Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent interference in Ukraine does not constitute a game-changer. It is just a reminder that at least since the war with Georgia in 2008 Russia has been and still is playing the same game: a “game of zones”, aimed at (re)establishing an exclusive sphere of influence. Many of us Europeans had forgotten that, or had pushed it to the back of our minds, preferring to believe that we were not engaged in a zero-sum game.
The EU’s aim was that the countries wedged in between itself and Russia would be free to make their own choices, instead of Brussels or Moscow choosing for them. If they would choose to develop close ties with us, we would gladly oblige, on the condition that they would undertake economic reforms and commit to improve democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. But the EU never asked that they would sever relations with Russia. Russia however does not see the world through this lens. And because a win-win situation requires that both sides perceive a benefit, we were engaged in a zero-sum game, whether we wanted to or not.
That does not mean that Europe too should now start playing the “game of zones”. The best way of preserving our interests is not by attempting to bring our neighbors under our control. As Russia is learning in Ukraine, even if part of the population supports you, you will inevitably antagonize others, which is a recipe for perennial instability. Our interests are better served by empowering our neighbors to make their own choices, and to offer a mutually beneficial partnership if they also, but not exclusively, choose to cooperate with us. We do not need our neighbors to look up to us, but we don’t want them to look away from us either – that would be very harmful for our interests. Empowerment starts with domestic stability, which in turn starts with integrating all citizens in the political arena, guaranteeing their security, and their share in the wealth of the country. This is the core idea of the 2003 European Security Strategy – a document that may need updating but still captures the heart of the EU’s external policies.
Since the Ukrainian crisis erupted, the EU has actually responded pretty adequately: adopting sanctions to signal its dissatisfaction with the annexation of Crimea, initially keeping further sanctions in reserve to warn Vladimir Putin against similar military incursion in mainland Ukraine, providing economic support to the Ukrainian government and helping to organize the presidential elections, and engaging in high-level diplomacy. Indeed, US President Barack Obama aligned himself with this approach in his Brussels speech on 26 March 2014, putting paid to rather more belligerent utterings in some American quarters. But the separatist rebels forced the EU’s hand when in a fatal mistake they shot down Malaysian airliner MH17 on 17 July, with missiles that could only have been provided by Russia. Confronted with the death of 298 innocent civilians, many of them EU citizens, the EU imposed additional (mostly financial) sanctions that hurt.
Unfortunately, Putin did not use this opportunity to quietly phase out his support for the armed separatists, even though the MH17 disaster greatly damaged his international position, forcing even Russia’s usual partners to at the very least remain silent even when not openly condemning it. Indeed, Putin can have seemingly promising talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko one day and step up military action the next. At the same time, only rather weak counter-sanctions were adopted by Russia. The sudden agreement on a gas deal with China also benefits China much more than that it costs Europe. In reality, Putin is acting more out of weakness than out of strength, making it up as he goes along rather than executing a master plan. The legitimacy of the regime and Putin’s domestic popularity is based to a great extent on the pretense that Russia remains a great power. The easiest way of maintaining that mirage is by acting as a spoiler in the West, simply because we are such polite company who will always react with circumspection. But Putin probably does not want to push things to extremes, which would lead to a bloody and protracted civil war (as civil wars usually are) in which he likely prefers not to be involved. Objectively speaking, Russia may in fact have more interest in keeping Ukraine together but weak and instable, which creates opportunities to wield influence country-wide, rather than in splitting off further parts, which would cut it off completely from the Western-oriented country that would remain.
Winter is coming, and although military posturing will probably continue in order not to create the impression that Russia is scared off by the strong declarations emanating from this month’s NATO Wales Summit, a much more effective instrument for Putin to wield is energy supply. The game is still ongoing. The EU should therefore continue its diplomatic engagement to try and forge a consensus on a federal solution for Ukraine that can satisfy all Ukrainians, including in the East of the country, which can therefore also be a face-saving way out for Russia. Putin’s recent statements about an independent Eastern Ukraine enable him perhaps to accept a federal Ukraine in return for abandoning the aspiration of NATO membership. If further bloodshed can be avoided that way, that would be an honorable compromise. In the end, the outcome might be very advantageous for the EU, except that we will likely be the one having to pay for it for a long time to come: the gradual stabilization of a more democratic Ukraine, free to build constructive relations with all of its neighbors. The economic and political challenge is huge though.
The question that the EU should ask itself is: is it willing to establish as close relations and spend as much treasure on the other countries of the Eastern Partnership? If they so desire, of course. In the case of Moldova a positive answer seems already guaranteed from both sides; as regards Belarus the question does not now pose itself. But what about the South Caucasus? What are their aspirations, how far are we willing to go to meet them, and how can we avoid another clash with Russia? Putin may have damaged his own long-term interests, for even those who are inclined to look to Moscow rather than to Brussels did not count on cessation of territory being part of the bargain.
What EU policy will not achieve is the return of Crimea to Ukraine. The peninsula will join South Ossetia, Abkhazia and others in the category of territories whose proclaimed status we do not recognize but also do not actively attempt to alter. Tempting though some may find it to revert to Cold War frames, it is imperative to ultimately try and re-forge constructive relations with Russia – Crimea will be the price to pay. We have to work with the great powers, simply because they are the great powers. Their non-obstruction, if not their active cooperation, is needed to advance in other key areas, such as the negotiations on Syria and Iran, and economic ties are way too close and important to permanently put at risk. Issue-based cooperation with all of its “strategic partners”, whenever the EU finds that it can agree on the way to protect shared interests, is precisely the way of pulling them into effective and rule-based multilateralism as we see it. Partnership is not marriage: we do not have to declare our love, but we do have to be able to compartmentalize and proceed where we can. But even partnership requires two: it will require more sincerity from Russia than we have recently seen.
 Tony Wood, “Back from the Edge? On the Situation in Ukraine”. In: London Review of Books, Vol. 36, 2014, No. 11, pp. 37-38.