The current political and economic crisis in Ukraine began at a time of limited US interest in the post-Soviet space (in view of the strategic pivot to Asia) and of a deep, structural European crisis also affecting EU global and regional policies, including the rather limited political interest in and financial support available for the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy. Under those unfavorable circumstances, the EU decided at the Vilnius Summit (November 2013) to make a rather half-hearted attempt to draw Ukraine – a country heavily indebted and highly dependent on Russian energy – closer to a European orbit. This European initiative obviously underestimated the perceived importance in Russian eyes of a friendly or, at worst, neutral Ukraine – long seen as a buffer state of substantial strategic importance to Russia- and a country where no vital European or American interests were at stake; now, of course, Western credibility is on the line. Ignoring the fact that Putin had a strong motive, the means and, now, the opportunity to react strongly to European overtures towards Ukraine has been a fundamental mistake at the strategic level.
Criticizing the West’s management of the crisis should not be perceived as an attempt to exonerate Russia. Despite the fact that there were miscalculations on both sides in the conflict, it is clear that Russia has violated a cardinal rule of international politics, namely that borders should not be changed by force. Such revisionist behavior is the cause of insecurity amongst neighboring European countries that have a difficult historical relationship with Russia. Although the prospect of Russian military aggression (including what Wolfgang Ischinger calls “just-below-Article 5” scenarios) against the Baltic states, let alone Poland, appears quite unlikely, such concerns need of course to be addressed in the context of a supranational union such as the EU or a military alliance such as NATO. The temptation may be strong for the latter to find a new raison d’etre, but it would be a grave strategic mistake to return to a role NATO knows well how to play, but that may not be well suited for the security challenges of the twenty-first century. NATO remains a key institution for European and, indeed, global security and should not spend its ‘limited’ resources in a Cold War with Russia before exhausting every other reasonable alternative.
The cost of the imposed sanctions will not be negligible for the EU, which is still trying to exit from its own deep economic crisis. Energy (inter)dependence is a condition that cannot be changed in the short-term. The additional political cost involved concern the ‘expedited’ rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing and the complications in managing the Syrian conflict or the Iranian nuclear programme with Russia playing spoiler. Of course, the cost of any confrontation with the West would not be low for Russia either, as its economy is vulnerable to international capital transfers, it needs substantial foreign investment to modernize its energy infrastructure, and remains heavily dependent on the export of energy products and could, thus, not afford the ‘loss’ of the European market. In addition, subsidizing Crimea may perhaps be affordable for Moscow but it will not be cheap.
As continued instability and even further escalation cannot be ruled out, it is of critical importance that the West tries to put a lid on the crisis through a set of proposals that would allow both sides to agree to a permanent ceasefire and to save face (especially for Russia that consideration is of greater relevance). Such proposals would concurrently engage Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US in a diplomatic exercise with the objective of building confidence, repairing the damage to the European security architecture and preparing a roadmap for the reconstruction of a strategic partnership between the EU and Russia (provided, of course, that Moscow is also thinking along the same lines). Such a partnership should also include a number of clear red lines.
Would Russia react positively to such an opening? As already mentioned, despite early gains, Vladimir Putin is beginning to realize that the long-term costs of his Ukrainian ‘adventure’ will be quite high for his country, since he has been forced to push Russia deeper into China’s embrace through an energy deal that will eventually make Moscow the junior partner in that relationship. The annexation of Crimea and the so-called “Putin Doctrine” have caused concern in former Soviet states with large Russian populations in their territory, are hurting the Russian economy and Russia is probably about to ‘lose’ permanently most of Ukraine. Putin’s miscalculation and the fact that he has limited room for maneuver, having backed himself to a corner, make this an even more serious challenge for European security.
An escalation of the crisis would leave both the EU and Russia weakened. The cost for Russia would probably be heavier (especially in a period of falling oil prices), but it may be willing to pay such a price for what it perceives as a core interest. It is therefore urgent that EU member states reach an agreement on a common position vis-à-vis Russia. It is also imperative that the EU tries to convince Russia to gradually abandon zero sum game perceptions and adopt a win-win approach by emphasizing common interests and, if possible, seek a success story (such as the resumption of talks on Syria and agreement on a diplomatic solution that would also address the ISIS problem).
Should Moscow demonstrate the necessary good will and cooler heads prevail in the West, the Ukrainian issue could be resolved with a federal system that would provide reasonable autonomy to the Russian-speaking regions. Crimea is a thorny issue. It will probably remain a frozen conflict, not recognized by the international community. The issue, however, is of wider importance because a number of analysts argue that it could potentially become an example for leaders in other regions that the Western order is weak and that they should wait for the right moment to promote their interests by force if necessary. Therefore, even if Putin cannot afford to look weak in the Ukraine crisis (and let the pro-Russian insurgents – also a useful lever to apply pressure – be defeated militarily), neither can the West appear as appeasing Russia. This rather limited room for maneuver on both sides makes efforts to find a solution more difficult but not impossible. However, as demonstrated by the rhetoric of senior Russian and European officials and academics in a conference organized in late January by ELIAMEP, with the support of NATOS’s Division for Public Diplomacy, the two sides are probably not yet ready for a constructive dialogue. The new Greek government, apparently willing to play a more energetic, constructive and moderating role in the context of the EU-Russia crisis, could play the role of a complementary bridge.
It is of vital importance that Europe avoids an unnecessary confrontation and rivalry with Russia that might consume a significant amount of the EU’s finite foreign policy and security resources. Such resources could be used in a more efficient way in dealing with other urgent security challenges in Europe’s neighborhood. Of course, the avoidance of such a confrontation cannot be achieved by appeasing Russia but through a combination of containment and engagement. And in order to normalize relations, it always takes two to tango.