After Ukraine, Part II – Russian great power vs. EU normative hegemony: What is at stake in Eastern Europe?

By Conradin Weindl:

Demonstrators at a Euromaidan pro-EU rally in Kiev, Ukraine, 26 November 2013. Photo: Ivan Bandura (CC 2.0)
Demonstrators at a Euromaidan pro-EU rally in Kiev, Ukraine, 26 November 2013. Photo: Ivan Bandura (CC 2.0)

Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict, Russia’s determination to maintain a sphere of influence within the former Soviet Union has been the subject of an intense debate. Russia’s need for regional predominance is frequently attributed to the country’s great power identity. However, Russian domination of its ‘near abroad’ is not primarily an end in itself. Rather, it is a means to regain Russia’s position as a European great power. The battle over conflicting norms and values is central in this context.

Russia’s status as a great power stands at the heart of its identity and mandates an equal and independent role among the other major powers in Europe.[i] Such a role can only be pursued if accepted by Russia’s peers on the continent.[ii] Yet there are no longer any great powers in the traditional sense in Europe. In fact, the United Kingdom, France and Germany have to an important degree joined forces with the vast majority of European states within the structures of the European Union.

The EU has elevated liberal norms and values such as democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights to form the very core of its identity as a normative power.[iii] Even if it lacks the will and capacity to offer membership to all European states, the EU’s identity is pan-European in nature. Consequently, the EU is pursuing “normative hegemony in Europe”[iv]. It follows that all relationships between the EU and other European states, regardless of their size, are by definition asymmetrical.[v]

Thus, Russia has two options with regard to Europe. First, it can adopt the established norms through a process of integration. This was the intention of both Russia and the EU after the break-up of the Soviet Union, formalised in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement based on ‘common values’ concluded in 1994.[vi] Yet full EU membership and hence a real say for Russia on European matters was never seriously considered.[vii]

Second, Russia can refrain from playing a role in Europe. After Russia had abandoned the path towards normative convergence, and the gap in values became increasingly difficult to ignore, the EU offered Russia the title as one of its strategic partners alongside other major powers such as the US, China, Japan and India. Although this did some justice to Russia’s need to be officially recognised as a great power, it made it into less of a player within Europe itself.[viii]

Ultimately, both alternatives are irreconcilable with Russia’s self-perception as a European great power. The result has been a deadlock in Russia-EU relations for two decades, despite sincere efforts on both sides for engagement.

Since the return of Putin to the presidency in 2012, Russia has sought to resolve the impasse by breaking the EU’s monopoly on defining the ‘rules of the game’ in Europe, by challenging the Union’s hegemonic normative power. One tool has been to reinterpret many established norms, such as sovereignty, democracy and self-determination, in a fashion that is in line with the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy objectives.[ix] The Russian leadership’s decision to raise the stakes in the Western new independent states (Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the three Caucasus states) is closely related. These are the only states in Europe – apart from Russia itself – where the EU’s claim to normative predominance has not yet been fully realised.

Russia’s instrument of choice was to gather these states under the umbrella of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and thus prevent their path towards integration with the EU within the Eastern Partnership framework. Russia hopes that its alternative normative agenda might be more appealing to some of the states concerned, at least the ones where autocrats are eager to secure their positions.[x]

However, establishing an alternative regional grouping is not primarily an end in itself and the EEU is not a tool for the separate economic integration of its members. Indeed, the economic case for the EEU is rather weak.[xi] Instead, as Putin himself argued in an opinion article in 2011, the EEU will give Russia and other EEU member states better bargaining power vis-à-vis the EU, and an ability to formulate new European norms between equals.[xii] The bet is that additional geopolitical weight on the European continent will strengthen the case for Russia’s desired equal and independent role in Europe. Once the EU’s normative hegemony is broken, Russia can make a legitimate “claim [to] an equal role in collective leadership and decision making”[xiii].

How will the EU respond to this challenge? Prior to the Ukraine crisis, the EU chose to largely ignore the EEU. Subsequent events have since forced the EU to acknowledge the challenge to its normative hegemony. The EU has responded in the familiar manner of strategic ambiguity.

Russia’s disrespect for national sovereignty and the inviolability of national borders has prompted the EU to impose political and economic sanctions on Russia. Furthermore, the EU has reaffirmed the right of Russia’s Western neighbours to choose the path of European integration by signing the Association Agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. At the same time the EU has been eager to keep Russia engaged by suddenly welcoming a future pan-European trade agreement between the EU and the EEU.

The EU will have to perform a delicate balancing act if it does not want to jeopardize its normative credibility and ultimately the entire normative foundations of the European governance mode in the process. The review of the Eastern Partnership and the European Security Strategy in the coming months should provide an indication of where we are heading.

Conradin Weindl is an MA student in International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His main focus is on EU and Russian foreign policy.

This article is part of a Strife series entitled ‘Russia and the World following Ukraine’. Over the next couple of weeks Strife will feature two more articles about the global reaction to the crisis in the Ukraine. Next, Andrzej Kozłowski will analyse Poland’s approach to the crisis and the implications for Polish security. Then, Sebastian Åsberg, will examine the debate regarding NATO membership in neutral Sweden and Finland, which has intensified significantly as a result of the war in Ukraine. In the first article of the seriesMike Jones discussed Britain’s handling of the Ukraine crisis and why it has not received more attention in the UK.


[i] Dimitri Trenin, ‘Russia’s Spheres of Interest, not Influence’, The Washington Quarterly, 32:4 (2009), p. 4

[ii] Iver Neumann, ‘Russia as a great power, 1815-2007’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 11 (2008), pp. 128-151

Hiski Haukkala, ‘A Norm Maker or a Norm taker? The Changing Normative Parameters of Russia’s place in Europe’ in Russia’s European Choice, edited by Ted Topf (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)

[iii] Ian Manners, ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 40:2 (2002), pp. 235-258

[iv] Hiski Haukkala, ‘From cooperative to Contested Europe? The Conflict in Ukraine as a Culmination of a Long-Term Crisis in EU-Russia Relations’, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 23:1 (2015), p. 36

[v] Hiski Haukkala, ‘Explaining Russian Reactions to the European Neighbourhood Policy’ in The European Neighbourhood Policy in perspective context, implementation and impact, edited by Richard G. Whitman and Stefan Wolff, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p.162

[vi] Haukkala 2015, pp. 25-28

[vii] Arkady Moshes, ‘Russia’s European Policy under Medvedev: How sustainable is a new Compromise?’, International Affairs, 88:1 (2012), p. 25.

[viii] Haukkala 2010, p. 166

[ix] Ruth Deyermond, The uses of sovereignty in 21st century Russian foreign policy, Europe-Asia Studies (2015) [forthcoming]

[x] Hiski Haukkala, ‘The Russian Challenge to EU Normative Power: The Case of European Neighbourhood Policy’, The International Spectator, 43:2 (2008), pp. 40-42

[xi] Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk, ‘Russia, the Eurasian Customs Union and the EU: Cooperation, stagnation or Rivalry?’, Chatham House Briefing Paper (REP BP 2012/01), (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2012)

[xii] Vladimir Putin, quoted in Dragneva and Wolczuk 2012, p. 15

[xiii] Derek Averre, ‘”Sovereign Democracy” and Russia’s Relations with the European Union’, Demokratizatsiya 15:2 (2007), p.183

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