The Cable

How Do European Countries Really See Russia?

Members of the union are not all united in their perception of their eastern neighbor.

eu rus aggression

Which European countries see Russia as a threat? And what are they doing about it?

That’s the question Prague-based think tank European Values set out to answer. On Monday, its Kremlin Watch program, with support from the European People’s Party, published, “How do European democracies react to Kremlin aggression?” (As the name of both the program and report suggest, the European Values think tank starts from the premise that Russia is aggressive toward Europe, and that that is not a good thing.)

The report, which tracks official statements from all 28 EU member states over the past decade, found the following:

  • Perhaps not surprisingly, three of the six countries pushing most forcefully for a European response to Russia are the Baltic states. They are joined by Poland, the United Kingdom, and, perhaps surprisingly, Denmark.
  • Five countries changed their response to Russia after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, including Sweden and Finland, both of which, though not NATO members, are increasingly working with NATO to counteract Russia. On April 11, the two joined several NATO members in signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki, a move meant to complement NATO, which welcomed the new center in a statement.
  • Two countries occasionally use a pro-Russian stance for domestic purposes. They are Slovakia and, most famously, Hungary.
  • Greece, Italy, and Cyprus “do not feel threatened and are advocating for better relations with Russia.” European Values argues “it’s hard to imagine” what else Russia would have to do beyond invading Ukraine, spreading disinformation throughout the continent, and meddling in elections to start changing minds in those three countries.
  • European Values sees the election of Euroskeptic political leaders as a major threat.

But here is another: There is no country ready to take the lead against perceived aggression from Russia. The United Kingdom is on its way out, and, if an all-left coalition is elected in Germany this coming autumn, the German government can be expected to behave even less “hawkishly” than it is now.

One counterweight could be France, which historically had close ties with Russia but which in the wake of the Ukraine invasion cancelled a big arms deal with Moscow and strongly backed European sanctions on Russia (the report categorizes France as trying to “stay away” from issues pertaining to Russia). But nearly all the leading candidates running for French president this year support Russian President Vladimir Putin; the lone exception, Emmanuel Macron, is now the frontrunner to win the election next month.

If France doesn’t do it, it could pass the torch Poland, which is both sizable and, for historic and political reasons, opposed to Russian encroachment on the EU. But Poland, the report says, “is missing out on the chance to be a genuine, legitimate and well-respected leader of this pack because of the unconstructive behavior of its government.”

After all, it’s difficult to be the EU’s eastern defender when your government spends no small amount of its time attacking it and its leadership from within.

Photo credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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