Since 2014, the EU has been imposing sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Moscow has also been at odds with the West over its support for Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria.
But EU countries are also feeling the strain, having been slapped with counter-sanctions from Russia. More and more European leaders are now questioning European policy on Moscow. How many friends does Russian President Vladimir Putin really have?
France is heading for a presidential election in April. Right-wing candidate Francois Fillion has been tipped to replace Francois Hollande. Fillon has been labelled in Western media as a pro-Russian due to his stance on the Ukraine conflict.
The French presidential hopeful has accused the West of provoking the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and has called for an end to EU sanctions on Russia. Fillon called the sanctions "inept and strategically devastating” for French farmers. He is also in favour of forming an international coalition that includes Russia to fight against Daesh.
Germany has been one of the most critical nations of Russia’s policy on Ukraine, but even within the German government, there is a difference of opinion on the issue that reaches as high up as Vice Chancellor and Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel.
“I’m doing what I can so that the sanctions, imposed after the annexation of Crimea, can be lifted step-by-step,” Gabriel said in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2016, citing the economic losses the sanctions have caused for both countries.
Gabriel is also a keen supporter of Nord Stream II, a project that envisions a gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany directly via the Baltic Sea, bypassing other countries on the way. His political ally, the former chancellor and ex-SPD head Gerhard Schroder, currently serves as board chairman of the project.
Although President Milos Zeman has indicated that he would support EU sanctions on Russia if Moscow attempted to annex rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine, he has thus far not offered his personal backing for the sanctions.
Zeman denies being pro-Russian, but he has contradicted information provided by NATO, the OSCE and the Czech Republic’s own intelligence services by arguing that Russian fighters are not present in eastern Ukraine.
His position on the crisis in eastern Ukraine has put him at odds with his own government, including its prime minister. Zeman broke ranks with the EU in May 2015 when he attended Russia’s Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, where he met with his counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Hungary has experienced a pivot towards Moscow under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has paved the way for significant investment from Russia.
In 2014, over 10,000 people marched in Budapest to protest Orban’s alleged cozying up to the Kremlin. The following year, Orban’s government defied EU objections to sign a €10 billion nuclear energy deal with Russia.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has described Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a “done deal” and has boasted of his country’s “major economic projects” in Russia.
On the EU’s policy towards Russia, Fico said that Slovakia may "reject certain sanctions that would hurt national interests."
Bulgaria elected Rumen Radev as president in late 2016. He won an electoral run-off with almost 60 percent of the vote.
While reiterating the importance of Bulgaria’s membership to NATO, he has called for “more dialogue” with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and expressed his opposition to the EU sanctions on Moscow. "Being pro-European doesn't mean being anti-Russian," Radev stated.
Juri Ratas has been put in charge of forming Estonia’s new government. He is the head of the Centre Party, which enjoys much support from ethnic Russians in the Baltic state.
The Centre Party shares a framework cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, the significance of which Ratas has played down but has avoided repudiating despite political pressure.
As one of Greece’s biggest trade partners, the financial crisis that hit Athens in 2009 had huge ramifications for the Greek Cypriot administration. In 2011, Moscow granted a cash-strapped Nicosia a loan of €2.5 billion. Cyprus is also a popular tax-haven for Russian oligarchs.
Indebted to Russia, the Greek Cypriot administration signed a deal in 2015 allowing Russian navy ships to dock on the island. It has also allowed Russian arms shipments to set sail from the island to the Assad regime in Syria, in spite of an EU embargo.
Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades is one of a handful of EU leaders Moscow is trying to court a veto from to block the renewal of EU sanctions. In a visit to Moscow in 2015, Anastasiades said that Europe’s policy on Russia was part of a “group of member states who have the same reservations.”
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was first elected in January 2015, in an atmosphere of frustration over the EU’s crippling austerity measures that were being imposed on the Greek economy. Tsipras vowed to take on the EU to restructure the country’s debt.
But EU leaders played a hard bargain. Months-long negotiations that at one point seemed futile almost forced Greece to default on the euro. Uncertainty over the future pushed Athens closer to Moscow, with whom Greece shares bilateral trade amounting to nearly $10 billion annually.
During a visit by Putin to Athens last year, Tsipras condemned the EU’s sanctions on Russia, saying they were “not productive.”
Moldovans elected Igor Dodon as president in November 2016. In his victory speech, Dodon said that voters had "united and voted for friendship with Russia."
The former Soviet republic, which in the early 1990s fought a short-lived war with Russian-backed rebels in its Transnistria region, had been set on the path of greater integration with the West.
But Dodon seeks to reverse that by scrapping an association agreement with the EU. Instead, he hopes to form closer ties with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Although Serbia is seeking better integration with the EU in the hope of eventual membership to the bloc, it still has a number of unresolved disputes with its neighbours.
Serbia refuses to recognise the independence of Kosovo, which declared its sovereignty in 2008. Serbian claims to Kosovo have received backing from Russia. The country’s president, Tomislav Nikolic, is known for his pro-Russian views.
Days before US President Donald Trump took office this month, Nikolic slammed the outgoing Obama administration for creating “much trouble” and expressed his wish to see a new approach from Trump.
Republika Srpska is not an independent country. Rather, it is a federal entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina whose citizens are mainly ethnic Serbs. The entity enjoys significant support from Russia.
Its leader Milorad Dodik recently organised a referendum on celebrating the declaration of an independent Bosnian Serb state, which coincides with an Orthodox Christian holiday.
The referendum got Dodik in trouble with Bosnia’s Constitutional Court over fears that he could be stoking tensions with the country’s Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats.
Armenian technocrat Karen Karapetyan was appointed by President Serzh Sargsyan as the country’s new prime minister in September following the resignation of his predecessor. Karapetyan is a former employee for Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom.
Moscow holds a lot of leverage over the former Soviet republic, with Russian firms controlling a number of strategic assets including banks, power plants, transportation networks, telecommunications companies, electricity grids and natural gas distribution.
Author: Ertan Karpazli