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Ukraine: Europe in turmoil?

Image credit: Sharon Drummond

Image credit: Sharon Drummond

Given the push for freedom in Ukraine – a European country on the European Union’s (EU) eastern frontier – and the ongoing debate about the nature of European-Russian relations, European Geostrategy’s Senior Editors have launched a new ‘standpoints series’. These will be regular articles covering particularly sensitive or controversial topics in an argumentative way. This month, we deal with the Ukrainian crisis and the wider issue of the EU’s relations with Russia.

1. The European Union and Russia should work together to re-establish ‘stability’ in Ukraine

Hardly possible. It has become cliché to say that Ukraine is a divided country, with a ‘European’ west and a ‘Russian’ east. Notwithstanding the existence of ‘Western pockets’ in the east and ‘Russian pockets’ in the west, this picture is broadly correct. And it underscores the point that a country’s domestic political realities often come to reflect the geopolitical interests of powerful external actors. This does not, however, mean that Russian and European interests are equally legitimate. For there is a fundamental difference in the way the ‘two Ukraines’ behave and relate to their respective European and Russian ‘referents’. This difference is largely explained by the fact that part of Ukraine is pushing democratically towards Europe, while the other part is being pulled autocratically by Russia.

This stipulation is not trivial: firstly, it means that any EU attempt to work with Russia will only inflate Moscow’s legitimacy as an supra-European power, which is undesirable from either a Ukrainian or European standpoint; secondly, it means that the current wave of Ukrainian instability is a manifestation of clashing European and Russian political visions. There is no middle ground ideologically, just as there is no middle ground geopolitically. The ‘middle ground’ is intolerable: buffer-state status, which would turn Ukraine into a perpetual and chaotic battleground.

2. The European Neighbourhood is a shared space

Certainly not. The European Neighbourhood is a decisively European geopolitical construct. It emerged under the European Commission’s ‘Proximity Policy’ in 2002, and it initially included Russia. Moscow, however, pulled out – a clear sign that Mr. Putin rejected the vision of a rules-based open and liberal order in Europe and its neighbourhood and instead saw Russia as leading an alternative geopolitical order.

Russia seeks to create its own sphere of influence beyond its south-western border, including Ukraine, Belarus and the Caucasus. Mr. Putin seeks to fill these spaces with stooges and crony regimes that he can indirectly rule, thus cementing his country’s declining power for a few more years. Consequently, the Kremlin is enacting a geopolitical strategy of ‘anti-access’. This runs diametrically counter to the EU’s approach, which is to create a ‘ring of friends’ on its eastern flank; that is to say, well-governed countries, locked progressively into the European single market and values system. The two geostrategies cannot be reconciled; one can only overpower the other.

3. Ukraine shows why European foreign and security policy will always fail

Not necessarily. It is true that the EU has failed abysmally in Ukraine. But this is largely because for the past fifteen years many in Europe have clinged to the illusion that an autocratic Russia can be the EU’s partner. This has led a majority of Member States to either advocate or accept an accommodationist EU policy towards Russia. In a way, Washington’s continued engagement in Eastern Europe acted as a sort of insurance against the EU’s shortcomings. But as the US becomes more insular – and turns its attention away from Europe – and Russia becomes increasingly assertive in the east, Europeans must confront a new set of geopolitical realities. The fact that countries like Poland, Sweden and the Baltic states are more and more vocal about the need for a pro-active EU agenda in the Eastern Neighbourhood is a positive sign. But if it is to lead anywhere it is imperative that the bigger Member States – especially Germany and the United Kingdom – reconcile their remaining differences and put real weight behind them. In this regard, recent efforts by Berlin, London, Paris and Warsaw in bringing about a political deal in Ukraine are encouraging. However, such deal still remains fragile. Only pro-active European engagement can help sustain it.

4. The European Union should rethink its Russia policy

Absolutely! Even though a deal seems to have been brokered in Ukraine, an autocratic Russia is never going to be a proper EU partner. Moscow is testing European strategic resolve, trying to fill every crack and crevice it can, from Georgia to Moldova and onto Syria and Ukraine. Europeans must understand that in this new geopolitical struggle – and it is a geopolitical struggle – the future of European integration is on the line: failure in Ukraine today may embolden Moscow to stir up trouble within the EU homeland tomorrow. Thus, any Russian attempt to re-establish European bipolarity must be rendered bunk. Yes, this may mean dirty work – i.e. the dark arts of geostrategy – but if Europeans still believe in their values and interests, and in the wider integrationist project, they will do anything to protect them, not least in Ukraine. The EU must counter Russia by pushing back with greater resolve, carefully bringing to bear its full political strength to ensure that the continent remains locked under a unipolar liberal order.

Vol. 6, No. 14 (2014)

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