international analysis and commentary

European diplomacy and the crisis over Ukraine: limited options and the cohesion test

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As Vladimir Putin demands a new security order in Europe and Russian troops mass along Ukraine’s borders, the threat of a major conflict on the continent is real. A war in Ukraine could have a big spill-over effect on other European countries: an influx of refugees; cut-offs in gas supplies from Russia that may choke the economic recovery from COVID; and increased hostility from Russia that would create new challenges not only along NATO’s eastern flank but also on issues like the Iran nuclear deal, Libya and the Western Balkans. Despite this, Europeans have not taken a leading role in the crisis, and their diplomatic initiatives have seemed like a sideshow to the main US-Russia negotiations.

Gas transits to Europe through Ukraine

 

That does not mean that European diplomacy has been wholly absent. EU leaders have tried to deter Russian aggression against Ukraine, threatening “severe costs” if Moscow invades. Individual European countries have been active in strengthening deterrence and engaging in talks with Russia to dissuade it from war. France has energetically tried to contribute to de-escalation efforts, both through diplomacy and planned military deployments in Romania to strengthen deterrence. President Emmanuel Macron has insisted that Europe should have a say in developments that affect it, arguing that Europeans needed to forge their own path in the crisis and that it was “vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia”.

 

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Other European countries have also been very active. The UK has focused on strengthening deterrence: London has increased military deployments in the Baltics and Poland, provided Ukraine with weapons and sent special forces to Ukraine to train Ukrainian forces (although, officially, they have now left). This position has allowed the UK to present itself as a key player in European security and boost its standing in many eastern EU member-states. Poland, which is similarly hawkish towards Russia, has also agreed to supply weapons to Ukraine, and Polish President Andrzej Duda attempted to insert a wedge between Russia and China during the opening ceremony of the Olympic games. And the UK and Poland have held discussions together with Ukraine over launching a UK-Poland-Ukraine co-operation framework to strengthen regional security.

Behind the collective promise of hitting Russia with heavy sanctions in case of an invasion, however, there have been cracks among Europeans over the scope of sanctions. The stance of Germany’s SPD-Green-FDP coalition has been the target of much criticism. While German leaders have tried to reassured allies that they are willing to pay the price of sanctions and announced some additional deployments to NATO’s eastern flank, they have been wary of committing to cancelling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and sceptical of banning Russia from the SWIFT payment system. Much of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD still appears to view Germany’s relationship with Russia as truly “special”, due to the weight of Germany’s invasion of Russia in WW2 and the party’s experience of Ostpolitik in the Cold War. Berlin has also incurred heavy criticism for its refusal to provide Ukraine with weapons and for blocking the export of some German-made weapons from Estonia to Ukraine.

Political map of Ukraine

 

Other European countries have also appeared cautious about sanctions. For example, Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio has stated that sanctions need to be “sustainable, gradual and proportional”. And even the UK, despite its hawkish attitude, has seemed unwilling to seriously tackle the issue of Russian ‘dirty money’ in its financial system. Finally, and more predictably Hungary voiced strong criticism of sanctions, saying that they do not work and that they have damaged it more than Russia.

 

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Diplomacy towards Russia has traditionally been a major source of intra-European friction. Macron’s attempts to negotiate directly with Putin have been emblematic of Europe’s lack of cohesion and genuine trust when it comes to dealing with Russia. Macron’s efforts have been met with suspicion among many eastern EU member-states and in the UK, with defence secretary Ben Wallace drawing an analogy between recent diplomacy and appeasement by saying that there was a “whiff of Munich in the air”. The key issue is that Macron is seen as having a soft spot for Russia. This is largely because of his actions since he became President. He famously stated that NATO was “braindead” during an interview with the Economist, and during Trump’s Presidency seemed to imply that Europe should aim to be equidistant between Russia and the US. In 2019 he launched a bilateral strategic dialogue with Russia, despite scepticism by many EU member-states. And Macron’s controversial push for European ‘strategic autonomy’, aimed at making Europe more capable of handling its own security, is often seen as having the effect of detaching the EU from the US, therefore undermining Western cohesion and NATO.

Macron’s actions in the current crisis have not been helpful in assuaging fears that he is soft on Russia. Macron has stated that Russia’s security concerns should be addressed, and that a “new security and stability order in Europe” was necessary (without going into details about what it would involve). These grand and vague statements raise alarm bells in many European capitals, fuelling fears that Macron is willing to come to a compromise with Putin that they would find unacceptable. Even the French President’s talk of an independent role for Europe in the crisis makes it seem as if he envisages a different, softer, approach to Russia from that taken by Washington. Macron has tried to dispel fears that he is willing to do a deal with Russia, by consulting widely with the US and with European allies prior to his meeting Putin, by vocally defending NATO’s ‘open door’ policy, deploying additional troops to NATO’s eastern flank and rejecting the notion of spheres of influence. But all this has done little to dispel the concerns of other allies.

A Ukrainian serviceman carries ammunitions in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine.

 

The lack of a coherent European stance has been a major reason for the limited role of European (especially EU) diplomacy during the crisis. But the challenge is also that Russia has shown little interest in genuinely engaging with Europeans. Moscow has avoided talking to the EU as an institution – despite the fact that it was Ukraine’s decision to pursue closer ties with the Union that led to the conflict in the Donbas in 2014. Russia has also shown limited interest in the “Normandy format”, which includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. Moscow thinks that the format has not been useful in pushing Ukraine to implement the Minsk II agreement (which should have ended the conflict in the Donbas) according to its interpretation, which would give the de-facto authorities in the Donbas a veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy. Moscow has been willing to talk to the big European countries. But Putin clearly sees Biden as his main interlocutor, not least because many of his demands are aimed at NATO rather than Ukraine, and Moscow believes that the alliance is dominated by Washington.

 

Watch: The Russian challenge in Ukraine and a divided Western alliance

 

Russia’s stance, combined with Europe’s divisions, means that there is little space for an independent European diplomatic track. It is unclear what (if anything) Europeans could agree among themselves to offer to Russia that could meaningfully change Putin’s calculations. This means that European diplomatic efforts cannot lead to a solution, although they can still help give Putin a way to de-escalate and withdraw his troops, if he wants that.

Ultimately, the biggest test for European diplomacy over Ukraine is still to come. If Putin launches a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, it is possible that divisions among member-states will largely melt away. But it seems equally possible that they might deepen further after an initial burst of unity, especially if energy shortages hit European consumers, or if Moscow launches operations of a limited or deniable nature instead of a large-scale invasion.