump has shown extreme sensitivity towards. Critically, the letter insists on EU defence being complementary to NATO.

Commitments to fiscal solidarity and defence cooperation point to a more cohesive EU that is more capable of containing the attempts of foreign powers, including Russia, to use the pandemic to foment intra-Union divisions. A more cohesive EU can also resist the pressure to fall into line with the confrontational approach that is increasingly favoured by the US and engage such powers in constructive engagements bilaterally and multilaterally. A more confident Union is also a precondition for re-establishing a semblance of governance to Europe's security, which has been corroded by years of festering tensions with Moscow and fading arms control arrangements.

MAXINE DAVID | Leiden University, Leiden :

According to the World Bank, the Euro Area is facing a contraction of 9.1%, in the wider context of a global contraction of 5.2%. Whether the Franco-German recovery fund initiative will prove to be the Hamiltonian moment some have predicted remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the EU's vow to respond with "solidarity, cohesion and convergence" gives hope that the member states' early highly nationalised responses are already a thing of the past.

This may be good news for the EU, a rebuttal of the wearying tendency to see every challenge that it faces as an existential one. It is less good news for those pushing for the member states to build their military-industrial complexes and develop the EU's security and defence policy. The finances involved in the economic recovery will leave little in the budget for military operations. The EU's calculation that economic and social conditions take precedence in its "no person left behind" response will inevitably entail readjusting its priorities. It has rightly made clear that economic security depends on finding a globally available vaccination and testing regime, as witnessed at the Global Pledging Summit.

For those who see this as an abrogation of the EU's responsibilities regarding security and defence, here are some thoughts: there are few/no conflicts in which economic factors and social inequalities do not feature as drivers. An unfulfilled aspect of the Responsibility to Protect is a focus on prevention. The EU's determination to be both part of a global response to the virus and part of a global economic and medical response is easily seen through the lens of security, with that security being built on preventing conflict rather than resolving it. The same applies to the EU's emphasis on environmental challenges, amid predictions that climate change will be a driver of future conflicts. This is certainly very different from the "boldness" and "risk-taking" that Macron spoke of in 2019, but it may well prove to be the smarter choice, leaving the field clear for NATO to handle the crisis response.

What this means for EU-Russia relations is entirely up to Russia. The EU position should be that Russia is either part of the solution, or not.

SERGEY UTKIN | Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Moscow :

The COVID pandemic, along with its economic and political implications, is boosting protectionist arguments across the world, including in Europe. The economic downturn will soon enlarge the room for maneuver of Eurosceptic forces in quite a few EU countries. With the consequences of Brexit coming up next year, when the transition period ends, the EU will have to brace itself for turbulence. For the Russian political system, an appeal to rely on the country's ability to survive rather than international cooperation is natural, but this does not promise any positive economic or political miracles in the years to come.

As a result, Russia and the EU, taken as a whole, will have ever fewer substantial topics to discuss. In terms of hard security, a number of EU members are in line with the US, seeing Russia as an adversary. Progress in resolving the conflict in and around Ukraine could change the mood, but the window of opportunity in this respect has been closing fast recently. The interconnections between international and domestic security will most probably block any restoration of the EU-Russia visa dialogue, which, rationally speaking, would be the most meaningful step to take. The EU, which is currently failing to ratify its long-awaited free trade agreement with MERCOSUR because of the protectionist currents at work, will not have an eye on any advanced form of cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union. One could hope for potential bilateral cooperation, but the difficult fate of North Stream 2 shows that even bilateral cooperation with EU countries would prove troublesome for Russia, as these countries rely on US security guarantees, while US-Russia relations will most probably deteriorate further.

In these circumstances, the EU and Russia could maintain or restart, without any high expectations, the dialogue between certain Russian ministries and the European Commission, as well as the ministries of the member states. This could aim to foster mutual understanding, which does not imply agreement, on topics like digitalization, trade procedures and the future of global multilateral institutions, such as WTO and WHO.

NATALIA VIAKHIREVA | Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Moscow :

The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the difficulties that have existed in the relationship between the US and the EU/European NATO members since the beginning of the Donald Trump's presidency. The Europeans disagree with the US on a number of issues.

Due to the difficult economic situation in EU countries, the increase in military spending that has taken place over the past 5 years, is unlikely to resume. Thus, many European states may not be able to live up to the demands of the Trump Administration. There are disagreements on some issues related to arms control, such as the Europeans being against the breaking of the Open Skies Treaty and EU calls for renewal of START-3.

Against this background, EU interest in strategic autonomy is growing, with France, led by president Macron, being a strong supporter of the idea. Meanwhile other EU member states have taken a pro-American position on security issues. Thus, there is no unity within the EU on the idea of autonomy and the future security model.

In the short and medium term, Russia will be focused on the implementation of constitutional reform, and give priority to internal problems. The pandemic deepens the economic crisis that Russia is experiencing. In this regard, it is likely that the resources allocated for defence and the implementation of foreign policy will be reduced.

Russia is looking for a way out of the difficult economic situation and trying to secure a worthy place in the world. Amid the pandemic and a changing world order, Russia is focusing on the idea of a Greater Eurasia Partnership. According to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs S. Lavrov, the implementation of this project will not only strengthen positive economic interconnections and increase the competitiveness of all participants, it will also become a solid foundation for building a space of peace and stability from Lisbon to Jakarta. This project is open to the participation of EU countries. S. Lavrov emphasises that they benefit from taking part in this process. By joining a joint effort, they would be able to secure a distinguished place in the new fairer and more democratic multipolar world.

In the near future, Russia and the EU are unlikely to build a security partnership. The COVID-19 pandemic did not give Russia and the EU an impulse to start rapprochement, but the goal of finding common grounds remains on the agenda.

ANDREY ZAGORSKY | Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Moscow :

For the last two decades at least, preventing and combatting pandemics has been on the list of "soft" transnational security threats. Little has been done, however, to raise awareness of the incumbent dangers or foster international or regional cooperation in this regard. Will the current coronavirus pandemic alter the agenda of European security and increasingly focus it on new transnational health threats? Or will business as usual prevail on the European security agenda?

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the current activities of European security institutions are evident, with military activities and exercises either downsized or suspended, field activities restricted and scheduled conferences, such as the annual OSCE security review conference this June, moved to the virtual sphere. This will limit the dialogue to just the delivery of formal statements. Proper communication outside the conference room – the form of communication that provides the most added value - will not take place. These effects will remain in place as long as there is no vaccine or proper medicine against the virus. Precaution measures are likely to affect travel, conferences, and field and military activities even beyond that.

However, several considerations suggest that the effect of the European security agenda and architecture is likely to be minimal once the current pandemic is over. Business as usual is most likely to prevail, unless the pandemic leads to significant social and political change in the region.

First, there is no historic evidence that even the most disastrous pandemics have seriously challenged the existing political order of the time. The Black Death – the deadly 14th century pandemic – provides probably the most illuminating example of this. The Spanish Flu did not stop World War I, which continued for half a year after the pandemic broke out.

The second consideration is that responses to transnational threats in general, including those threats that were generated by pandemics and formulated by states or groups of states in the OSCE region, have remained extremely compartmentalized over time, despite occasional scientific cooperation. The current pandemic seems to have increased this compartmentalization.

The OSCE is the only pan-European institution that could deal with the threat of repeated pandemics in a more cooperative manner. It seems unlikely, however, that it will be empowered in the wake of the crisis. One of the reasons is that the global nature of pandemics requires global responses. This would suggest that the World Health Organization should be empowered rather than regional institutions. However, for the time being, even that response is not obvious.