Making of EU’s Foreign Policy with Russian Factor


The European Union, ever since its reformation back in 1993, has proved itself in the field of integration, liberalization, economy and social and political aspects as well. One of the main concerns that engulf the European Union is its global influence, or in other words, its foreign policy. The European Foreign policy is currently a new process of further Europeanization, which can also be referred to as the thorough process where the organizational logic of policy making, and national politics is set to existence. This is evident through combining the logic itself with the political and economic dynamics of none other than the European Union (Olsen, 2002). Despite being only at the developing stage -and developed by major geopolitical actors with their foreign policy orientations -the EU has relatively established itself as an independent geopolitical actor. Regardless of being a part of the West, challenges and issues Europe faced in the international arena pushed the EU to implement its interests into foreign policy. Therefore, it has recognized that one of the most important countries to build a relationship with would be Russia. This research paper starts with a historical background on the European Union- Russian relationship starting immediately after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, followed by the analysis of the current dynamics and prospects for independent EU foreign policy in relation to Russia and its prospects on the foreign policy for other actors.

Keywords: Foreign policy, economic sanctions, Russia, European Union, multipolarity. 


The Maastricht Treaty that came into effect in 1993 formulated the idea of creating a common foreign policy in the European Union. The Treaty mentions basic guidelines for a united European foreign policy, in line with the process of greater European Union integration as also stated in Article 24 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. Both treaties state that the European Union’s foreign policy is defined by united decisions made by the European council of Europe (Cipek, 2018). As for Russia, its foreign policy was strictly pro-western. Russia suffered economic troubles after the fall of the USSR in 1991, which led Yeltsin’s government to support their western identity and recognize the European Union and the United States to be their allies. Russia posed itself as an important part of the West’s integration in order to be funded, however failing to reach their goals. When the USSR fell, so did communism fall with it, and with an urgent need for economic reform Russia hardly developed beyond the point of decentralization within the old system by 1991. Controlling price and state orders each applied to around 75 percent of monetary action. The little private area was a cooperative relationship with the state area, instead of flourishing with its own terms. A law on agreement, the first intended for an advanced market economy, had not been executed when the USSR met its end. The motive was to reform the economy to introduce a market economy or in other words introduce a “Shock Therapy”. Shock Therapy is a revolutionary plan to absolutely reform the economic arrangements of a country and has seen its consequences in Russia between the periods of 1985 and 1992 by completely demolishing any economic stability Russia had and Russia’s gross domestic product plunged by 60% (Olsen, 2002). Further instability worried Yeltsin and his government and became more dependent on western funds. In order to fix this conflict, Yeltsin advocated for forming even better relations with the European Union and imposing the possibility of forming a free-trade zone. But for the reasons that the European Union were more worried about political integration, it fell through. Furthermore, the main basis of the relationship that united the European Union and Russia is the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement of 1997. It was imposed by the European Union between them and Eastern Europe, alongside Central Asia as well. Because many of these countries were transitioning in terms of their economy and were in the works of establishing a market economy, the main principles of this agreement were to escort them through this transition. Their other main goals were to form a stronger relationship by imposing political dialogue, support the endeavors made by the nations to fortify their democracies and create their economies, and amplify their trade and investment (Eur-Lex, 2020). 

1. Russia-EU Relations: Background of Uncertainty 

One main thing made Russia an important partner to the European Union, which was that a number of member states depend on Russia for energy imports, and it motivated the European Union to cooperate through the agreement on levels of trade and economy, security and even culturally and educationally. It was not until 2008 that the relationship between the European Union and Russia began to deteriorate due to the Eastern Partnership program. The Eastern Partnership program is a key and driven organization dependent on normal qualities and rules, common interests and responsibilities, just as shared possession, and obligation. It intends to fortify and develop the political and financial relations between the EU, its member states and the accomplice nations, while supporting manageable change measures in accomplice nations (Eastern Partnership, 2021). This program made Russia believe that the European Union had made efforts for these countries to join NATO, where Russia did not have a seat. Vladimir Putin coming back to Presidency in 2012 also sparked further conflict, although he did recognize the need for forming a proper relationship and foreign policy with the European Union his motives were not successful and it led him to switch his vision to a more nationalistic view. He wanted to amplify the nation’s interest and create a foreign policy that was independent and emphasized the need for Russia to become an important international political factor with its own distinct character. 

Furthermore, in 2014, Russia led an invasion into Crimea through the Ukraine which led to a war that destroyed the infrastructure and had many human casualties. This move was considered uncalled for and was the breaking point for the relations that joined the European Union and Russia in which Russia’s justification of their action was that Ukraine was home to many ethnic Russians who were being mistreated (, 2021). The European Union decided to react to this situation by imposing economic sanctions against Russia. 

