Ukraine: A Make or Break Moment for Europe

April 17, 2014

When plotting the way forward on European security, it is sensible to consider European perspectives. Unfortunately, many American analysts, including WOTR’s Ryan Evans, have overlooked them in response to recent events in Ukraine. It is however particularly important in this context, because the situation provides an opportunity for Europeans to rise up to the challenge and be more responsible about taking their security into their own hands. It requires the “Big Three” (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) to understand that it is up to them to convince their partners that European security is a European core task. To do so, they need to appreciate and act upon the fact that in-area concerns are as central to European security as out-of-area ones.

The crisis in Ukraine has multifaceted consequences for Europe. First, it will bear consequences on how the Europeans approach their relationship with their Eastern neighborhood. Second, it could provide an opportunity to tailor a more common position on Russia. Last, it sparks a strategic debate over what the Europeans are willing to do to defend their territory.

Ukraine: the tip of the iceberg

Ukraine represents the lynchpin for a broader question of how the Europeans approach their Eastern neighborhood. Can Ukraine simply be a bargaining chip in a deal between the United States and Russia? As Evans and others suggest, such a compromise could involve endorsing Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli or having NATO promise not to incorporate Ukraine as a way to reassure Russia. From a European perspective, this would be inappropriate. Such a deal would condone Russia’s actions and would be too favorable to Moscow’s interests. Besides, it would not preclude future Russian meddling in Ukraine. There would be no enforcement mechanism. Third, it would be mistaken to restrict Europe’s options while Russia has not hesitated to act in an unrestricted manner, having already violated several international agreements and treaties. Lastly, it would send a dreadful signal to Europe’s eastern neighbors, especially Georgia and Moldova: Do not think of getting too close to us, because if Russia disapproves, we will let you down.

What Europe does in the short term on Ukraine will indeed bear consequences on its positions vis-à-vis its eastern partners. Today, Europe is faced with a choice. It can either stay away from that region to avoid a potential escalation with Russia or it can assert its willingness to strengthen political and economic cooperation. So far, the economic dimension has dominated. The Association Agreement negotiated with Ukraine and other countries is primarily trade-oriented. The core of the agreement is a comprehensive free trade deal. The political dimension has gone amiss, mostly because of sensitivities regarding Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow has never approached its relations with Ukraine or other neighbors as anything but political and strategic.

While Ukraine is not ready to join either NATO or the EU, a deal that would close the door to future expansion would be far more costly to the West than to Russia. It would imply that Europe is fearful of Russia’s reactions and that Russia will always outsmart Europe at geopolitics. Ukraine is right at the core of this nexus and it is not in Europe’s interests to give away Ukraine simply because Russia would prefer it that way.

Russia: neither divisive nor uniting

The situation presents an opportunity to question of the best way forward for Europe’s relations with Russia. Yet Europe remains by and large divided into two camps. On the one hand, some countries – especially in the Nordic and Baltic regions as well as some of the Višegrad countries – are leery of Russia. Their position is driven by political, almost emotional, and sometimes even physical, concerns rooted in history. The past few weeks have offered plenty of evidence that normalizing relations with Russia did not eliminate reasons to be suspicious of their Eastern neighbor.

On the other hand, some countries have vested economic interests with Moscow and do not want to jeopardize this relationship in the long term. The “Big Three” and Italy would fall in this category. They denounce Russia’s actions in Crimea, but they realize that severing ties could cause damage. This does not mean that these countries will simply go back to business as usual, but they are looking for an alternative road.

The divisions among Europeans are visible at NATO. The awkward phrasing of the last ministerial meeting declaration is evidence of that: the declaration called for a suspension of all “practical civilian and military cooperation” but said that the “political dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council can continue, as necessary, at the Ambassadorial level and above.” NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen may have said that the situation was “a game-changer,” but this is neither a reality today nor a certainty in the future.

Within the EU, member states also seem to be singing different tunes. However, there are indications that the European member states are willing to stand more united in their relationship with Russia. They want to reduce their energy dependency and strengthen their security of supply. Steps had already been taken in that field after previous energy crises, but the situation has reignited the urgency of accelerating the process. They have also decided that the European Commission, as a representative of all member states, will reply to Vladimir Putin’s letter sent to 18 countries, 13 of which are EU members. On the future of the eastern partnership, the EU is not backing away from deepening ties with Georgia and Moldova, to the contrary – an indication that Moscow’s behavior in Ukraine has not acted as a scarecrow.

Overall, the relationship with Russia does not split the Europeans as much as some could have expected it to – the result of an adjustment in the positions of both camps. It has certainly increased everyone’s wariness toward Russia, something previously less palpable in Western Europe, but there is still little appetite to adopt a common tough line on Russia. In today’s geopolitical context, it would seem quite odd anyway that Russia becomes the threat that unites the Europeans.

Reassurance: a European mission

Russia’s actions have forced a debate on European security, especially with respect to the importance of offering reassurance to EU and NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe. For several countries, the United States is still the guarantor of European security, and the United States supports this idea, rhetorically and with action. The United States quickly acceded to the Baltic and Polish request to reinforce its presence within NATO’s Baltic Air Policing operation. Vice President Joe Biden embarked on a “reassurance tour” in the region and every U.S. official speaking on the topic has made a point to mention the American commitment to Article V. In contrast, the “Big Three” have been slower to react, although they eventually all sent a minister to the Baltic countries and agreed to beef up their presence in the east.

The recent events in Ukraine may have profound consequences for Europe’s thinking on the balance between out-of-area and in-area focus. A shift in military postures back to territorial defense is ill-conceived. The vast majority of military operations will remain expeditionary; but it would be equally inappropriate to ignore the events of the past weeks. The United States needs to appreciate all angles in this matter. Responding quickly to the Baltic call for help was laudable, but it does not coincide with the kind of message that the United States wants to send to the Europeans – that Europe should assume a larger burden for its own defense. To the contrary, it reinforces Europe in the belief that America is really the only ally that counts. If Washington wants the Europeans to understand that its involvement in Europe also requires the Europeans to take up responsibilities, then it should have pushed and waited for the “Big Three” to act. It would have been a bold move, but also a wake-up call.

The past few weeks could in fact pave the way for a European solution to European security. France and the UK are unlikely to give up their capacity to use their armed forces abroad, but they will increasingly need to build coalitions of the willing. In several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia remains perceived as a threat to the integrity of their territory or that of their neighbors. These countries know that they need allies to ensure their security. Here lies a potential trade-off. If France and the UK want to rely on their eastern neighbors – both to support their military endeavors and to play a stronger role in European security – they will need to be a lot more forthcoming in offering reassurance to them, which implies sustained efforts and commitments, not only short-term support. Germany may also be interested in playing that role as a way to show that it wants to be more involved in Europe’s security. In return, their neighbors will want to be reliable partners and will likely be more inclined to offer troops and logistical support to far-away operations where their interests are limited. The significant Estonian participation to the EU’s operation in the Central African Republic is evidence of that. This trade-off could also help make the case in some countries to reinvest in defense.

So far, this trade-off was largely agreed to by the United States and Central and Eastern European countries – hence their contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance – but the economic crisis had been weakening the potency of the reciprocal commitment. Yet the perspective of the crisis winding down should reopen the debate about this trade-off and who the main players are. If America wants Europe to take its security into its own hands, it will have to commit to participate only as a last resort or in support of European efforts. That will not be easy: despite all the rhetoric, it is not America’s reflex not to be in the lead.


Vivien Pertusot is Head of Office in Brussels for the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri). Follow him on Twitter at @VPertusot.