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What happens if the EU does not recognize Vladimir Putin?

Viktoria Vlasenko
May 7, 2024

Calls are growing for the EU not to recognize Vladimir Putin as Russia's elected president. But cutting off communications entirely is a bad idea in the long term, experts warn.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking into a microphone
Vladimir Putin was first elected president of Russia in 2000Image: Kremlin.ru via REUTERS

Vladimir Putin was sworn in for the fifth time as president of the Russian Federation in an official ceremony on Tuesday amid criticism from the West. The legality and manner of Putin’s reelection in presidential polls held March 15-17 was slammed by detractors, including EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.

"These elections were based on repressive laws, persecution of political opposition leaders, civil society representatives and journalists — including those opposing Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine," Borrell said in a speech to the European Parliament in April.

"They took place under a flood of disinformation, lack of access to independent media, and a strong propaganda supported by massive public funds, for many years," the European Union's top diplomat continued. "To call that 'elections' is an irony."

Strong words, but do they mean the EU won't officially recognize Putin's presidency?

EU lawmakers push governments to act

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which is not an EU institution, was the first to officially criticize Putin's presidency as illegitimate.

In a non-binding recommendation mid-April, the PACE called on the Council of Europe and EU member states to cease recognizing Putin at the end of his running term as president, and to end all contact with the head of state except when concerning humanitarian matters or peace efforts.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell gestures as he speaks into a microphone
Josep Borrell was quick to condemn the March presidential pollsImage: Alexandros Michailidis/European Union

A week later, the European Parliament voted to approve a similar position. The resolution urged EU member states and the international community "not to recognize the outcome of the Russian presidential election as legitimate" and to "limit relations with Putin to matters necessary for regional peace as well as humanitarian and human rights purposes."

Like the PACE statement, the European Parliament resolution is non-binding. In the EU, all 27 member states unanimously decide on their joint foreign policy.

But it does hold some sway, as Ionela Maria Ciolan, a European foreign policy expert at the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, told DW. "It has a strong symbolic and indirect impact, as it acts as a recommendation to the [member states] and sends a message to governments across Europe that parties across the political spectrum support this view."

President or 'power holder?'

In international relations, there is no clear procedure for declaring the head of a foreign state illegitimate. All it takes would be an official state proclamation. Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that no state had taken the plunge so far.

"No one has called it out not to recognise him, to withdraw ambassadors from Moscow," he said.

Putin: Russia's eternal president?

So far, only Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has congratulated Putin for his supposed electoral victory — a move which the European Parliament criticized sharply in its resolution. Orban "chose to break ranks with the EU," lawmakers charged in the statement.

Gressel surmised that Putin could technically be referred to as a "power holder," much like Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. But the expert also believed EU governments would have to keep talking to Moscow. "For one reason or the other, they will liaise with this government," he said.

'EU cannot pick who to do business with'

Roger Hilton of GLOBSEC, a think tank with headquarters in Slovakia, sees things similarly. "Everyone can agree that Putin is a despicable individual whose legitimacy as Russian president is rooted in corruption and fraud. Nonetheless, the EU cannot selectively pick who they do business with," he said

"Any decision to not recognize Putin would significantly hamper Brussel's ability to negotiate and advance Ukrainian security as well as stability for the continent," he added, arguing that the EU should instead condemn Putin’s action in Ukraine and remind the world that the vote was not legitimate, but not sever bureaucratic ties with Moscow altogether.

This article was adapted from the original Russian.