2. “Neither Friend Nor a Foe” or The Path for Unnatural Foreign Policy 

By providing a short background of the EU-Russia relations, it is possible to move forward with the analytical part of the paper. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate certain dynamics in the EU-Russia relations, to support our main argument that the EU policy-makers should adopt a foreign policy based primarily on interests of the EU. That is not to say that the EU should move away from the West, rather its interaction -whether competitive or cooperative- should be based upon policies that are taking into consideration dynamics in the region and globally. On the one hand, Russian foreign policy is completely unpredictable (Kubicek, 1999). This characteristic was evident even back in the 1990s when relations with the West were warmer than ever. Policy-makers had many possible scenarios on the course Russian would choose, yet nobody perhaps expected events of 2014 and the Crimean crisis. On the other hand, the changing geopolitical environment pushes policy-makers in the EU to adopt a strategy that will guarantee an important place in the newly emerging world order. It is difficult to say how the new world order will function. Despite the fact that it will be primarily based on the US-China competition, it will also contain multipolarity. For this bipolar-multipolar world order, both Russia and the EU construct their policies around preservation of the strategic autonomy (Kapoor, 2021).

However, mistakes or perhaps better to call it high expectations from each other created a situation where it is extremely difficult to implement a unique foreign policy. Ever since the end of the Cold War, both the EU and Russia had high expectations from one another that were practically impossible to materialize at that time. A newly reformed European Union expected Russia to become a very special partner of the European family (Trenin, 2021). Meanwhile, Russia expects to be treated as an equal in the international system, where its interests and sphere of influences are recognized by others (Trenin, 2021). The failure to meet these expectations produced a series of mistakes from both sides that brought the EU-Russia relations to the lowest point ever since the Cold War. This is an important indicator of many dynamics both in the EU and Russia. Primarily for the European Union, the foreign policy implementation is a complicated process that could be described as “six stages toward consensus” (Smith, 2004) with consensus leading to uncertain policy character. 

If the European Union is truly aiming at becoming one of the polars of the new world order, it needs first to establish its concrete foreign policy with neighboring countries that are equally seeking recognition of their powers and influences. Realpolitik matters as never before and the ability of the EU to implement a concrete policy toward Russia will in the long-term help the EU to form policies toward China. That is why French President Emmanuel Macron has called for “building more realistic means to cooperate with Russia for long-term stability” (Kapoor, 2021). On the part of French policy-makers, it is evident that developing warmer relations with Russia will serve geopolitical interests of both actors considering that both in some way are trying to establish alternative channels. This does not mean that France is pushing the EU toward alliance with Russia, nor Russia willing to abandon close relations with China. What it implies is that the United States and China can easily turn the EU and Russia into lesser players and in order to avoid this situation, alternative channels of cooperation should be open (Kapoor, 2021). 

It is safe to say that until the Crimean crisis, Germany was the core of the EU-Russia relations. In fact, Germany represented a unique case of thriving toward understanding Russia and bringing cooperation on almost every level possible (Trenin, 2020). That is especially evident in the energy sector where Germany -in fact most of the EU members- depends on import of natural gas and other minerals from Russia (Lavrov, 2013). In fact, this dependency reveals itself in three shapes: source, transit, and facility dependencies (Spanjer, 2007). In other words, in terms of energy the EU, especially Germany through which the Russian gas is transitioning to other members of the EU through “the European pipeline grid” (Kapoor, 2020). This reality cannot be ignored by the EU policy-makers since there is a real energy dependence on Russian natural resources. Although many -specifically Eastern and Central European members- establish a strong anti-Russian sentiment in decision-making, Germany demonstrates the case of the foreign policy which considers facts on the grounds. That is why there is a clear separation between energy and political issues (Kapoor, 2020). This is especially related to the Nord Stream 2 Project which came under increasing pressure from the United States with economic sanctions implemented since 2014. Up until the poisoning of Alexei NavalnyGermany successfully implemented its foreign policy with Russia based on this clear separation. After poisoning however, there was almost inevitable transitioning of the German Foreign Policy from being special to having “the same attitude to Russia as all the other countries in Western Europe” (Trenin, 2020). However, Germany continued its policy with Russia and even expressed its strong stance in not bowing to pressures coming from the United States (Kapoor, 2020). 

However, with the amount of disagreements gradually increasing ever since the 1990s, this type of relationship -whether with Italy, France or Germany- becomes more difficult to carry on. As of 2021, the dynamic between the EU and Russia might be described as a confrontation between liberal and neorealist images on international politics (Kapoor, 2021). From this confrontation, it is possible to explain disputes such as the NATO-EU enlargement, military conflicts in the post-Soviet republics -especially wars in Georgia and Ukraine- “color revolutions” and bringing pro-Western governments. Even poisoning of Alexei Navalny is relatable to this (Kapoor, 2021). These developments have certainly damaged both the EU-Russia relations as well as bilateral relations with the key EU members. Internal differences within the EU -especially coming from the Central and Eastern European members with a strong, and partially justified, anti-Russian stance against moderate Italy, France and Germany- pushed the EU to adopt in 2014 a compromise policy (Trenin, 2021). This in fact demonstrates a complexity of the EU decision-making process on the common foreign policy, as it is neither completely hostile or friendly. Despite its relative ineffectiveness, it demonstrated that the EU is capable of implementing a foreign policy based on compromise between advocates of aggressive and cooperative policies thus showing a commitment for searching ways to implement a truly European foreign policy. 

