Since the heads of the European Union and NATO signed the Joint Declaration in Warsaw in July 2016, their relationship seems to be in the spotlight again. More and more researchers and policy-makers show their interest in this special partnership. They closely follow closely the developments of the implementations of the proposals, which resulted from the Joint Declaration and the promises made at the NATO Summit in Warsaw. While one might think that the revival of their relationship came out of the blue, this is in fact not the case. Both organisations, and especially on the staff level, have been working on uplifting and revamping it for the last three years – to be more precise, since the onset of the Ukraine crisis. Questions about the actual trigger therefore arises. Are the renewed aggression and military confrontations on the eastern border the cause for strengthening their cooperation? It can be speculated that Russia has indeed played a very significant, and in fact a decisive, part in drawing the EU and NATO closer and revitalising their relationship.
At this month’s Talk around the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin – a collaborative and high-level conference organised by the German Atlantic Treaty Association (ATA DGA), the European Commission, NATO, and the Federal Academic for Security Policy (BAKS) – the EU-NATO cooperation among other hot topics received the main attention. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs and chairman of the presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, ‘it is Russia that currently unites the US and the EU and the member states within NATO’. Moreover, he believes that Russia is indispensable for the unity in both organisations. Russia has always taken a key position when it comes to European and Euro-Atlantic security and defence cooperation. While its predecessor the Soviet Union was the main reason for the creation of NATO, it remained a decisive factor even after the end of the Cold War. In the late 1990s, NATO and Russia signed the Madrid Declaration to cooperate on security issues, and also the EU maintained relations with its neighbour in the East as well. Seen from Moscow, however, ideally, Russia would have become an affiliate of both the EU and NATO with some important privileges.
The most recent events, i.e. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the subsequent onset of the Ukraine crisis and the on-going conflict in the Donbas region, have created a new security environment for Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community. Russia’s latest actions, its new ways of aggression through the use of cyber and hybrid threats and also the Zapad exercise in September 2017 in collaboration with Belarus, have united the EU and NATO on the one hand, but, on the other hand, have also illustrated differences among the two organisations. The year of 2014 has been pointed out as the rapprochement of the two organisations – the melting of the ‘frozen conflict’ between EU and NATO – and the beginning of strengthening their cooperation. Yet, the EU seeks diplomatic solutions to the Ukraine crisis – most notably is the Minsk Agreement – while NATO has increased the number of troops on its Eastern flank in order to send a strong signal of deterrence towards Russia. Moreover, member states in both organisations have different views on and ideas for dealing with Russia and the renewed aggression. Especially the Eastern and Southern states have different threat perceptions and seek different solutions to the conflicts.
While it might be true that Russia is a decisive player for revamping the EU-NATO relationship, and therefore serves as a unifying factor for their cooperation efforts on security and defence issues, it also shows that internally the organisations cannot come up with a coherent strategy and a common position towards their big neighbour. In order to find a solution not only to the on-going conflicts in Ukraine and the Donbas region, but also to maintain relations with Russia, both organisations should approach the country equally and jointly. A common approach has not hurt any actor involved so far.
Nele Marianne Ewers-Peters is a PhD Candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent.