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Just another useless Security Initiative? Russia’s Percepetion of PESCO

In November 2017, the abbreviation PESCO hit the headlines of European and American newspapers. 23 of the European Union (EU) Member States initiated Permanent European Structured Cooperation or PESCO (later the number of participants rose to 25). This act of deepening security and defense integration in the EU caused a totally polar reaction – from highly positive to highly critical – both inside and outside the EU. It is definitely going to influence the EU’s relations with key security players on the European continent, particularly the Russian Federation. In spite of the fact that modern Russia does not have even a fraction of the influence of its predecessor, the Soviet Union, it still has some levers of influence on EU member states. Moreover, recent Russian security policy toward the EU has been far from friendly. That is why Russia’s perception of PESCO is an issue of a great research interest and political importance.

From a Russian perspective: What is PESCO?

To figure out some critical points in this discussion, it is necessary to understand clearly what PESCO represents at the moment and why the EU member states decided to call it to life now.

PESCO was incorporated into the Treaty on European Union in 2009 (Art. 42 (6)), where it is described as a possible security initiative for member states whose military capabilities fulfill higher criteria and which have made more binding commitments to one another in the area of defense.1 It is specified in Protocol 10 to the Treaty. In the Notification on PESCO to the European Council,2 it is explained that PESCO has the following goals:

  • increasing joint and collaborative defense projects;
  • creating a defense information center which can be accessed only by PESCO members;
  • developing cooperation in the sphere of cyber security;
  • considering the joint use of existing capacities;
  • developing common technical and operational forces which are necessary for cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO);
  • simplifying cross-border transport in the EU

As we can see, PESCO is not a project to build up a European army as some EU and national officials have called for. In fact, having initiated PESCO, some of the EU member states just agreed to deploy, train and fund military forces together and reduce inter-state bureaucracy when it comes to military transportation.

However, the initiation of PESCO gained totally contradictory receptions even inside the EU. While the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called this move “historic”,3 EU integration specialist Dr. Nick Whitney, in turn, described it as a “squib”.4 Some EU members expressed their concern that PESCO might be one more step towards the dominance of Germany and France in the EU. And some others, like the United Kingdom, Malta and Denmark, refused to participate.

How PESCO came to life

As mentioned earlier, PESCO was incorporated in 2009 but first initiated only in 2017. In our view, there may be several reasons for this ­delay:

To start with, the term “Europe” has been associated with peace and security for a rather long period. For many decades, since the Second World War, the European continent has not seen any violent border change. Of course, the existence of Europe was not unshadowed during that time because Europe was a “border” between two poles of the Cold War. But meanwhile it could enjoy the military “umbrella” of the United States. After the Cold War was over and the conflicts caused by the collapse of communism seemed to have been relatively overcome – though it is questionable at what price and to what extent from the EU side – the EU enjoyed a period of relative peace inside and near its external borders. The European security structures (both NATO and the CSDP) have been often criticized for taking too much money from member states’ budgets. Indeed, NATO during the Cold War era was a counterweight to the Soviet military threat, but the USSR didn’t exist anymore and Russia didn’t seem to be a menace. The situation changed dramatically several years ago.

Firstly, European security had to face totally new kinds of security threats, such as hybrid wars and interference in the cyber security sphere. The refugee crisis caused by the conflicts in the Middle East directly affected EU member states, which became one of the main destinations for Syrian refugees. This in turn called into question the continued existence of the European project itself and its freedoms (mainly the freedom of movement and open borders).