Yet, its ineffectiveness and complexity may explain why the EU is largely seen by Russians as an actor with no autonomy. As shown by a study conducted in 2013 on how Russians view the EU, they particularly outlined characteristics that are no different from the one that can be implied to the United States (Tumanov, Gasparishvili, & Romanova, 2011). Values such as a market economy, economic prosperity, human rights etc, are values that are generally referred to the West as a whole. This is an important data but outdated since public perception of the EU in Russia certainly changed after the Crimean crisis. Nonetheless, it is possible to see that even before 2014, the EU was not seen as an actor on its own, but rather a part of the West. Thus for Russia, where public opinion has a certain degree of influence on the policy-making process, the EU does not represent a normative great power. The normative great power actor is the one that “gains acceptance” by implementing essential values into policy-making (Bengtsson & Elgström, 2012). Combined together, it is possible to understand the reason behind Moscow’s interactions with the EU is and will be based on “its historical relations with key European countries, starting with Germany, France, and Italy” (Trenin, 2021). This course is in fact beneficial for Russia especially after “the Five-day War” in August, 2008 that immediately triggered fears of the past that Russia was again consumed by imperialistic foreign policy (Trenin, 2021). That was especially related to countries of the former Warsaw Pact and acted as a buffer zone between the West and USSR during the Cold War. Dealing with traditional centers of the Europe rather than with the EU institutions for Russian policy-makers promises more advantages as the EU is seen as a “platform for US foreign policy” where regional and global issues require direct US involvement or position for the EU to act, thus lacking any autonomy and strategic dimension of the foreign policy (Kapoor, 2021). 

3. Prospects for a Truly EU Foreign Policy 

However, this trend can be reversed by the EU. Considering the situation with economic/political sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, “there was a strong lobby within the EU, led by France and supported by business circles in Germany and elsewhere, in favor of an improvement of relations with Russia” (Trenin, 2021). Although today this lobby may have less influence on the EU foreign policy making, nonetheless it may have a chance of eliminating the narrative of imperialist Russia. The realist approach for assessment of regional and global developments will be the most important tool in the hands of policy-makers. Indeed, Central and Eastern member states of the EU have reasons for fearing behavior of Russia, yet this fear should not be allowed to continue influencing a common Foreign and Security policies. Almost all former members of the Warsaw pact are a part of NATO that acts as a guarantee for their security. Moreover, giving that “skepticism towards the idea of mighty Russian imperialism is based on insights into the structures of Russian society, economy and politics” (Cipek, 2018), it is clear for policy-makers in countries such as France and Germany that there is neither a desire nor means of carrying out the second Cold War or even a military confrontation with the West. 

Today’s geopolitical situation is the result of miscalculations, mistakes, and failure to learn from mistakes. For the EU to be able to shape any common foreign policy toward other rising powers, it needs to reach out to countries that are most sensitive on specific issues. It should not be a policy of a compromise since the Russian case demonstrated not only ineffectiveness but in fact diminished the EU itself in favor of bilateral relations with certain member states. This in turn has a much increasing effect on the Eurosceptic forces thus further undermining the EU (Fischer, 2019). A successful foreign and security policy of the EU will be the one that has a strategic thinking present in every stage of foreign policy making. It is not simply that Russia will abandon its current foreign policy. In fact, this policy will continue and the EU by having a strategic thinking may push Russia toward a more friendly rhetoric. It may eventually bring two actors “as equal partners, [that] respect each other and take into account each other’s interests” (Lavrov, 2013). Most importantly, it will establish a necessary dynamic within the EU that will be important in a new international order. The EU as an actor will be challenged not only by Russia and China, but potentially by the United States that will try to hold its grip through NATO. Although it will not be a competition similar to the one with Russia or China, it will certainly have an important effect on the EU itself as it will shift policy-making from Atlanticism to Europeanism (Kapoor, 2021). 


In conclusion, dynamics in Russia-EU relations demonstrates how the EU foreign policy is functioning. In addition, it shows its dynamics with particular countries that are equally seeking for their role in international relations. Functionality of the EU foreign policy has many problems and complexities that come from domestic and external factors. However, through implementation of a more functional foreign policy with Russia, the EU will be capable of initiating a much more pragmatic and realistic policy-making process that will be first and foremost the Europeanized foreign policy. As for Russia and the European Union, their interdependence – especially in the energy sector – and geographical proximity push these two actors to engage with each other. That engagement is exposed to external and domestic factors and a truly Europeanized foreign policy will allow us to find ways of countering not only Russia but even China in the near future. 

Sahib Rasulov

Zeyno Mahmutoğlu

European Studies Internship Program


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Sosyal Medyada Paylaş


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