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On Europe's odd performance over Ukraine

Why EU's failure to respond means Putin is effectively calling the shots in Eastern Europe.

Last updated: 16 Mar 2014 08:58
Rosa Balfour

Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels.
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In the EU during the past two weeks, those dragging their feet on sanctions were unwilling to pay the costs on energy imports, business contracts and the financial sector, writes Balfour [AFP]

On March 17, it is possible that Crimea will have been swallowed into Russia's "sphere of influence" and the West will have to accept the new status quo. The risk of Crimea becoming yet another so-called "frozen conflict" in the region, together with South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria, is very high. Could this have been prevented? And could the EU have done it? Privately, most European diplomats believe not, but were all possible paths really exhausted?

The EU managed to put together an acceptable package of trade incentives, aid, loans, and promised to sign the famous agreements which triggered the upheaval in Ukraine last November. Even if the 11 billion Euro package falls short of the 25 billion needed to rescue the country's economy, it is quite unprecedented if compared to what was put together in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

What is inexcusable is that the EU, 14 weeks into the crisis, has still not overcome its major differences on Russia to find some compromise and synthesis of position.

Diplomatic vacuum?

The key challenge for the EU will be to make sure its commitment is followed through over time. This is the second revolution Ukraine undergoes in a decade: After 2004, Brussels repeatedly disappointed Ukrainian pro-European political leaders by avoiding answering the question of whether the country could enjoy ambitions to join the EU. That experience gives the EU plenty of food for thought on the mistakes that should not be made in the future.

But when it comes to dealing with Russia, the EU has been dragging its feet during the past two weeks. The Russian "invasion" of Crimea led to a diplomatic vacuum in Europe. The EU has increasingly raised the possibility of applying some negative measures, such as visa bans and asset freezes, and in the morning after the referendum in Crimea, the foreign ministers are likely to do so. Threatening to implement such measures does do not seem to have persuaded Moscow to change its policy. Washington, too, may not succeed in forcing President Vladimir Putin to make a policy shift.

This is not to deny the complexity of the situation. Every option, be it escalation or diplomacy, had dilemmas. What is inexcusable is that the EU, 14 weeks into the crisis, has still not overcome its major differences on Russia to find some compromise and synthesis of position which would, at a minimum, allow Brussels to respond to events as they happen rather than after extraordinary meetings of heads of state.

It is not for lack of opportunities. Earlier this year, the EU shortened the EU-Russia summit to a lunch. The message - at the time - was twofold: Brussels and European capitals did not like what Moscow was getting up to in Eastern Europe and in Ukraine in particular. But given that it did not have a position on what implications their displeasure may have, they chose to avoid hard talk with Putin.

That episode should have been the trigger for a deeper discussion within the EU: What if Russia escalated its pressure on Ukraine? What if another Georgia 2008 war scenario were to occur? How far were the Europeans prepared to go if confrontation with Russia became more avert?

This discussion did not happen and the following February 10 meeting of  Foreign Ministers led to an insignificant position on Ukraine. The scenarios, however, did become real.

It took snipers shooting at Maidan protestors to mobilise Europeans. It was a smart diplomatic move to have three important EU foreign ministers, from France, Germany and Poland, representing countries with traditionally different positions on Ukraine and Russia, to facilitate a deal between the then-still President Viktor Yanukovich and the opposition on February 21. It showed that the EU could do crisis management.

But then Russia changed its mind and the EU was lost. Even more so when Russian troops went into Crimea. The EU and US have condemned the breach of national Ukrainian and international law, and the principles both uphold have been unequivocally communicated: Inclusive dialogue, peaceful solution to the crisis, respect for international law and commitments.

Handling Russia

But how to get Russia to agree? There could have been two approaches. The first would have been the tough line: threaten the use of sanctions and be prepared to resort to them. This requires being prepared for an escalation, even up to open confrontation.

The second path would have been more conciliatory, using all diplomatic means to find not just a solution to the crisis, but a way for Putin to come out of the crisis holding his head up high.

Both tactics have pros and cons. Undoubtedly, Russia deserved condemnation for its actions. Russian troops are in Crimea while no Russians were under threat. And there is a broad range of key Russian interests in Europe which could be penalised, if measures are flexibly and smartly applied.

After the referendum, Ukraine will have lost Crimea and Putin is calling the shots in Eastern Europe.

But could punitive rhetoric and measures achieve the aim of restoring the status quo ante? The second problem is that no-one in Europe or the US is prepared to follow up on the full escalation menu, as the Syrian "red lines" demonstrated to Putin very recently.

In the EU, during the past two weeks those dragging their feet on sanctions were unwilling to pay the costs on energy imports, business contractsand  the financial sector. Tough talk may be "right" but could backfire on the EU's credibility.

Using diplomacy to talk through the key points with Moscow could have been the other option. This would have required swallowing some bitter pills, as Russia will not back away from its strategic control of Eastern Europe. Some form of compromise between EU and Russian-led initiatives towards the region would have had to be sought for the longer term.

Many in the EU, including public opinion, would have disagreed with this approach. Public diplomacy, therefore, should have been carefully crafted to make it clear that the EU's goal was to restore international law and protect people's rights and lives in that region, not to sweet talk Russia.

Calling the shots

The advantage that the diplomatic path could have offered was that direct talks with Moscow over Ukraine's fate should not have been delegated to the interim government of a country under occupation, as the EU proposed.

Kiev quite simply did not have the strength or position to do so: a European intermediary would have been needed to facilitate talks - a Head of State or government working on behalf of the EU could have tried to solve the Crimean crisis through diplomacy.

What is odd is that the EU could have done both but it did neither. Precisely because its member states have such different relations with Moscow. Friendly pro-Russian states could have tried to engage with Putin to find a diplomatic solution, in person rather than through phone calls.

Carrots for cooperation could have been dangled together with the consequences of offensive action. In parallel, those countries whose Cold War legacy makes them suspicious of Russia could have done the tough talk, work on a sophisticated package of negative sanctions, to be applied flexibly, targeting Russian business interests in Europe (a softer version of which could have been implemented before losing Crimea) and advise and support the Ukrainian government.

Neither option would have been easy, nor would it have guaranteed a solution to the crisis. Not trying, not responding in concrete terms to Russia's offensive effectively means that, starting Monday after the referendum, Ukraine will have lost Crimea and Putin is calling the shots in Eastern Europe.

Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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