The West Awaits – Why the EU cannot Respond to Russian Aggression

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and occupation of Crimea has been identified by several European foreign ministers in the last 36 hours as the gravest threat to European security in 20 years, certainly since the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union. That was a collapse, it should be noted, that Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously called a ‘tragedy’. The question now facing those self-same European ministers is precisely how to deal with this threat.

Overall, European policy towards Russia has been one of accommodation, dialogue and partnership. While Russian’s have fretted about being treated as if they were just another country – instead of the global superpower they once were and aspire to become again – the process was well bedded down. Europeans tempered their delicate feelings on the quality of Russia’s ‘sovereign’ democracy, on human rights abuses and on obnoxious anti-gay legislation while at the same time ridiculing the behaviour of Russian oligarchs and Putin’s hyper-macho posturing. For their part, Russians demanded special treatment (and sometimes got it), criticised European decadence and parlayed resource wealth into an effective, if blunt, foreign policy tool. On the face of it, the bones of an evolving relationship could be identified – even echoing Mikhail Gorbachev’s late 20th century call for a common European home. That ambition is now dead in the water.

What European governments now have to face is a powerful military actor with the capacity and the will to disregard any and every norm of 21st century diplomacy in pursuit of its own geostrategic interest. The government of Vladimir Putin sees the world only in a binary context: there is ‘us and those we control’ against ‘them and those that we seek to control’. ‘Partnership’ is clearly not within this lexicon. European governments are poorly equipped to deal with such an actor. Immersed in a culture of rules, norms and law they have created for themselves a neo-Kantian island of perpetual peace. Moreover, while the European Union and its member states excel at the use of soft power – with the Euromaidan in Kiev’s independence square a pre-eminent case study – they largely fumble (collectively) when deploying hard power, either economic or military.

The EU ministerial meeting of 3 March 2014 exemplifies the point. Meeting 36 hours (!) after the event (the UN, OSCE and NATO had all managed to meet in the interim), EU ministers offered stout condemnations, time for Putin to reconsider and demands for ‘de-escalation’ and a return to the status quo ante. In the absence of de-escalation, ministers insisted that consideration would then be given to considering implications for bilateral relations, mentioning,en passant, the long-demanded visa-free travel regime sought by Moscow.

Simultaneously, the President of the European Council scheduled an emergency meeting of EU Heads of State and Government for three days later, March 6. The battle-plan, such as it was, assumed either that Putin responded in the face of (vague) European resolve or that the situation was stalemated or deteriorated, thus demanding political decisions at the highest level of the Union.

On the positive side, the Union’s policy quiver has plenty of arrows; from cancelling defence contracts (painful to France), hitting Russia’s access to financial services/banking (painful to UK) and hitting Russia’s energy deals with Europe (painful to Germany). Doubtless, a menu can be constructed in archetypal EU style which spreads the pain as widely and as precisely as possible.

What is not at all clear is whether the Union will have the stomach to follow through. Member states span a spectrum between those that advocate a strong and resolved opposition to Russian adventurism and those that insist that a more accommodating diplomatic approach will deliver results. Doubtless the arguments of the former are ringing more loudly that those of the latter but consensus is the name of the European game and consensus tends to deliver lowest common denominator politics. Meanwhile the OSCE, NATO and UN are centre-stage – even as the US marshals its own ambivalence towards Russia. The EU has a critical role to play, but the fear has to be that with a weak script and a poor performance the Union’s failure will contribute to a tragedy – again.


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