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Europe’s Strategy in the Ukraine Crisis

In March the Dahrendorf team at LSE launched a competition for PhD students to submit a short essay or blog post on the themes being addressed by either the Europe, Russia & Ukraine Working Group or the Europe & North America Working Group. The aim was to encourage and promote new research in these areas from early career academics. We have already published two of the winning entries, and our third winner, this blog post by Luigi Scazzieri, will close out the PhD Essay Series.

Since March 2014, Europe and the U.S. have sought to counter Russia’s intervention in Ukraine with increasingly severe diplomatic and economic sanctions, pressuring Moscow to halt and reverse its intervention and its attempts to destabilise Ukraine more broadly. Yet these efforts have so far been met with limited success: the conflict in the Donbass is ongoing. This essay examines the reasons behind the limited success of European strategy.

European strategy during the Ukraine crisis has been driven by the overarching aim of halting and reversing Russia’s intervention, engineering a solution that guarantees Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. While this includes reversing the annexation of Crimea, in practice Europe limited itself to non-recognition of the annexation: the Geneva Accord, the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II made no mention of Crimea, and European strategy has been limited to reversing Russian intervention in the Donbass. However, this overarching aim has been subject to two ‘constraining’ aims: preventing an escalation of the conflict, and avoiding a breakdown of relations with Russia.

These aims reflect a dual framing of the crisis: on one hand Europe saw itself as upholding international norms, on the other its perception of its immediate security interests dictated the need to avoid escalation and a breakdown of relations. At times rhetoric suggested the first aim was predominant, but European action throughout the crisis has shown that the constraining aims have had a powerful effect on European strategy. Efforts to reverse the annexation of Crimea have effectively been inexistent throughout the crisis, with Crimea-related sanctions so weak that their effect was signalling rather than coercive. Coercive efforts related to Russia’s intervention in the Donbass were weak until the downing of MH17, and European diplomacy focused on preventing escalation of the conflict. From the downing of MH17 until the end of August 2014, Europeans devoted themselves more fully to coercion, seeking to end Russia’s intervention.

As the crisis escalated and coercive efforts failed to produce results, European strategy increasingly sought to find a balance between coercing Russia and preventing a broadening of the conflict and a breakdown of relations. The linking of sanctions to the implementation of Minsk II in March 2015 framed European strategy as a long-term coercive effort. But Europe also sought to engage Russia. European leaders hoped it would be possible to eventually force Russia to halt its intervention without significantly increasing sanctions, while at the same time avoiding a breakdown of relations. Strategy was driven by the political imperative of imposing costs on Russia to punish it for intervention, combined with the hope that sanctions would have a coercive effect and eventually lead to changes in Russian behaviour.

European strategy failed in achieving its overarching aim of reversing Russian intervention. It also failed in avoiding a deterioration of relations with Russia and only partially succeeded in preventing escalation of the conflict. Europe has been unable to successfully pursue coercion while avoiding escalation, and it has arguably undermined its long-term interests and security in the process. As the conflict continues and hardliners gain pre-eminence, it seems possible that Russian pressure towards Eastern Europe will increase. Moreover, as Russia re-aligns itself internationally, it contributes to the undermining of the Western-sponsored global governance framework. Russia’s growing hostility could also undermine European interests in other areas from the Syrian conflict to counterterrorism to non-proliferation. In the midst of all this, Ukraine does not seem significantly closer to joining the EU or NATO than before the crisis, and it still appears possible that Moscow may achieve its end-goal of drawing Ukraine closer into its orbit.

Why has European strategy failed? Europe has failed in raising Russia’s perceived costs of non-compliance with its demands above those of compliance. Compliance costs have always been extremely high for Moscow given that it perceived Europe’s demands as very damaging. Throughout the crisis, Europe envisaged its ideal end-state as Russia completely retreating from Ukraine, with Kiev devolving a small degree of self-government to the Donbass and continuing in its integration with the West. This outcome is unacceptable to Moscow, which fears the permanent loss of influence over Ukraine and has long sought to prevent Ukraine’s integration with the West.

Europe has failed in imposing sufficient costs on Russia. Despite the significant economic costs they have contributed to imposing, sanctions have not been overtly damaging to the Russian economy. They have also failed in producing the intended political consequences. Rather than isolating Putin, the Russian population has perceived sanctions as unjust and they have strengthened the Kremlin’s narrative of Western containment of Russia. Moreover, Russia sees European coercion as half-hearted. Europe has been unwilling to sanction the gas sector and to exclude Russia from the SWIFT payment system. Moreover, the extensive debate on sanctions within Europe has communicated that consensus for existing measures is weak. The longer sanctions continue without leading to a shift in Moscow’s behaviour, the more opposition to them seems likely to grow. Moreover European efforts to support Ukraine have been somewhat indecisive: the prospect of EU membership remains unlikely in the near future, and NATO accession remains a distant prospect given the opposition of many member states. Military support to Ukraine has been limited.

At the heart of the failure of European strategy lies a fundamental asymmetry of interests. Russia has consistently framed the crisis in terms of threatened vital national security interests, whereas Europe’s framing has shifted between seeing it as threat to international security and international law to be met by forceful countermeasures and as a direct threat to European security best met by de-escalating the conflict. This dual framing has led Europe to adopt a set of irreconcilable aims. Striking a balance between coercing Russia, avoiding a deterioration of relations, and not escalating the conflict has proven self-defeating: the costs imposed by Europeans have proven insufficient to dent Moscow’s resolve, but they have been sufficient to push Russia further away from Europe and deepen confrontation. The ends, ways and means of European strategy have not been aligned.

About the author:  Luigi Scazzieri is undertaking doctoral research at King’s College London. His current research focuses on the EU’s responses to crises in the European neighbourhood during recent years, with specific focus on the policymaking process. More broadly his interests lie in European foreign and security policy making, European governance, and transatlantic relations.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.