The great unravelling: four doomsday scenarios for Europe’s Russia policy

Press release

Staying the course? Four ways Russia could win in Ukraine

There is no room for complacency in Europe’s stance towards Russia and Ukraine

Europe has demonstrated a surprising ability to stay the course on its policy towards Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. This resolve comes despite differing views in Europe of whether Russia poses a threat or not and grumbling about sanctions, as well as the political upsets of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

But can this resolve last? What would a collapse of Europe’s Russia policy look like? A new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations, sets out several doomsday scenarios under which that policy could collapse and considers the disastrous consequences of such a collapse.  The scenarios envisioned are:

  1. The EU changes its stance on the Minsk agreements on Ukraine due to a change in domestic regimes and decides to enforce the Russian interpretation of the agreements. This leads to sham elections in the Donbas and the incorporation of Russia’s proxies in the Rada – ultimately leading to chaos and instability in Ukraine.
  2. The EU succumbs to Ukraine fatigue and puts the break on Ukraine’s efforts to move closer to the EU and, with it, reform. The acceptance of the status quo in the country results in a dysfunctional state and another frozen conflict in the neighbourhood.
  3. US disengagement from Ukraine and the end of sanctions on Russia throws European policy into disarray. Transatlantic unity and unity within the EU collapses, as reform in Ukraine stagnates. Russia revels in a weak and dysfunctional Ukraine.
  4. A “grand power bargain” between Trump and Putin on European security eventually shatters EU unity on Russia and opens up the opportunity for Russia to launch a military push to bring Ukraine into its sphere of influence.

These scenarios are speculative, worst-case scenarios, but they reflect risks to Europe’s policy as well as pressures and dynamics that are already in play. Evaporation of US commitment is putting on pressure on Europe and some member states are facing domestic pressure to lift sanctions. For now, the threat of Russia and the election of Donald Trump, has pushed Europeans closer together – but that unity cannot be taken for granted.

So what can the EU do to protect its Russia policy? It is important for the EU to account for the waning US presence by bolstering its own response and stepping in where the US is stepping out. It should also consider automating the sanctions renewal process and extending the renewal period to one year. This would lend greater credibility to the EU’s position that sanctions can only be lifted when Minsk is fully implemented and it would remove twice-yearly opportunities for Moscow to split consensus in the EU.

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