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Why the EU Misread Russia, and Why It Will Do It Again

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. This blog post by Nikki Ikani is the first of our three winning entries.

On April 28, the French National Assembly voted in favor of lifting the sanctions the EU has imposed against Russia since the spring of 2014. Although non-binding, the vote reveals the increasing reluctance among EU member states to roll over the sanctions on Russia’s banking, energy and defense sectors. Unless renewed by consent of all 28 member states, the current sanctions are set to expire at the end of July. Yet while member states skirmish over whether or not they should be renewed, a more important question continues to be overlooked: what should guide the EU’s relationship with Russia?

A little over a year ago, the UK House of Lords accused the EU and the UK of a ‘catastrophic misreading’ of the Ukraine crisis. The EU’s misunderstanding of Russia’s intentions in Ukraine, as well as the Union’s half-hearted technical propositions to engage with a struggling partner, had sowed the seeds of the current crisis. Other EU countries equally concluded that they had lacked intelligence capabilities, and simply did not have enough Russia experts, a feature plaguing many European countries the post-Cold War era.

Yet it will be argued here it is not a matter of capability that is holding Europe back.  At the core of the EU’s struggle to cope with its eastern neighborhood is something more fundamental, namely the EU’s blatant postmodern conception of its own power, which created a blind spot when it came to its policy strategy.

After the failed Vilnius Summit in 2013 – when the Ukrainian president Yanukovych decided to postpone signing an Association Agreement for closer association with the EU – the Executive at the European External Action Service Pierre Vimont told the House of Lords that the EU was caught by surprise. It ‘never really had any clear warning, on behalf of the Russians, that this [Agreement] was unacceptable to them, for many years; it came only at the last moment’.

A crucial question is how that is possible. Russia’s foreign policy stance has been relatively consistent since the early 2000s: it wants to settle the scores of the post-Cold War order, an order in which Russia had lost its rightful place. Institutionalizing relations with its ‘near abroad’ is a key piece of the puzzle. ‘We must all understand’, said Vladimir Putin during his inaugural speech in 2012, ‘that the life of our future generations and our prospects as a country and nation depend on […] our ability to become a leader and center of gravity for the whole of Eurasia’. In Russia’s foreign policy discourse, the EU is increasingly met with hostility.

The EU has failed to fully appreciate Russia’s mounting desire to shrug off the humiliation of the 1990s. It understood insufficiently how Russia increasingly conflated the EU’s integration proposals for the region with NATO expansion and, more broadly, western expansionism.

Critics have been quick to point to a lack of understanding and capabilities on the EU’s behalf. And indeed, it seems as if the EU misunderstood Russia’s confrontational stance looming under the surface since the Orange Revolution in 2004. The prevailing sentiment within the European institutions was that a more predictable and more prosperous shared neighborhood was also in the interest of Russia.

EU officials argue – in stark contrast to Russia, which accused the EU of presenting its neighbors with ‘false choice between Russia and Western Partners’ – that at no point in time the EU’s proposals were incompatible with Ukraine’s closer integration with Russia. A free trade agreement with the EU, goes the argument, would obviously rule out Ukraine joining a Customs Union with Russia, but aside from that, Ukraine was free to choose to pursue relations with its neighbors.

The deeply entrenched belief that the EU was democratizing Ukraine, a project that would be beneficial to Russia as well, but in itself purely a matter between the EU and Ukraine, was resilient to increasing signs that Russia did not share this view, and was heading for conflict.

This is not to deny that there are structural problems in the EU’s policy. On top of perennial EU member state disagreement over which course of action to choose, the EU lacks monitoring and intelligence capabilities. Persistent turf wars between the cobweb of institutions that deal with the EU’s neighbors make the Union less nimble than it should be. That means that in making decisions, and in acting upon cues, the EU builds on a very limited stream of valuable information.

But at the core of its problems with Russia stands rather its self-image as a radiating democratic sun in the European neighborhood. Indeed, the deeply rooted perception among EU policymakers that the chosen policy course was not just effective, but also legitimate, decreased the EU’s ability to detect problems in its approach to Ukraine. It also meant that the EU did not need a strategic approach, as power politics was not the EU’s style.

Such a postmodernist vision of European power stems not just from its attachment to morals and principles. It is a political choice. The diverging interests within the EU mean that a foreign policy grand strategy remains a pipe dream. Democracy promotion, executed by the EU through long-term technical processes, is something all member states can agree on.

So instead of a coherent strategy, the EU offered Russia ‘strategic partnerships’ and dialogues, yet remained unclear as to what place it accorded to Russia in its future plans. It consoled itself with a technical approach to tackle what essentially was a hot-button political issue.

Mismatches between perceived and objective context, between the European ideal of neighborhood relations and the Russian vision of its lost glory to be regained, obstructed the EU’s reading of what was really going on at its borders. Its convenient, postmodern conception of power wielded through technical documents and legal cooperation is at the heart of the current crisis, and potentially at the root of the next.

What Europe needs to do is to call a spade a spade. It needs a strategy towards and a meaningful dialogue with Russia, but it cannot do one without the other.

About the author: Nikki Ikani is a PhD Candidate in the Department of European Studies & International Relations at King’s College London, focusing on EU foreign policy.

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.