international analysis and commentary

A grand strategy toward Russia and Ukraine: the German lead needs the EU’s support

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Geopolitically and geoeconomically, the EU’s relations with Russia have been tense for many years. The gas wars between Kiev and Moscow have hit some Eastern European member states, jeopardizing Europe’s energy security. The Russian-Georgian war of 2008 led to a new debate over resurging Russian imperialism. Furthermore, discussions about a new round of NATO enlargement to the East have been raising mistrust in Moscow for years. Nothing, however, has challenged the relationship more than the recent, violent escalation in the Ukraine crisis and Moscow´s political (and military) decision to annex Crimea.

On July 29th, the Council of the Foreign Ministers of the European Union unanimously approved new sanctions against Russia, following violence in Ukraine on the heels of the downing of a civil aircraft over the territory of East Ukraine. Under the new sanctions, access to the European capital market is more difficult for Russian banks, arms and dual-use goods exports to Russia have been banned, and transfers of special technologies for oil drilling have been restricted. The impact of sanctions on the Russian economy and financial system can be considered to be serious and even “systemic”.

The new sanctions and the unanimity of the decision inside the Council might be considered a belated, but positive, signal for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Ultimately the EU has proven able to overcome political differences on a sensitive issue such as that of  relations with its big eastern neighbor. However, while the decision was made by unanimity, and not recurring to mechanisms like constructive abstention or derogation to the unanimity rule, it is still a product of the usual intergovernmental bargaining process resulting in a compromise position. The German Foreign Ministry has defined the sanctions as “calibrated”, aimed at reaching an ample political result, (rising pressure on Moscow) with the least amount of economic damages for relations with Russia.

Indeed the decision to impose harder sanctions, a long-time declared request of the Obama Administration, was more of a result of the short-term shock following the shooting of the Malaysia Airlines civil aircraft and the strong pressure from the US, than as product of a coherent, coordinated, long-term (foreign policy) strategy of the EU. Indeed, before this date, EU sanctions had solely targeted some of Putin´s entourage by freezing their bank accounts.

The crisis has proven once more the geostrategic weakness of the EU as a global or regional player, but has revealed some shifts in the (informal) power balances of the Union as well. Since the initial shock, when neither the EU nor its members seemed really prepared to face and manage the crisis, Berlin has slowly emerged in its function of continental leader and broker both at the EU level and in the relations between Kiev and Moscow. From the very beginning the Ukraine crisis has been managed by intensive intergovernmental diplomacy with Berlin as the crucial player.

After failing to strike a deal between the Maidan protesters and former President Viktor Yanukovych, Berlin, backed by Paris and Warsaw, engaged in diplomatic efforts aimed at positioning the EU as a third, relatively even-handed party, willing to broker a peace deal among the two fronts. Berlin assumed a similar stance inside the EU, between Russia-friendly and Russia-critical countries. Eventually, Berlin proved able to act as a responsible leader inside the EU: it supported the request for new and deeper sanctions, accepting their costs for its own economy; it offered help to Ukraine, at the same time keeping the door open for dialogue with Moscow, while ruling out further sanctions and underlining the European interest in strong commercial ties with Moscow. This overall position has recently been reiterated by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

And yet, as Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier conceded, sanctions are not a strategy, but rather indicate its absence.

In fact, the German-led European action has failed so far to set up or even discuss any coherent grand strategy able to cope with the complex, changing Eurasian geopolitical landscape. A new relationship with a geopolitically assertive Russia requires clarity on two key points: firstly, the shifting power balance within the Union from Brussels to Berlin and, secondly, the “geostrategic depth” that is much needed in order to comprehensively redefine long-term relations with all the actors of the former Soviet bloc. In this game, it is not enough for the European Union, or for Germany, to be an external observer or a peacemaker. The EU is a player with its own interests that must be clearly formulated and explicitly communicated. In the Ukraine crisis – as well as in relations with Russia and the newly formed Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – the European Union and Germany are not neutral third-parties, rather active players who are either part of the solution or part of the problem.

Indeed it appears that Germany has recently started to articulate its own diplomatic action based on what we may call a geo-economic stabilization triangle with Kiev and Moscow to find a way out of the military escalation and stabilize the country.

During her most recent visit to Kiev, the first since the break out of the crisis, Chancellor Merkel has made a significant step toward shifting the German position from reactive to proactive, from being an external broker to becoming an active part of a possible solution in order to deescalate the crisis. Along with reaffirming her support to Kiev and President Petro Poroshenko as well as to the territorial integrity of the country, she has backed a decentralization of the country and refused to discuss new sanctions. Moreover the federal government has approved its first concrete financial aid package: a 500-million-euro heavy financial guarantee for private investments in the almost collapsed water, transport and public infrastructure of the country, thus offering a concrete answer to Putin´s aid convoy in the Eastern regions.

Finally, Germany has envisaged a future cooperation between Ukraine and the EU on trilateral tariffs and common norms, starting from 2016 – while a similar cooperation with the Customs Union is impossible under the terms of the present agreement. As it seems, this is a smart issue-linkage attempt: deescalate the critical situation in the Eastern regions by envisaging a broader deal on the economic orientation of the country. But alone, this won´t be enough.

On the contrary, the European Union as a whole still seems caught between strategic abeyance and transatlantic ideological influence. The EU needs to be able to define its own space of action in line with the changing German position. Balancing different interests and sensitivities within the Union is vital for the EU, but the challenges coming from the trans-Eurasian geopolitics that the EU has become part of by enlarging to the East, are far more complex than the old, comfortable trans-euroatlantic relationship. What is now needed is a more realistic geostrategic posture, which consider both Ukraine and Russia as part of the solution. History and common sense suggest that Germany should not be left alone in this process.

Hence, a concrete proposal that the EU can put forth to Russia and Ukraine should start with the following: Ukraine should become a militarily neutral and guaranteed state, politically democratic and decentralized and an economic bridge between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, as John Mearsheimer and Henry Kissinger have both recently suggested. A bridge, in fact, and not a bridgehead, for anyone.

Whether the European Union will prove able or willing to follow this path is a key question for its own future.