Strategic patience with Russia will pay off

Commentary

Instead of using Ukraine as a bargaining chip with Russia, the EU needs to be strategic and united in its approach.

At the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, few predicted that Italy, Spain and France would join the path of sanctions. But evidence that Russia was far from adopting a peace agreement that would enable the reintegration of Ukraine led Rome, Madrid and Paris to adopt a firm position and join the call of sanctions on Russia. (Bear in mind that, for Hollande, this involved the expensive renege on a contract to deliver two helicopter carriers to the Russian navy.)

The secret behind EU success in places as distant as Iran or the Balkans is its capacity to stay united behind a coherent set of principles.

As ECFR highlighted at the beginning of the year in its flagship publication, ECFR Scorecard 2014, the secret behind EU success in places as distant as Iran or the Balkans is its “strategic patience”, i.e. its capacity to stay united behind a coherent set of principles and, at the same time, back its policies with plenty of diplomatic activism and economic incentives.

These same lessons should hold valid for EU policy towards Russia, especially at a time when, contrary to some expectations, sanctions seem to be working. Strangely, however, there are those in the European Union who over recent months seem willing to discard the unity that has been so costly to achieve regarding Russia. And they are doing this from Germany, the heart and motor behind the agreement over sanctions, where fissures are now appearing in the coalition government between Chancellor Merkel and her Foreign Affairs minister, Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The latter supports the lowering of sanctions against Russia, though Moscow continues to maintain Eastern Ukraine under its control and, needless to say, has not considered returning Crimea.   

Recall that Angela Merkel, after much thought and following numerous talks with Putin (the most recent, an extensive private discussion at the G-20 summit in Brisbane), has publically expressed her dissatisfaction with what she describes as “an outdated thinking, based on spheres of influence, which should have no place in modern Europe”. (See previous post: “Putin gives us a warm autumn” and, more importantly, the full text of the speech by Merkel in the Lowy Institute for International Policy, found here). In the same speech, Merkel, recalling 1914, identifies Putin as responsible for breaking a European order based on the peaceful resolution of disputes, dialogue and renunciation of the use of force.

There are those in the European Union who over recent months seem willing to discard the unity that has been so costly to achieve regarding Russia.

According to observers, the internal tensions between Chancellor and Foreign Affairs ministry explain the willingness of Merkel, shown on 26 November in the Bundestag, to open trade talks between the EU and the Eurasian Union. A proposal previously voiced by the Chancellor in Brisbane, it now appears an undoubted fixture on her agenda following this repeated mention (see the Financial Times article, “Merkel offers Russia trade talks olive branch”).

The assumption behind this proposal is that the EU and Russia should conduct their international relations via multiple levels of simultaneous co-operation and rivalry, aiming to ensure that bad parts of relationships do not contaminate good ones and, conversely, that there is no compromise on central issues simply because there are other areas where cooperation exists.

This proposal may have its merits, but it does not go without risks. To open negotiations with Russia on the Eurasian Union precisely at this moment could send the wrong message to Moscow. Since the beginning of this crisis the Europeans have made clear they do not believe in the path of force but instead in dialogue and that sanctions are a tool to make Russia accept an agreed solution. But this cannot cost Ukraine its territorial unity as a condition and victim of the agreement. Russia has already severed South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, the Transnistrian territory from Moldova, and attempts the same with Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

According to observers, internal tensions between Chancellor and Foreign Affairs ministry explain the Merkel's willingness to open trade talks between the EU and the Eurasian Union.

Ukrainians have shown on too many occasions, on the street and in liberal and democratic elections (presidential and parliamentary), that their values and principles are European and that they do not want to be part of a Russian sphere of influence. It is for this boldness that Moscow has punished them, imposing war, economic hardship and territorial loss on their country. While none of this changes, there will be little to talk about with Moscow.

Just as the Poles, Romanians, Czechs or Bulgarians did in their moment, the majority of Ukrainians have opted for Europeanization, not to belong to the Eurasian Union, much less for being trapped in Russia’s sphere of influence as a vassal state, and far less as a maimed state. The EU will not manage to persuade Russia to return Crimea, and will likely be unable to convince Putin to accept a peace deal to return Ukraine’s sovereignty over the east of the country, even under an internationally supervised regime of broad autonomy. But the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine not only respects but welcomes and supports Ukraine’s decision to draw closer to the European Union. Thus, before validating Moscow’s Eurasian project, the EU must respect and protect the European choice of the Ukrainians. Once Putin also understands and protects this choice, the EU can be opened to the Eurasian Union. As in the past, strategic patience will pay off.

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.

Read more on: Wider Europe, Russia

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