Russia's main target is not the US or NATO but the EU
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“It is not Russian military power that is threatening us, it is Russian political power,” George Kennan once said in a speech to the Army War College in 1947. Similarly, Russian leaders today undoubtedly fear the further expansion of NATO eastward. But they also consider the European Union (EU) to be their primary strategic competitor.

This fact is often overlooked by policymakers on this side of the Atlantic as Washington focuses its attention on Russia’s actions in Syria and Ukraine or its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But Washington should do more — in concert with Europe — to protect the EU from Russian meddling, influence and subversion. 


One can look to Moscow's role in the French, Dutch and British elections to find evidence of Russia's enduring commitment to undermining the EU’s political cohesion. Despite ongoing political crises, such as Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism, we must first understand why Putin considers the European project a threat to his rule. Subsequently, we must understand why this fear has driven the Kremlin to adopt a zero-sum policy approach toward the EU that has led to crisis in Eastern Europe.


The EU’s political institutions make it more difficult for Russia to use its advantages in size, population and natural resources to exert influence over the domestic political affairs of European states as it has done in the past. Specifically, the EU’s role as a unitary political actor contributes to its status as a rival to Russia.

In simpler terms, Russia would prefer to pick off individual European states during diplomatic negotiations as supposed to dealing with the EU as a whole. As a result, Europe has developed and coordinated economic sanctions against Russia for its aggressive action in Ukraine within the European Union.

Despite Russia’s numerous ongoing efforts to influence individual member states to challenge the EU’s Russia policy, the sanctions have remained in place and have sent Russia a powerful and unified message. Without the EU, it is difficult to imagine coordinating and implementing a response to Russian aggression given the complex nature of European politics.

Despite the Eurozone economic crisis, the EU Single Market remains one of the world’s largest economies. It has facilitated economic growth across Europe by removing economic barriers between countries and institutionalizing the rule of law. More importantly, the EU has expanded this model of economic prosperity to Russia’s borders. Across the EU’s eastern borders, Russian citizens are poorer, have worse economic prospects and must deal with endemic corruption.

Russia’s declining standard of living is a trend that will only continue over time and, eventually, the stark contrast between a prosperous EU and a Russia in economic decline could spur internal instability. The closer the EU comes to its borders, the more the Kremlin worries about a potential pro-Western color revolution in Russia.

Due to this gradual shift of power away from Russia, Moscow has invested considerable political and military resources to weaken the EU. As such, Russia supports anti-EU politicians and funds information campaigns that undermine EU political cohesion. Moreover, Russia has also intervened in Ukraine in part to challenge further EU expansion.

If Moscow had not developed this zero-sum approach to foreign policy, it is likely that the crisis in Ukraine would not have occurred. Indeed, the Kremlin sees Ukrainian domestic politics as a critical battleground with the EU over the political future of Eastern Europe.

If the EU did not exist, western Ukrainians would have no place to turn to balance Russian influence. It was protests by these western Ukrainians in support of the EU association agreement with Ukraine that led to the collapse of the government of the pro-Russian president Yanukovych.

Faced with the loss of Russian political influence, the success of another quasi-color revolution and further European integration, Russia annexed Crimea and provided military support to separatists’ forces in eastern Ukraine. The decision to use military force by the Kremlin was calibrated to prevent the further spread of European institutions to Russia’s border.

The move fits into a broader understanding of EU-Russia relations. Going forward, Moscow will continue to perceive European integration in Ukraine to be a Russian national security issue.

How do we defend European institutions and punish Russian meddling in the EU? There are a series of issues policymakers should focus on to augment the EU’s strengths vis-à-vis Russia. First, they should focus on maintaining long-term economic and diplomatic pressure on Moscow. Second, in the near-term, U.S. policymakers should acknowledge that safeguarding democratic EU processes is a vital interest.

Finally, EU policymakers should make it clear to Moscow that the crisis in Ukraine did not stall European integration eastward. Kennan said in the previously mentioned speech that he doubted Russia “can effectively be met entirely by military means.”


William McHenry is a researcher in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington, D.C.-based national security think tank.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.