Balmaceda on Davis Cross and Karolewski, 'European-Russian Power Relations in Turbulent Times'

Mai'a K. Davis Cross, Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski, eds.
Margarita Balmaceda

Mai'a K. Davis Cross, Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski, eds. European-Russian Power Relations in Turbulent Times. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021. 309 pp. Open access (pdf), ISBN 978-0-472-90253-8; $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-472-13228-7.

Reviewed by Margarita Balmaceda (Seton Hall University) Published on H-Diplo (January, 2022) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

At a time of heightened tensions between the US and Russia, and a time when the role of the United States’ European partners is becoming more and more important in the relationship between the US and Russia, a deep look at the institutional side of European-Russian relations is more than welcome. A new volume edited by a unique transatlantic team (Mai’a K. Davis Cross from Northeastern University and Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski from the University of Leipzig) promises to provide new insights and to set the agenda for productive research on this issue for years to come. European-Russian Power Relations in Turbulent Times is the result of a series of workshops that brought together a dozen specialists on different aspects of Russian-European relations, from a wide array of countries, including the US, Germany, Bulgaria, the United Kingdom, Russia, Norway, and Belgium. While in European states the issues discussed in the book may be the subject of regular analysis by the media and academic publications, for the US public many of the issues covered, such as those related to institutional and policy design within the European Union, are likely to be new, making this collection a refreshing perspective on a relationship often analyzed in most detail in its Russian dimension.

While each of the authors brings his or her own perspective, the introductory chapter by Davis Cross and Karolewski sets the stage by highlighting two themes that are central in the book as a whole. First, they underscore how tensions in the power architecture of the contemporary international system are related to tensions in the Russian-European Union relationship, which they see as “one of the central dynamics behind the emergence of this less stable system” (p. 1). Second, they highlight how Russian power behavior toward the broader Eurasian region has led to key responses—themselves likely to have a longer-term effect—from the EU in terms not only of policy but also of institutional dynamics and competencies within various EU and EU-affiliated organizational bodies.

Further, the book is divided into two broad parts. Part 1 discusses how EU foreign policy has changed as a result of evolving Russian policy (what many may call the “Russian threat”). Part 2 discusses how Russia’s actions toward the West have changed over time, as well as the domestic and international causes for these changes.

The chapters in part 1, although not dealing directly with Russia or Ukraine, show that, as aptly discussed by Marianne Riddervold in her chapter, “Crisis and Cooperation: How the Ukraine Crisis Enabled the EU’s Maritime Foreign and Security Powers,” “external events such as Russia’s actions in Ukraine function as a critical juncture allowing actors with particular interests to suggest and get support for new or different policies” (p. 100). Indeed, this is a good summary of the book’s key focus: how actions by Russia, and their impact on regional issues, have served as triggers or justifications setting in motion quintessential EU bureaucratic politics processes. In a similar vein, “European Military Power,” by Rosella Cappella Zielinski and Kaija Schilde, focusing on European defense cooperation in the period from 1914 to 2018, seeks to explain the unlikely emergence and success of military cooperation institutions, such as the European Defense Community (EDC) and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), after a long period of unevenly successful informal initiatives. As it emerges from their analysis, one of the factors leading to heightened institutionalized cooperation in the form of PESCO was a newly aggressive Russia, especially after 2017. While Russia and relations with Russia are not the central issues of the chapter, which focuses on internal EU dynamics, these dynamics take place within the context of a changing international environment of which the Soviet Union and later Russia have been important elements. But the emphasis is clearly on internal EU (and EU-North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]) dynamics, using an approach that looks deeply at “institutional layering”—of informal and formal, as well as specifically western European, EU, and NATO institutions. While Russia is mentioned only in passing at the start and end of the piece, it remains all-present as a part of the context and motivation for these changes.

Helene Sjursen and Guri Rosén’s chapter, “Arguing Sanctions: The EU Responses to the Crisis in Ukraine,” in addition to explaining why EU states were able to agree on sanctions against Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine, also sheds light on the differences between EU and US policies under the Donald Trump presidency. Even when both engaged in sanctions of one type or another, a key difference was that in the case of EU sanctions, adherence to shared norms—in particular agreement on the fact that “fundamental principles of international law had been breached” by Russia (p. 73)—was key, making it possible for EU states to agree on this, even when the trajectory of their bilateral relationships vis-à-vis Russia had been different at times. To explain this, the authors follow a constructivist approach, paying attention to ideational and normative agreement/disagreement issues.

