Member states are divided between those that view Russia as a potential partner which can be drawn into the EU's orbit through a process of "creeping integration" and those that view Russia as a threat whose expansionism and contempt for democracy must be rolled back through a policy of "soft containment." The last few years demonstrate that neither approach will work.
The first approach risks giving Russia easy access to all the benefits of cooperation with the EU without insisting that Russia abide by stable rules. Open hostility toward Russia, however, will make it hard for the EU to draw on Russia's help to tackle a host of common problems -- from environmental pollution and illegal migration to nuclear proliferation and Kosovo's final status.
The EU urgently needs a new approach. Rather than attempt to democratize or contain Russia, the Union should settle on the more limited goal of turning Russia into a reliable partner bound by the rule of law. A common approach will give the EU many powerful levers to ensure that Russia honors treaties and mutual agreements.
At the diplomatic level, Europeans could threaten to deprive Russia of the prestige it draws from participating in G8 and EU-Russia Summits. They should also aim to strengthen democracy and the rule of law in the European neighborhood by tightening relations with countries such as Georgia and Ukraine.
Economic leverage should be applied as well. Europeans should subject Russian investments in EU markets to greater scrutiny and use competition law to launch investigations into monopolistic practices and money laundering for existing investments. At the same time, EU members could target the interests of the individuals in the Kremlin elite by scrutinizing their purchases of Western assets, and even ban travel to the EU for human rights abusers.
So long as the EU continues to sway between integration and containment, it will continue to appear to the Kremlin as weak and directionless. That, in turn, will merely encourage Russia to become even more assertive.
Mark Leonard is executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Nicu Popescu is a policy fellow at the council.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/ECFR