Since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s relationship with Europe has been delicate. A brief period of reconciliation in the 1990s is now a distant memory. Since his ascension to the Russian presidency in 2000, Putin has embarrassed Europe’s institutions frequently with no adequate response. The Kremlin’s acts of aggression in Crimea, its tough foreign and domestic politics, and its links to cyberterrorism all serve to highlight a badly kept secret — current security measures are not enough. Perhaps more alarming still is the fact that Germany — the bastion of European rationality — has no long-term desire to challenge Russia.


The Failure of Sanctions

Since 2014, Russia has had a belligerent presence in the Crimean areas of Crimea and Donbass, legally recognised under international law as Ukrainian sovereign territory. The European Union’s response was to impose a series of economic sanctions that targeted Russian finance, energy, defence and dual-use goods. In conjunction, Russian assets were frozen and the country faced numerous diplomatic suspensions, with its exclusion and eventual withdrawal from the G8 being the most prominent. The purpose of the sanctions was to incentivise Russia to implement the Minsk agreements — a series of protocols that map out conflict resolution and ceasefire in the region.

Yet Russian resolve has not withered but hardened. Putin has continued to defy the imposition of more sanctions by solidifying Russia’s presence in the region while targeting its European critics with cyber threats. Despite sanctions contributing to a catastrophic financial crisis instigated by the collapse of the Russian ruble in 2014-15, the Kremlin has not become co-operative as Europe would have hoped. Instead, the state has accelerated its security programmes and moved to protect its partnerships with nations such as China, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Cyber Warfare and Electoral Interference

A British House of Commons Intelligence and Security report found in July 2020 that Russia posed a serious cyber and espionage threat to the UK, recommending increased legislation and counter-terrorism to nullify the hazards. The report points to Russia’s increased usage of modern technology as posing a threat and undermining security. This has had a potent material and psychological effect, with Ukraine being the biggest victim. Russian actors successfully jeopardised the Ukrainian government’s systems in 2014, spread bugs through Ukrainian military technology and undermined democracy during its presidential election in 2014. Invasion and occupation followed.

It seems that Russia’s broad interference strategy is to encourage anti-globalist politics to thrive, which would likely indirectly benefit Russia’s geopolitical situation. Allegations of meddling in the Brexit Referendum of June 2016 and Trump’s presidential victory in November 2016 — while not definitively proven — have heightened mistrust towards Russia. It has reached a precarious point, with the NHS hack in 2018 and SolarWinds hack in 2020 both being facilitated by Russian technology.

Europe and the West need to invest in their counter-cyber capabilities to become more responsive in countering the challenges of modern Russian aggression.

Germany’s Awkward Position

Out of all the nations in Europe and the West, Germany perhaps has the most vested interest in maintaining business relations with Russia. Nord Stream, a natural gas pipeline built under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany, has been Germany’s cheapest source of natural gas since pipeline construction was completed in 2012. Germany frames the Stream as a necessary component of European energy security and a way of achieving the sustainability goals of the coming decades. Yet, it remains the largest importer of Russian goods out of the EU27 and exports the most to Russia in Europe. While Germany has supported the EU’s economic sanctions, it clearly has not done enough bilaterally to deter Russian aggression. In fact, the current construction of Nord Stream II suggests that German diplomacy may be further inclined to avoid challenging Russia in a way that harms the country’s own economic plans.

This relationship complicates Germany’s foreign policy approach. It has stood with its European partners and Western allies in rhetoric as Russia has undermined ‘the rules-based international system’. Merkel has also backed the series of sanctions. But Russian aggression makes Germany’s self-interest hard to protect. For instance, the recent poisoning and arrest of Putin’s main political foe, Alexei Navalny, has seen resultant sanctions suspend the construction of Nord Stream II. In addition, the Russian financial crisis of 2014-15 drastically hindered levels of exports and imports between the two countries.

The Future

Russia will continue to thorn Europe with its cyber and intelligence threat while resisting external pressure. Though the Russian economy has been hit by its aggressive actions, the Kremlin has proved resilient. This trend will increase if Europe does not wake up and take more effective measures, with Germany needing to take proactive bilateral steps. Counterterrorism, increased security and innovative investment will help to limit the impact of Putin’s Russia. Energy security should be treated seriously with the Nord pipelines offering the Kremlin a strategic option to influence European access and markets.