Why can’t Europe agree on how to deal with the Ukraine crisis?

While some EU nations have sent military support to Ukraine, others keep pressing for a diplomatic solution.

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell visits a checkpoint in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska in Luhansk Region, Ukraine January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Maksim Levin
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell visits a checkpoint in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska in Luhansk region, Ukraine, January 5, 2022 [File: Maksim Levin/Reuters]

It has been three weeks since diplomatic talks to defuse the crisis in Ukraine began. But Russian troops continue to line the Ukraine-Russia border.

While the Kremlin has denied any plans to invade Ukraine, US and NATO officials have revived their military plans to prepare for all possible scenarios.

But leaders of the European Union remain divided over what sort of response would effectively deter the Kremlin from threatening Ukraine.

EU officials have bemoaned being sidelined from big decisions on Ukraine, with the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressing that “any discussion on European security must involve the EU and Ukraine”.

French President Emmanuel Macron has called on the EU to finalise a proposal to negotiate with Russia.

Speaking to European Parliament members (MEPs) in Strasbourg last week, he said the security and stability plan should “first be built among Europeans, and then shared with NATO allies”.

But not every EU nation is in tune with Macron.

Some have a troubled history with Russia, preferring a transatlantic response, rather than a separate EU proposal.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on the EU to “preserve the unity of all EU member states in protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine.

Bruno Lété, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Brussels, told Al Jazeera: “Some EU nations have foreign policies which aim to appease Russia. Their aim is to break The Kremlin’s autocratic relation with China and also improve their own economic ties with Russia.

“Countries in the EU’s eastern bloc, who have experienced the Kremlin’s threats in the past, have foreign policies which seek to respond to Russia through military solutions which display strength and power. So this creates a disagreement over responding to the crisis in Ukraine.”

The differing stances have seen Russia downplay the EU’s geopolitical power, according to Ivana Stradner, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, working on Russia and cybersecurity.

“The Kremlin’s decision to omit any mention of the EU in its 2021 National Security Strategy shows that Moscow does not consider the EU as an important actor in foreign policy any more,” she told Al Jazeera.

Germany watches from the sidelines

As tensions with Russia intensified, the US put as many as 8,500 soldiers on high alert for a possible deployment to Eastern Europe.

NATO forces have increased their efforts, deploying battalions in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia.

Countries such as Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands have also sent military support to fortify Ukraine against any further Russian aggression.

And Poland is considering enhancing its presence in Eastern Europe – a move which Russia is against.

Meanwhile, France is holding more talks with Russia in an attempt to de-escalate the crisis.

But foreign policy experts have criticised big players like Germany which have been watching the diplomatic surge from the sidelines.

“In the case of Germany, the new government has not come out as strongly as it should have in diffusing this crisis because of its economic linkages with Russia. But this also makes Germany look weak,” Rachel Rizzo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, told Al Jazeera.

However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week announced that stopping the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline project could be considered if Russia attacks Ukraine.

Berlin has refused to militarily support Ukraine by denying the export of arms to the country, but has promised medical aid.

“Germany’s choice to fully rely on Russia’s gas now allows Moscow to use energy as a strategic weapon against the EU and NATO,” Stradner told Al Jazeera.

“In contrast to the naivety of much of Western Europe, countries that suffered under the Soviet regime understand Putin’s threat and they support Ukraine. One thing is certain, Russia is thrilled to see the EU so disintegrated and disunited, which has been Moscow’s goal for years,” she said.

Keen to formulate a united transatlantic response to the crisis, US President Joe Biden held a call with EU leaders this week, which he described as a “very very good meeting”.

“Total unanimity with all the European leaders. We’ll talk about it later,” he told reporters at the White House.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg shared a similar view and tweeted, “We agree that any further aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have severe costs.”

Speaking about the future of Europe’s security at an event in Brussels this week, Borrell reiterated the EU’s unity with the US and NATO.

“Greater European strategic responsibility is the best way to reinforce transatlantic solidarity. It is not either EU or NATO: it is both/and,” he said.

EU leaders have also been squabbling over imposing sanctions to tackle Russian aggression.

Leaders have been debating possible trade bans, energy penalties and cutting off Russia from hi-tech and financial markets.

But Lété explained that while sanctions need the unanimity of 27 EU countries and must be discussed with the US and other Western allies, one thing the EU can agree on is that if Ukraine falls, the entire architecture of European security also falls.

Rizzo agreed and said the EU needs to build a united strategic culture.

“Putin will continue viewing the EU as tangential if he senses a lack of unity. This has been the case so far, making him negotiate directly with the US,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Until the EU puts united capabilities behind rhetoric, they will continue to be pushed to the sidelines,” she added.

Source: Al Jazeera