Can Europe Make It?

Ukraine, the west, and the issue of strategic thinking

Despite many weeks and months having passed since protests erupted in Ukraine in late November 2013, the west has continued to act like a passive and awe-struck bystander.

Tobias Schumacher
5 March 2014

Developments in Ukraine follow in quick succession. Russia continues to flex its muscles by threatening to send even more troops across the Strait of Kerch, the small channel between Crimea and southern Russia, and by considering a take-over of Ukrainian military and naval bases. The west seems overwhelmed by Russia’s de facto annexation of the Crimean peninsula and by considerations in the Kremlin to also intervene in eastern Ukraine. This is surprising and reveals a serious absence of strategic thinking in western capitals and Brussels alike.

The longer protests in Kiev and other cities of Ukraine persisted and the more it became palpable that Yanukovych’s regime had lost the little legitimacy it still possessed, the more logical it would have been for western powers to draft contingency plans for post-Yanukovych times: plans that could be pulled out of the drawer the moment a reform-minded, pro-democratic interim government emerged; plans outlining the size, scope and conditions of immediate and coordinated aid and the financial rescue packages destined to prevent Ukraine from defaulting; but also plans that would go beyond budgetary and socio-economic issues and prepare for, Russia’s responses to the fall of a regime useful to them.

As recent days have brought visibly to the fore, no such plans were elaborated in foreign ministries in Europe and the US, or in the European Commission and European External Action Service (EEAS). Despite many weeks and months having passed since protests erupted in Ukraine in late November 2013, the west has continued to act like a passive and awe-struck bystander that simply waited for developments to unfold on the Maidan and in the streets of Kiev. There was a temporary end to this passivity when the foreign ministers of the Weimar Triangle negotiated with Yanukovych and the opposition a short-lived agreement to end the political stalemate in Ukraine. But they blatantly ignored the potential fallout from such an agreement and, in fact, the impact on stability in the Ukraine and its relations with Russia to be generated by any transfer of power outside existing constitutional parameters. One example in this regard is the highly premature adoption by the Ukrainian parliament of the abolition of a law allowing Russian to be used as a second official language. It was only thanks to interim President Turchynow that this law did not enter into force. But, in any case, the move was sufficient for the Kremlin to unleash its propaganda machine and to claim that the rights of Ukraine-based Russian residents were severely endangered.

As Russia continues with its military build-up and has been moving fast to create facts on the ground, it is now high time for western decision-makers and, in fact, the entire international community to abandon their passivity and go beyond mere rhetoric. The decision by the US and others to suspend their participation in the upcoming Sochi summit of the G-8, the presidency of which is currently held by Russia, is a first step in this direction. So is the meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on March 3, 2014 and of the NATO Council just one day later. Yet, bickering among the EU-28 over whether or not sanctions should be imposed on Russia, and an international contact group or an OSCE monitoring mission, or both, set up, in conjunction with US President Obama’s implicit and unfortunate reference to red lines, demonstrate all too visibly not only that there is no consensus on what could constitute the most adequate response, but also a western tendency to play for time.

However, this is an extremely dangerous game. Not only does the west risk loss of relevance in the management of global affairs and the upholding of the norms and principles it claims to represent. What is more, any failure in coming up with a coordinated, unequivocal and yet nuanced set of responses to the Kremlin’s unlawful actions, will be interpreted by Russia as a carte blanche to infringe further on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Moreover, the need for Moscow to understand that there will be severe consequences is all the more acute in view of the ambitions of other post-Soviet states, such as Moldova and Georgia, to sign association agreements with the EU – agreements that are, after all, almost identical to the one offered to Ukraine and that are bound to weaken the links economically and politically that both countries have with Russia.

Such a response should be based on two pillars. The first pillar should revolve around the instant enactment of a catalogue of sanctioning measures ranging from travel bans, targeted sanctions and the asset freezing of Russian officials (for example under the 2012 US Magnitsky Act), to a suspension of weapons deliveries, and a suspension by the EU of talks on visa liberalization and trade, and further to Russia’s expulsion from the G-8 and the Council of Europe. In contrast, the second pillar should rest on a concerted effort mainly by the EU and the governments of its 28 member states to make Putin understand that invading Crimea and possibly parts of eastern Ukraine is also economically counterproductive and has, in fact, the potential to undermine regime durability in Russia itself.  

The 12% slump in the Russian Stock Exchange on March 3, 2014, in conjunction with the fall of the Russian Rouble to the lowest level against the Euro, and Gazprom’s losses of 12 bio. EUR in one single day as a result of the plunge in share prices, are just the first harbingers of even greater financial and economic problems that Russia is likely to encounter should it continue to perpetuate, the logics of aggression and escalation.

In this light, the west would do well to remember, and remind Putin, that even though Europe and thus the EU are in an interdependent relationship, in particular as far as energy is concerned, this interdependence is asymmetric to the disadvantage of Russia. Even though roughly one third of total EU energy supplies come from Russia, guaranteed and secured access to EU member states’ markets is of vital importance to Russia, given that they absorb ca. 80% of total Russian gas and oil exports.

Considering that oil and gas revenues account for more than 50% of Russian federal budget revenues, it becomes obvious that Putin cannot afford under any circumstances to manoeuver Russia into a situation where these revenues are jeopardized. This is even more the case when it is taken into account that one of the major reasons explaining political stability in Russia is simply that Putin has managed to keep unemployment low and to ensure an improvement of living standards. However, the moment his regime was no longer able to uphold its part of this social contract, Putin would come under heavy domestic pressure and rapidly lose legitimacy.

Undoubtedly, this is a scenario of which he and his clique are truly afraid. It is probably the only one. Whether or not the west is truly aware of this dynamic and how it could be exploited in the context of the current crisis, given the rather large catalogue of sanctions that it has, in fact, at its disposal is, however, questionable. This is highly unfortunate, and it may even turn out to be tragic, given that Mr. Putin is highly susceptible to the language of power.

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