The second reason why PESCO was called to life at this particular moment is the change in United States foreign policy, or the threat from the U.S. administration to make this change. The thing is that the U.S. and NATO have always played a significant role in European security. Even when the EU’s own security and defense structure was established in 1998, to our mind one of the main goals of this act was to convince the U.S. that the united Europe could be a reliable security partner. Although the U.S. had demanded increased engagement in its own security issues for years, the EU security stance changed dramatically when President Trump entered office in 2016. Trump, a highly successful businessman and extremely eccentric public figure, is known for his political unpredictability and personal views that have often attracted criticism from the United States’ main international allies. Thus he is often heard attacking the EU in particular and the liberal state order as a whole. One of his main bones of contention with the EU is the accusation that the EU member states fall short of NATO spending goals. The U.S. President demanded that they spend more on defense, and threatened to concentrate on American domestic security issues (“America first”).

In addition, Trump is often blamed for his reluctance to speak openly about Russia’s undemocratic behavior under Vladimir Putin. Therefore some EU members, primarily those countries which have a memory of living under socialism, expressed their concerns that the new US administration underestimates the menace stemming from Russia. This will be discussed in more detail later.

Thirdly, there is the issue of Brexit or Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. The process of leaving a union that has reached an unprecedented level of integration will be a difficult and complicated one. It is going to influence all spheres of relations between the United Kingdom and the EU, including the sphere of EU security and defense.

Although European security after Brexit is not so widely discussed in the public debate, it must be taken into account that the United Kingdom is a nuclear state with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, impressive military capacities, worldwide diplomatic influence through the Commonwealth, and one of the best intelligence services in the world. Brexit is going to influence the defense of the EU to a significant extent. The EU is losing a member which played the role of a “bridge” between the EU and the U.S. in security issues due to its “special relationship” with the latter, and a country which was one of the founders of the European Security and Defence Policy in 1998. In her speech during the G7 meeting in July 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked: “the times when we could fully rely on others are over”,5 hinting at the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Brexit.

Fourthly, the EU member states differ significantly. They all have different geographical positions, GDPs, histories and, as the EU Reflection Paper on the Future of European Defence puts it, “there have historically been differences in threat perceptions.”6 The Baltic states and some Eastern European countries, which have the memory of living under a totalitarian regime, see their main threat in the policy of the Russian Federation – hence their loyalty to NATO and to transatlantic cooperation. The most important concern of Southern European countries, in turn, is an unstable political situation in the Middle East and North Africa. Countries of Western Europe (especially those participating in the anti-ISIS coalition) fear international terrorism and radicalization of the youth and, unlike their Eastern European partners, often call for the maintenance of dialog with Russia. PESCO can be described as an attempt to bring all these security stances under a common denominator.

Finally, the last but probably most important reason for initiating PESCO is Russia’s recent foreign policy. This brings us close to the main question of the essay.

As mentioned above, the Russian Federation, legal successor to the USSR after its collapse, did not seem to be a threat to European security, in spite of the fact that since the early 2000s Russia had been losing more and more features of a democratic state. During this period, Russia experienced an increase in human rights violations and corruption, the concentration of power in the hands of one party, the strangulation of freedom of speech and assembly, and an increase in aggressive military rhetoric. However, all of that traditionally remains a matter of internal policy, and the EU member states were not so eager to spoil diplomatic relations with their main natural resource supplier over the latter’s domestic issues. As far as its foreign policy is concerned, in 2008 Russia was involved in the war in Georgia, but the EU and U.S. preferred not to overreact. Remember that former U.S. President Barack Obama, whose first term in office also started in 2008, announced his ­famous but eventually unsuccessful “reset policy” right after the war in Georgia.

In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and started supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, which led to a long military conflict close to the EU’s borders, with thousands of victims. The annexation and Russia’s subsequent actions were not simply a violation of international law, but an act of aggression by a nuclear state with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council against a much smaller country which, besides, had to deal with an unstable political situation at the time. Explaining its actions, Russia proclaimed it was going to protect the interests of Russians “no matter where they live,” and the EU countries, especially those which are close to Russia geographically (like Poland and Romania) and those having large Russian diasporas (the Baltic states), could not feel safe anymore.