Part 2 deals with concrete issues in Russian-European relations, including topics concerning Russia’s ontological sense of security (“Confrontation as Ontological Security” by Molly Krasnodębska) and identity as related to foreign policy sensibilities and actions (“Power, Identity and Circumstances” by Vsevolod Samokhvalov). The chapter on southeastern Europe (“The Russian Challenge in Southeast Europe” by Dimitar Bechev) is of special interest, raising multiple issues of great importance but that have remained somewhat neglected in Western consciousness. For example, Russia’s relationship with Serbia is analyzed at a high level of nuance, challenging conventional perceptions of the country as a natural Russian ally. One of the most important contributions of this volume is that it sheds light on the complex intersection of three elements: Russia’s increasingly assertive and perhaps aggressive policies toward Europe and in particular eastern Europe, the intricacies of the EU policymaking system, and the complex EU-US relationship, especially during a great period of challenges, as we saw during the Trump presidency. This third element in particular is analyzed in detail in “Europe-Russia Relations in the Shadow of the Transatlantic Divide” by Karolewski and Davis Cross.

As made clear by the editors in the introduction, this book does not seek to analyze “both sides” of the issue. It is written with a main focus on EU policies and their sources; most chapters—with a few exceptions as noted above—focus on this side as well. Looking at the individual chapters, this is also reflected in the main types of sources used. With the exception of the chapters on southeastern Europe and several articles in Russian quoted in the chapters by Yulia Nikitina and Vsevolod Samokhvalov, the vast majority of the sources quoted come from English-language sources. This is not to be seen as a deficiency but rather as a reflection of the emphasis carried out by most of the chapters: not so much on Russian policies toward EU states or Russian-EU relations per se but on European responses to challenges related to Russia’s international behavior. Even more to the point: on EU institutional responses to these challenges. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that a significant portion of the documentary base used by many of the chapters includes detailed accounts of EU internal decision-making and the path of events and lower-level actions and decisions leading to them.

This book has some positive aspects, as well as areas where some improvement could be made. The main strength of the collection comes in the multifaceted and nuanced approach to the ways EU policies and policymaking issues intersect with issues of relations with Russia. The range of topics dealt with in the individual chapters is impressive; however, this also brings with it the challenge of how to combine these in a single framework and narrative. Among them is the challenge of creating a coherent whole out of a number of separate contributions, written in different institutional and project contexts (some of them as part of the project “Transatlantic Relations in Times of Uncertainty: Drivers and Mechanisms of EU-US Relations” [TransAt], financed by the Norwegian Research Council; one for the EURODIV project of ARENA, Centre for European Studies; some for neither) with different central questions. In the introduction, the editors do an excellent job in developing a theoretical framework that is relevant to and speaks to all the contributions; some of the contributions are preceded by a separate editors’ introduction contextualizing it as part of the larger picture. At the same time, each of the contributions was written with its own aims and goals, not necessarily in sync with those of the others. As a specialist in Ukrainian studies, I have to note that several chapters refer to the so-called Ukraine crisis or crisis in Ukraine rather than to Russian aggression toward Ukraine, which is somewhat misleading, as we are not talking about the crisis within Ukraine but one brought about by Russian aggression and military intervention.

In addition to the detailed case studies, this book carries a broader and deeper message. The message is about how the European Union “contributes to the resilience of the liberal World Order even as this order is tested and undergoes transformation” (p. 3). Even when its role in this liberal order is presented as an important EU contribution, a common thread discussed directly or indirectly by most contributions concerns the limitations of what the authors call the EU’s “reactive policies” (or more specifically “reactive power”) vis-à-vis Russia, possibly in contrast with more proactive policies.

To summarize: European-Russian Power Relations in Turbulent Times offers a fresh view and enlightening insights concerning EU policy processes and the role of Russian actions (and perceptions of these) as enablers and constrainers of these policy processes. Last but not least it is important to note that, in addition to the hard copy edition, the chapters in this book are also accessible in open access electronic format at the publisher’s website, making this book an interesting option for course readings.

Citation: Margarita Balmaceda. Review of Davis Cross, Mai'a K.; Karolewski, Ireneusz Paweł, eds., European-Russian Power Relations in Turbulent Times. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL:

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