From Brussels with love? The European Union in conflict with Russia

This is the fourth in a series of posts from members of the Defence Studies Department’s Regional Security Research Centre, focusing on Russia and the implications of its increasingly assertive posture on the international stage. This post examines the implications of the crisis in Ukraine for EU-Russian relations. Later posts will explore implications for conventional arms control and for British defence policy.


A year ago demonstrations on the independence square of Ukraine’s capital Kiev in support of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement – the so-called Euromaidan protests– reached their climax, when the then Ukrainian President Yanukovych fled the city and new elections were called for May 2014. At first, it seemed as if the pro-European protests succeeded and led to a political solution that would bring about Ukraine’s closer integration into the European Union (EU)’s sphere of influence. However, this was a solution Russia and the strong pro-Russian forces in Ukrainian society could hardly tolerate. In the following months, the unfolding events in Ukraine led to very different outcomes: the radicalization of pro-European and pro-Russian forces in the country, the outbreak of armed conflict in Ukraine’s pro-Russian Eastern regions and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Now after one year on a political roller-coaster ride, it is timely to reflect on the broader long-term implications of the confrontations in Ukraine.

In many respects, the events in Ukraine were merely a reflection of a broader conflict between the EU and Russia in their overlapping spheres of influence. For many avid observers of EU foreign and security policies this is certainly a mind-boggling assertion to make. The EU – this soft-power paper-tiger from Venus – at the heart of a geopolitical conflict in the 21st century? Really? Well, nobody claims that the conflict with Russia over Ukraine has suddenly turned the EU into a geopolitical actor playing great power games. But the conflict does tell us important lessons about the nature of the beast, that is the EU as a peculiar foreign policy actor with both inherent strengths and shortcomings. More specifically, the conflict with Russia has revealed key characteristics of internal foreign policy-making within the EU and of the external relations between the EU and its neighbouring countries.

Internally, the conflict with Russia over Ukraine has – first and foremost – re-enforced the classical call for more unity among EU member states in its foreign policy. In the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Ukraine is ‘a clear example of where it is right for the nations of the EU to work closely together.’ And against all odds, unity among the 28 members of the EU has been maintained to a large extent during the last year. Although dissenting voices from Hungary and to a lesser extent from Greece and Austria remain, the EU has been able to implement a common two-tier approach based on economic sanctions against Russia and the willingness to find a diplomatic solution based on a political agreement with Russia. As in the case of the EU’s Iran policy, European unity has been particularly important in the case of the sanctions, where individual outliers would undermine the efforts by all the others. The EU has also withstood pressure from a more hawkish US administration to support the Ukrainian government with arms in its fight against pro-Russian rebels. The Europeans are clearly unwilling to turn the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine into a proxy war between the US and Russia on Europe’s doorsteps. Not surprisingly, the EU’s Russia policy scored very high on the annual scorecard of the European Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think tank based in London and other European cities. It concluded that ‘[o]verall, Europeans were united and invested significant resources on the most critical issues of the year.’ However, European unity does not mean that common European institutions – in particular the European External Action Service, the EU’s quasi foreign office – have been in the lead. Once more as in the case of Iran, it has been a small group of important member states – France, Germany and, to a lesser extent, Poland, Ukraine’s Western neighbour – that have been at the forefront of European efforts to deal with Russia and the conflict in Ukraine. Most recently, it were France and Germany that negotiated the so-called Minsk II agreement with Ukraine and Russia to stop the ongoing fighting in Eastern Ukraine.

Externally, the EU as a peculiar kind of external actor had to face some hard realities in its conflict with Russia over Ukraine. Most notably, its policies of expanding the European zone of peace and prosperity to its neighbourhood, in particular the neighbourhood it shares with Russia, has reached its limits. Although both the Eastern enlargement of the EU and the subsequent European neighbourhood policies are generally seen as successful examples of how countries in transition to liberal democracy can be stabilized, the EU has underestimated how these policies – together with NATO enlargement – have antagonized Russian elites who consider many of these democratizing countries as areas of special influence. In other words, the EU – and its member states for that matter – have disregarded the geopolitical, realpolitik angle to its enlargement and neighbourhood policies. Through specific measures such as the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement the EU has not only acted as an altruistic ‘force for good’ to promote democracy and stability but also as an actor that – at least in the eyes of Russia – is expanding its influence deep into the heart of Russia’s ‘near abroad’ in order to foster its own economic and commercial interests. The problem for the EU is that any hardball confrontation with Russia in their shared neighbourhood may have dire consequences, as many national economies in the EU have strong commercial ties with Russia. On the one hand, this may prevent the escalation of the conflict between the EU and Russia, but on the other hand it also ties the EU’s hands when dealing with Russian rogue policies. As Stuart Gottlieb and Eric Lorber have pointed out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, this ‘creates a paradox. Greater interdependence might, in fact, reduce the likelihood of conflict between nations or groups of nations. After all, it increases the cost of conflict for all of them. However, as the EU-Russian case shows, the logic can also work in reverse. It is incredibly difficult to punish economic partners for international aggression’. In short, the EU is caught in a general dilemma between promoting democracy, prosperity and stability through increasing interdependence and the need to keep its ability to react in a forceful way if a partner country such as Russia encroaches on its core interests and values.

There is no easy way out of this dilemma. We will certainly see more muddling through based on sanctions against Russia and the willingness to negotiate some sort of compromise between the EU and Russia, which will ultimately not only have to deal with the specific case of Ukraine but also the wider area of dispute comprising countries as diverse as Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and even Azerbaijan.

Image:  Pro-European demonstrators in Kiev, November 2013. “Euromaidan 01” by Evgeny Feldman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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