Russian fears

So Russia was one of the main reasons why the EU members initiated PESCO. But how did Russia react to it? Does Russia regard PESCO as a threat, like many other Western security initiatives? This question is worth examining on several levels. The first one is of course the statements of government officials who represent the “official” point of view (which always refers directly to the government if we speak about Russia), then scientific discourse, and finally opinions of Russian experts and political journalists.

Pursuing this question, it turns out that Russia’s authorities have not made so many statements on PESCO. The only official who commented PESCO was Russia’s envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov. In his interview to the Sputnik news agency, which in Europe and the U.S. has the reputation of being the Kremlin’s propaganda tool, he stated: “It is probably a little bit early to speak about the prospects of this cooperation […]. We will see how it will be implemented. I think implementing PESCO will take some time. I think they [the EU] will continue doing what was de facto happening within the European Defence Agency.”7 The envoy then reflects on the diversity of the EU and the possible boost that PESCO might give to investment in the EU defense industry. As we can see, there is not even a hint that ­PESCO may be dangerous for Russia; the interview itself looks more like the opinion of a disinterested political theorist rather than a government official.

As has already been said, PESCO was firstly initiated in 2017 and, as at October 2018, the Russian scientific literature had not offered a stance on PESCO. This may not be unusual, since significant political events usually develop quickly, and scientific literature does not manage to keep up with coverage. Besides the scientific realm it is necessary to mention that even though the start of PESCO dominated the front pages of European and American newspapers, it received very modest media coverage in Russia. However, some Russian political scientists accurately expressed their views in some press publications. Some of them joked that from the Western European Union in 1954 onward, there had already been a lot of attempts to create a defense organization for the EU, but none of them worked out. Some underlined that the EU already has its own defense structure, the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), so, even if the ­military effectiveness of the CSDP could be called into question, why would it need another one?

Russian political journalists went further. The far-right Russian press has a tendency to see “America’s hand” everywhere. (It is necessary to remember that mass media in Russia is to a rather high extent controlled by the government, with the exception of small regional and some federal newspapers, but the Russian government is much more tolerant toward the far-right press than toward the liberal press.) It insisted that PESCO was initiated against Russia under pressure from the United States, highlighting the words of Jens Stoltenberg who said that NATO should be able to use future PESCO capacities. Others expressed their pleasure at the fact that the EU had started to drift further from the U.S. on security issues: Splitting the transatlantic defense partnership is the long-time dream of many international relations experts in Russia.

While discussing the views of officials and political observers, we shouldn’t forget that there is another level of interest, namely in Russian society. There is no research available on how people in Russia perceive PESCO, but we can examine an opinion poll which recorded the attitudes of Russians to the EU. A poll conducted by the independent Levada-Center in 2017 showed that it is almost as bad as their attitude towards the United States: 60 percent of Russians regard the U.S. as a threat, and the EU – 54 percent.8 Thus it is very important to understand that the majority of Russians perceive the EU as an enemy. However, Russia traditionally felt that the U.S. posed a much bigger threat to its security than Europe. This was influenced at first by Soviet propaganda. The term “Europe” did not cause a negative reaction in the Soviet Union, as almost half of Europe was “socialistic” and therefore could not be an enemy. During the Cold War, the role of the main enemy belonged to the United States.

Russia has seen different periods of post-Soviet international and security thinking. Right after the collapse of the USSR, Russia was ready to cooperate with the West. During his first term in office, even President Putin was eager to help the United States in its war against international terrorism, hoping that in return the U.S. would turn a blind eye as Russia became a corrupt authoritarian state. When this strategy proved unsuccessful, President Putin refused to be cooperative. Nowadays the decision-making of the highest Russian officials responsible for foreign policy is again dominated by Cold War thinking, which assigns the central role to President Putin. According to the Russian Constitution, in the Russian Federation the President possesses significant political power and can only be controlled to a limited extent by parliament – the State Duma. Taking into account that modern Russia does not have a democratic division of powers and the legislative branch is totally controlled by the executive, it becomes clear that there are hardly any checks and balances on President Putin’s power. Typically for authoritarian regimes, foreign policy decision-making is concentrated around the head of state. Thus the Russian authorities rely very much on military force, and since 2008, when the above-mentioned war in Georgia revealed severe shortcomings in the Russian army, they have spent an enormous amount of money on military modernization. If we refer to the terms of international relations theory, they act totally in accordance with classical political ­realism.

