EU-Russia relations under strain: what are the causes?

The EU has had increasingly difficult relations with Russia in recent years due to its attacks on Ukraine and democracy and its disinformation campaigns.

 Address by Yulia Navalnaya
Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, addressing the European Parliament in February 2024

Until Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the EU had been working on building a strategic relationship with the country in areas such as the economy, energy, climate change, education and conflict resolution in the Middle East. The EU also strongly supported Russia joining the World Trade Organization.


However, EU-Russia relations have become increasingly strained over the years, not least because of the Kremlin’s consistent attacks on Ukraine’s sovereignty, including its 2014 annexation of Crimea and the full-scale invasion launched in February 2022.

Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is not only an attack on the country’s territorial integrity, but also poses a grave risk to the security and stability of all of Europe. It’s also an attack on the fundamental values the EU stands for such as freedom and democracy.

In March 2022, the EU adopted its Strategic compass for security and defence (PDF), stating that Russia represented “a long-term and direct threat for European security”.

Another source of tension is Russia’s disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks, as well as attempts to interfere in Western democratic processes.

EU sanctions against Russia


After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, EU economic sanctions targeted Russia’s financial, defence and energy sectors. Russia responded with counter-sanctions, banning around half of its agri-food imports from the bloc.


As a direct result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EU has adopted a series of sanctions against the country. These include individual sanctions, economic sanctions and diplomatic measures.

Find out more on how the EU is supporting Ukraine in its struggle against Russia

An Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman walks along a snow covered trench on the frontline with the Russia-backed separatists near Zolote village, in the eastern Lugansk region, on 21 January, 2022
A Ukrainian soldier walks along trenches. Ukraine and Russian-backed forces clashed already before February 2022 ©AFP/Anatolii STEPANOV

Support for Ukraine


Ever since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU and the Parliament have supported the country by condemning Russia’s aggression, sanctioning those responsible and providing financial and material aid.

Parliament has also been supportive of Ukraine’s efforts to become an EU candidate country and has been calling on EU countries to launch accession talks.


Check out our timeline of how the EU and the European Parliament are supporting Ukraine in 2024, how they supported the country in 2023 and how they supported it in 2022.



Alexei Navalny


Having recovered from a near-fatal poisoning in 2020, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained on his return to Russia on 17 January 2021.


In a resolution adopted four days following the arrest, Parliament called for significantly tighter EU sanctions against Russia, as well as for the immediate and unconditional release of Navalny and of all those detained in relation to his return to Moscow.


In December 2021, the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Navalny for his fight against corruption and the Kremlin's abuses of human rights. It was accepted by Daria Navalnaya on behalf of her imprisoned father.


After Navalny’s death was announced in February 2024, prominent MEPs paid tribute to his courage in standing up against the Kremlin’s regime which is silencing any voice of opposition.

His widow Yulia Navalnaya addressed the European Parliament shortly afterwards. She said that the public murder of her husband had once again shown everyone that “Putin is capable of anything and that you cannot negotiate with him”.


Energy


Another aspect of EU-Russia relations is energy. Controversy over the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline highlighted the country’s leverage as the EU’s ’s main energy supplier. In a resolution adopted in January 2021, MEPs called on the EU to immediately stop work on the controversial pipeline, which would link Germany directly to Russia.

Following the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, MEPs called for the EU to boost its energy independence by diversifying energy purchases and investing in renewables. They also demanded a full embargo on Russian imports of oil, coal, nuclear fuel and gas. Subsequent sanctions adopted by the EU included measures such as a ban on imports from Russia of oil and coal and introducing a price cap related to the maritime transport of Russian oil.

Disinformation campaigns


Russia engaged in disinformation campaigns of an unparalleled malice and magnitude in the run-up to and during the war of aggression against Ukraine, proving that even information can be weaponised, pointed out a Parliament resolution adopted in 2022.


Parliament set up a committee to look into foreign interference in all democratic processes in the European Union, including disinformation. MEPs were concerned about the growing incidence and increasingly sophisticated nature of attempts at foreign interference and manipulation of information, mainly by Russia and China. In its final report, the committee came up with a list of recommendations.

To combat war propaganda and disinformation, the EU decided to ban the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and Russia Today shortly after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In a resolution adopted in February 2024, Parliament warned about elected politicians and parties in Europe knowingly serving Moscow’s interests, undermining the EU’s unity and democracy. MEPs expressed concern about Russia providing narratives to far-right parties and actors across the EU in order to subvert support for Ukraine.

EU-Russia relations