European Union

European dilemma

Print edition : April 27, 2018

British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson with U.K. troops of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence battle group at the military base in Tapa, Estonia, on March 25. Photo: Janis Laizans/REUTERS

Tensions between Russia and the West have ratcheted up swiftly since the Ukraine crisis of 2014, but the seeds for the discord may have been sown earlier with the E.U.’s and NATO’s deliberate expansion into eastern Europe, including former Soviet states.

“If you want an example of E.U. [European Union] foreign policymaking on the hoof and of the E.U.’s pretensions to running a defence policy that have caused real trouble, then look at what has happened in Ukraine.” These words, spoken in May 2016, came from a perhaps rather surprising source: Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary (then an MP and the former Mayor of London). Having once laid the blame for the Ukrainian crisis and standoff with Russia at the E.U.’s door, he in March 2018 drew parallels between the FIFA World Cup in Russia and the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin when it came to “glorying” the national leader. The latter comment drew much criticism domestically and in Russia (its ambassador in the U.K. pointed out the abhorrence of the comparison given the fact that Russia lost over 25 million people battling the Nazis). The former comment, made as part of Johnson’s efforts to convince Britons to leave the E.U., was mostly brushed off in the U.K.. But it reflected a wider sense of unease about the role E.U.’s foreign policy had played in the escalation of the crisis and against the simplified picture of Russia’s role in it, which has become prevalent in the West.

To visitors to Ukraine in the years before the start of the civil war in 2014 (including this author), the tensions in society would have been apparent. This was perhaps inevitable for a naturally wealthy country—both agriculturally and in terms of mineral resources—that found itself caught up in conflict after conflict over the centuries, often being passed from power to power, whether Russia, Romania or Poland. Unsurprisingly, sentiments towards former neighbours and occupiers differed widely across Ukraine, reflecting the hugely divergent sense of self-identity, history and aspirations for the future direction of the country.

A snippet: “The Nazis gave our children chocolates but the Soviets killed them,” declared a young taxi driver back in 2011 in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, seemingly oblivious to the well-documented war crimes the German army committed during the Second World War occupation. Eight to 10 million Ukrainians are estimated to have died then. There was deep-seated hatred of Moscow and all things Soviet in the west of the country. Things could not have been more different further south in the port city of Sevastopol, where Russia’s white, blue and red flag adorned many buildings and cars and where people spoke of their hope that the city or country would once again be part of Russia.

With political systems weakened by long years of neglect and division, Europe’s overtures to Ukraine before 2014 were like water on an oil fire—a long shot from the simple black-and-white picture built up across the West in the years that followed the 2014 conflict.

The idea of an E.U.-Ukraine association agreement can be traced back to 2008, when European states, led by Poland and Sweden, pushed for the idea of an “eastern partnership” with former Soviet states, including Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Armenia. Over the years the prospects of an E.U.-Ukraine agreement rose and fell amid political upheaval in the country (including over Western concerns around the detention of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko) and the political inclinations of the nation’s head. However, efforts gathered pace in 2012 amid concessions from the Ukrainian side. Things came to a head in November 2013, when the then President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign the agreement—calling instead for further support and funding. His refusal triggered the “Euromaidan” protests; unrest in Crimea, in the southern-most part of the country; and Crimea’s eventual annexation by Russia. Russia had long made known its concerns around the E.U.’s overtures to Ukraine, particularly given its own eagerness to continue to foster a “Eurasian union”, building on existing links between former Soviet states (Belarus, Kazakhstan). Also, Ukraine holds a significant emotional place for Russians as the “cradle” of their civilisation.

Giving evidence in 2014 to a House of Lords subcommittee investigating E.U.-Russia relations, former Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus stated: “…Ukraine was a heterogeneous, divided country and that an attempt to forcefully and artificially change its geopolitical orientation would inevitably result in its break-up.… We considered the country too fragile and with too weak an internal coherence to try to make a sudden change. I am sorry to say that it developed according to our expectations. I am afraid that Ukraine was sort of used. The West suddenly and unexpectedly offered Ukraine early E.U. affiliation.”

European defence project

The drive to “Europeanise” Ukraine came as the E.U. sought to find new direction and purpose in the wake of the economic crisis that gripped it and the monetary union, in particular, and as it sought to mend frayed relations between member states. Reaching out to new members, full-fledged or otherwise, proved an easy route for this, in defiance of critics of the European project. While some questioned the fundamental structures of the Union, others saw the crisis as an opportunity for greater expansion and its entry into untrodden areas. Such efforts continue to date despite the growth of Eurosceptic forces across the Union: French President Emmanuel Macron has been touting greater E.U. integration in terms of finance and taxation policy, and so on. In 2016, the E.U. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) signed a joint declaration on furthering links between them on issues relating to the defence and cybersecurity of the region, including eastern and south-eastern Europe. Last year, a European Defence Fund to support investment in developing defence equipment and technologies was signed. Twenty-five E.U. member states agreed to fund and prepare to deploy armed forces together—the most significant move yet towards a coordinated European defence project. For the E.U. the significance of this step cannot be underestimated, having been thwarted in the past by member states such as the U.K. and France.