Consequently, the EU’s reluctance to use military power and its adherence to human rights, democratic freedoms and tolerance have made it extremely weak in Russia’s eyes. Besides, the security policy of the biggest EU countries does not make the EU a menace from Russia’s point of view. France, one of the motors of European integration, left NATO ­under President de Gaulle and returned to the organization only under Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. Germany has traditionally been reluctant to use the Bundeswehr abroad. The United Kingdom is set to leave the EU. Thus Russia does not regard the EU as a direct ­military threat, and will not regard PESCO as one either. However, there is a concern that NATO might use PESCO logistics and capacities. In Cold War thinking, NATO is again associated with the main enemy, i.e. with the United States. While the EU is presented in Russian media as a weak and bureaucratic ­organization which cannot protect its own borders and is too divided to act quickly, NATO is described as an aggressive military bloc slowly approaching Russian borders in order to restrict the country’s sovereignty and obtain its natural resources. That is why Russia might fear that PESCO might strengthen NATO.

However, Russia is aware of the EU’s influence as a soft power – free elections, anti-corruption, democratization, human rights, the values which the EU institutions call for, are definitely not on the list of topics advocated by the Russian authorities. Moreover, in accordance with the prevailing Cold War thinking, the world is still divided into spheres of influence, which brings us back to the concepts of political realism. Russia consequently regards the former Soviet republics as its own “back yard”. That is why it reacted so harshly to the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, which includes the former Soviet republics Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan. These countries were traditionally less loyal to Russia’s foreign cause (it is important to remember that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine started with Ukraine’s intention to sign an associate treaty with the EU). But also Belarus and Armenia, which are usually considered to be among Russia’s most important allies in the post-Soviet space, were interested in building some partnership with the EU. When this project was initiated, the Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrov stated that the Eastern Partnership represented an attempt to “pull countries from the positions they want to take as sovereign states.”9

A look into the future

It is almost impossible to predict political events, but we can get some idea with the help of basic scenario planning. There are three different potential outcomes. In any case, Russia’s actions towards PESCO will certainly depend on its future development. In scenario number one, PESCO would turn out to be a paper tiger and would not yield any major results. This possibility would certainly be the most favorable for Russia, which would maintain the status quo in its security policy toward the EU.

Scenario number two includes further development of PESCO and strong cooperation between PESCO and NATO. This would be the worst outcome for Russia, the one Russian authorities are most afraid of. 

In that case Russia might strengthen its policy directed at splitting the EU and particularly the EU military cooperation with the USA. There are already some fearsome signs that Russia is going to act exactly this way - in November 2018 Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly expressed his support to the plan of the European army suggested by French President Emmanuel Macron. “Europe is…a powerful economic union and it is only natural that they want to be independent…and sovereign in the field of defence and security”10, Putin remarked. The statement attracted severe criticism from Donald Trump but is well within the concept of a multipolar world that is not dominated by the USA. This has been advocated by Putin since the beginning of the 2000s. It is clear that the Russian president’s issue of concern is not the successful defense of the EU. He is looking forward to Europe possibly moving further away from the USA on military issues. 

Besides, Russia seems to have many levers of influence on the EU countries – oil and gas supplies for example, but economic partnership which is currently suppressed by sanctions but still not killed off. Besides, there are some pro-Russian EU state leaders like Hungarian President Viktor Orbán or Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Large Russian diasporas in some EU countries – primarily in the Baltic states – can also be used by Russia as a tool to influence the internal and external policy of these states. Russia might also resort to financing anti-EU parties – the support given to Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France being the most obvious example – or deploy its agents in EU countries in order to destabilize the political situation. The recent spy scandal, which came to light after the attempted poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom, demonstrates that these concerns are not at all groundless. The fact that the EU is divided, with different EU member states having different security positions, plays into the hands of the Russian authorities. All of this makes Russia an important security threat for the EU, which should be taken into account when planning defense strategies.

