This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


The crisis in Ukraine is not about the rights of ethnic Russians, but rather Moscow's desire to destabilise Ukraine and re-establish strategic control of the region.

This paper is part of a series of papers presenting views from experts in various European capitals on Russian policy, including those from FinlandSpainGermanyItaly, Hungary, and Austria.

To discuss Europe’s response to the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia, we need to understand its origin and its nature. A good beginning would be stating what this crisis is NOT about, contrary to some Western theories.

The crisis is NOT about the rights of ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers in the southeast of Ukraine, specifically in the Donbas. Their rights were not infringed upon either before or after the recent Ukrainian revolution. Moscow is merely using this as a pretext to intervene directly in Ukraine and/or to seek a political settlement that would give Moscow serious leverage over Ukraine’s policy, effectively limiting its sovereignty.

The crisis is NOT about the rights of ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers in the southeast of Ukraine.

Nor is the crisis about trade relations between Ukraine and Russia after the expected implementation of the Association Agreement (and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, or DCFTA) between Ukraine and the European Union. The concerns that Moscow has raised on that matter are unfounded and merely represent an instrument that it can use to derail the process of Ukraine’s European integration.

What the crisis IS about is a Russian-Ukrainian war, waged by Moscow using various instruments: political pressure, diplomatic campaigns, information wars, economic and energy pressure, subversion, support for military separatists, and the direct use of military force (involving both regular and irregular Russian units) against Ukraine.

The crisis is about Russia’s attempt to block any prospect of Ukrainian integration into European structures (not only NATO, but also the EU). But this is only Moscow’s first step. The next step is to push for Ukrainian membership of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. In practical terms, this is about Russia gaining strategic control over Ukraine, over its foreign and security policy, but also over its domestic politics and economy. However, since its brutal methods led to the anti-Russian political mobilisation of a large part of Ukrainian society, Moscow now understands that its ultimate goal may be out of reach. Therefore, Russia is not interested in freezing the conflict in the Donbas, but in destabilising Ukraine, hoping that an economic crisis may lead to political turmoil and a possible future pivot to the east.

Russia is not interested in freezing the conflict in the Donbas, but in destabilising Ukraine.

But this crisis is not only about Ukraine. Both Russian rhetoric and action have made it clear that the crisis is about the re-establishment of Russian strategic control of the post-Soviet space in its entirety (including the three Baltic states) as Moscow’s natural sphere of influence. Russia’s attempt to derail Moldovan and Georgian integration into Europe is – apart from Ukraine – just the first step in that direction. Russia’s ambition is also to make the West de facto (if not de jure) acknowledge Moscow’s sphere of influence. This is why Moscow pushed for the postponement of the implementation of the DCFTA between Ukraine and the EU.

But there is much more at stake. Russia (as Putin himself suggested during the recent Valdai meeting) has made it clear that its aim is the destruction of the post-Cold War order in Europe. This is perceived in Moscow as unjust and as having been imposed by the West on a weakened Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Russia wants to create a new order through a (limited) use of force and/or by making deals with the West based on Moscow’s demands. To this end, Russia wants to undermine NATO and weaken the EU, through the use both of threats and of bribes.

The crisis is about the re-establishment of Russian strategic control of the post-Soviet space in its entirety as Moscow’s natural sphere of influence.

Europe should abandon the false premise that a mutually beneficial compromise can be achieved with Russia, whether on Ukraine or other issues. The main reason is that Moscow’s real goals are irreconcilable with European values and interests. Any deal made with Russia can only be temporary and will create an incentive for Moscow to demand more. Russia lays down red lines for the West, but not for itself. Therefore, in reality, Russian ambitions are defined merely by the degree of resistance that the West shows towards Moscow.

Europe should pursue three major policy lines:

Firstly, Europe should keep the pressure on Russia through sanctions. Sanctions, despite their limited scope, exacerbate the increasingly difficult economic situation in Russia. Consequently, they influence the political calculations of the Russian leadership on Ukraine and elsewhere. They also demonstrate the relative unity of the West in its adherence to basic values and norms. If Russia escalates further in Ukraine (or towards other neighbours such as Moldova), Europe should immediately expand the scope of sanctions. This is the only measure that will deter Russia from further escalation. Europe should not yield to lobby groups that ask for a relaxation of sanctions; this request stems from a preference for short-term economic benefits over longer-term political goals.     

Europe should abandon the false premise that a mutually beneficial compromise can be achieved with Russia, whether on Ukraine or other issues.

Secondly, Europe should offer Ukraine substantial support. This means meaningful financial and technical support conditional on an agreed implementation of the Association Agreement (and this goes for Georgia and Moldova too). It should include support for Ukraine’s defence systems, supplemented by arms sales to Kyiv (on commercial terms). This should be done in total transparency, with no outside (that is, Russian) influence.

Thirdly, NATO member states bordering Russia or Ukraine should receive (if they wish) military reinforcement. NATO should expand on the commitments made at the recent summit in Newport on training and structural reform and be ready to station combat troops in the Eastern flank countries (especially Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania). Russia should be made to understand that its aggressive policies will be met with a decisive response. That would demonstrate unity and act as an instrument of deterrence against further aggressive moves by Moscow. The EU should combine this with increased cooperation in soft security (for example, on external border controls and counterintelligence).    

Marek Menkiszak is head of the Russian Department at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), Poland.

This paper is part of the Wider Europe Forum and is one in a series of five papers presented on 17 November at ECFR’s EU-Russia Strategy Group. This Group was set up in 2014 to provide a venue for a restricted group of European policymakers and experts to have an informal and high-level dialogue on Russia. It is supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation and the German and Polish foreign ministries.

Read more on: Wider Europe Forum, View from the Capitals, Wider Europe, Russia, EaP

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.