From the Russian perspective, the increasingly hawkish positioning was accompanied by similar posturing from NATO, in stark contrast to expectations set in the immediate post-Soviet era.

The decisive period was the early 21st century and 2004, when the so-called NATO/E.U. “big bang” occurred as they sought to bring eastern and central European nations within their ambit. In 2004, 10 nations joined the E.U.

“It has not been possible to redefine Russia’s place in Europe,” said former Russian President (now Prime Minister) Dmitry Medvedev in an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine in 2009. “After the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, we were hoping for a higher degree of integration. But what have we received? None of the things we were assured, namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration. NATO remains a military bloc whose missiles are pointed towards Russian territory,” he said, calling for a new platform where members and non-members of NATO could debate issues.

Writing in the journal International Security in 2016, Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, a professor at Texas A&M University, noted how conventional studies focussing on post-Cold War relations and formal deals had overlooked the informal assurances that the United States had repeatedly offered to Russia regarding expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. “In addition to explicit discussion of a NATO non-expansion pledge in February 1990, assurances against NATO enlargement were epitomised and encapsulated in later offers to give East Germany special military status in NATO, to construct and integrate the Soviet Union into new European security institutions and to generally recognise Soviet interests in Eastern Europe,” he wrote. “There are numerous reasons to condemn Russian behaviour in Georgia and Ukraine as well as against states in Eastern Europe, but Russia’s leaders may have been telling the truth when they claimed that Russian actions are driven by mistrust… NATO’s eastward march may have left Russia feeling isolated…”

Economic sanctions

Since the Ukraine crisis of 2014, tensions between the West and Russia have ratcheted up swiftly, with the U.S., Europe and other Western allies swiftly imposing tough economic sanctions on Russia. NATO’s actions have also increased. Following a summit in Warsaw last year, it strengthened its forward presence in the east, with four multinational battalion-sized battle groups being stationed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland led by the U.K., Canada, Germany and the U.S. It has also adopted a forward presence in the Black Sea region. The Russian side has matched NATO’s actions by holding military exercises, such as “Zapad 2017” with Belarus.

In November last year, when questions were being raised about Russian interference in European elections, British Prime Minister Theresa May launched a stinging attack on Russia, accusing the country of sowing “discord” in the West to undermine its institutions, and warned that the U.K. would do whatever was necessary to protect itself, including through a reformed NATO.

The election of Donald Trump in the U.S. in November 2016 introduced a brief spell of uncertainty after he promised to revisit NATO and his country’s approach to Russia. However, the past year and a half has seen the status quo largely maintained, with the U.S. continuing to support NATO and anti-Russia initiatives, including the supply last year of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. John Bolton, Trump’s new security adviser, shares the enthusiasm for NATO of his predecessor, H.R. McMaster. In the wake of the poisoning of a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, in early March in Salisbury, U.K. (see “War of nerves”, Frontline, April 13), Bolton advocated a “very strong” response from NATO. The definitive joint statement from the U.S., France, Germany and the U.K. placing on Russia the responsibility for the Skripal poisoning (branded the first use of a chemical weapon on European soil since the Second World War) highlighted the extent to which traditional Western alliances remain strongly in place despite the recent political upheaval across the West (the French role in the statement is particularly noteworthy, coming just a day after the President had advocated a more cautious tone). The U.S.’ response—its expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats—was also particularly striking, going well beyond that of any other Western nation.

Complex relationship

Given the heightened tensions, talk of a new Cold War is inevitable, but the relationship between Russia and Europe is far more complex and interdependent than in the past. Europe remains heavily dependent on Russian gas, and European Commission aspirations for diversification are yet to result in tangible change, with Russian gas exports to Europe reaching its highest ever level last year. Last year, Germany gave the go-ahead for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipelines, on course to be completed by 2019, which will deliver gas from Russia to northern Germany. Despite the U.K.’s tough action and rhetoric—expelling diplomats and pledges to introduce tougher laws to enable the seizure of assets and the refusal of visas to those suspected of human rights abuses (similar to the Magnitsky Act in the U.S.)—London remains a major repository of Russian wealth and business, whether in its property market or the City (last year Russian metals and energy firm EN+ was listed on the London Stock Exchange for £1 billion, to the concern of some within Parliament).

Russia is also far from the military and economic powerhouse it once was (particularly given the devastation that falling oil prices in recent years have wrought on its economy). NATO, the U.S. and Europe have concerns elsewhere too: NATO’s Strategic Foresight Analysis 2017 report gives equal weight to “a more assertive China” in the South China Sea and to Russia in Eastern Europe when it came to the assertion of “hard and soft power to achieve political ends”. Much of the U.S.’ foreign policy (including its strategy towards Asia more widely) remains focussed on containing China.