The third scenario is that PESCO would not correspond strongly with NATO but will be developed by its members as an independent EU security structure. That might be less dangerous for the Russian authorities than the second scenario because, as mentioned above, they do not perceive the EU as a significant defense and security structure. But also in this case, Russian authorities might channel their efforts toward destabilizing PESCO, at least through propaganda. The EU member states should not underestimate this threat.

Anyone who wants to understand the direction of current security thinking by the Russian authorities will find the following quotation revealing: “We should work on the realization of three mega projects. These are: building new nuclear weapons, strengthening the army, and protecting the population from influence on their conscience from outside. There is a war against Russia. We must unite ourselves and stand against our outside enemy.”11 It is not hard to imagine a Soviet party functionary during the Cold War uttering exactly the same words – and we have to keep in mind that they were spoken by Alexander Beglov, the temporal governor of the second biggest Russian city, Saint Petersburg, an official who does not seem to be deeply involved in the state’s foreign policy. Unfortunately they demonstrate the “fashionable” way of thinking among a big part of Russian society today.

1 The consolidated version of the Treaty on European Union, 2012, p. 37.

2 See (accessed October 10, 2018).

3 Mogherini, Federica, 2017: A historic day for the European Union. (accessed October 19, 2018).

4 Whitney Nick, 2017: EU efforts miss the open goal again. (accessed October 21, 2018).

5 (Translated from German). Soboczynski, Adam (2017): Merkel: Die Zeiten, in denen wir uns auf andere völlig verlassen konnten, die sind ein Stück vorbei. (accessed October 20, 2018).

6 European Commission (2017): Reflection Paper on the Future of European Defence, p. 11.

7 EU to Optimize Defense Industry for Its Own Manufacturers – Russian Envoy. (accessed October 21, 2018).

8 Отношение россиян к США и Евросоюзу ухудшается [The attitude of Russians towards the USA and the EU is getting worse]. (accessed October 21, 2018).

9 Pop, Valentina (2009): EU expanding its ‘sphere of influence,’ Russia says. (accessed October 21, 2018).

10 Putin’s positive on Macron’s European army plan blashed by Trump. (accessed on November 11, 2018)


11 Казак с партийным опытом [A Cossack with Party Experience] (accessed October 21, 2018).


Maxim Kuzmin

Maxim Kuzmin studied political science, international ­relations, international law and peace and security research. He earned his Master degree in 2017 at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Studies at the University of Hamburg (IFSH), having written his Master thesis on the topic “The possible impact of Brexit on the Common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union.” His sphere of research interest comprises Brexit, the EU security and defence policy, and security relations between the EU and the USA.

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All articles in this issue

The European Union and its Values – Normative Guiding Principles or Moral “Fig Leaf”?
Alexander Merkl
Permanent Structured Cooperation in the European Union – Milestone on the Road to Military Power, or Restart for the EU as a Force for Peace?
Bernhard Rinke
The European ­Union Should Stick to Its Peace-Orientation
Christof Mandry
European Army – Realities and Chimeras
Hans-Georg Ehrhart
Looking for Strategic Convergence in the European Defense Industry
Sophie Lefeez
Enough words have been exchanged ...
Jörn Thießen
Emancipation with a Sense of Proportion
Karl-Heinz Kamp
Would PESCO and a European Army Make Estonians Feel More Secure?
Viljar Veebel
Just another useless Security Initiative? Russia’s Percepetion of PESCO
Maxim Kuzmin


Hans-Peter Bartels Angelika Dörfler-Dierken Klaus Beck Eurokorps