What should the EU do about Ukraine?

Policy Paper — Affirmative Action for the EU to Address the Ukraine Crisis

Given conflicting norms and values, the Russian government and the EU are highly unlikely to agree on the long term status of Ukraine (or indeed many of the ex-Soviet states). Put simply, Russia is an illiberal state that demands influence over these nations’ foreign and security policies and this is an anathema to those countries and to the EU.

Policy Recommendation

The EU should stand firm against Russian aggression and its continued interference in Ukraine’s sovereignty by focusing on the EU’s core values: democracy, human rights, freedom and the rule of law (as enshrined by the EU Parliament in 2019). It should aid Ukraine and isolate and apply further pressure to Russia. In doing so it will need to amplify such policies with the help of allies, notably NATO and the US, and ‘dig in’ for the long term. Alternate options exist but risk exacerbating the crisis.

Russia and the EU must continue to engage and can agree on areas that are mutually beneficial (e.g. energy sales or fighting global jihadism) however, long term, unless Russia and/or Ukraine democratically choose a very different path, this cannot include Ukraine’s sovereignty. The EU’s relationship with Russia must therefore be considered transactional at best. The EU should obtain the best results through piecemeal coordination where interests align but be extremely wary of Russia’s intentions. It should take a very firm line on suspected Russian aggressions be they cyberattacks or political meddling, (although the effectiveness of this must not be exaggerated, Russia is not responsible for every evil in Europe). The ultimate aim of this policy is for Ukrainian territorial sovereignty to be respected and Russia to restore Crimea and the Donbass regions to allow for a peaceful resolution of the crisis — all under the starting point of the Minsk II agreement.

Sanctions are working (Foreign Affairs 2019; Washington Post 2018, Giles 2019), the EU should therefore widen and deepen them targeting the Oligarchs, the large number of ‘Minigarchs’ and the ‘Siloviki’ (and their organisations). These individuals are the criminal-entrepreneurial decision-makers that curry favour by interpreting and implementing what they believe to be Putin’s will (Galeotti 2019). The EU should target this system also by significantly beefing up anti-corruption measures, including lobbying for the ECB to take on a direct anti-money laundering responsibility in Europe with severe penalties for transgressing banks akin to the US system.

However the EU should be very wary of meddling in internal Russian politics and crucially make it clear that it does NOT support any kind of regime change — not only as this would play into Russian accusations about its sovereignty but also because such a change would be very destabilising. The EU can and should verbally support Russian democratic institutions (however weak), its NGOs, anti-corruption groups and civil society at large.

Ukraine needs economic support and delivering this will be key to isolating Russia. The EU should look to expand on the Association Agreement with Ukraine including fully implementing the free trade area and hold open the possibility of eventual full EU membership (as per the Agreement itself). However such steps should only occur cautiously and if and when Ukraine takes genuine and serious steps to reduce corruption and jail corrupt politicians (which is another means Russia uses to meddle). The EU may also then look to use part of its structural funds to invest in Ukraine’s infrastructure and encourage EU companies also, potentially with loan guarantees. The EU should also offer expertise where it can and symbolic gestures (e.g. visits by delegations and leaders, cultural exchanges etc).

Summary — Isolate Russia, Support Ukraine


· Stands up for core European values on sovereignty and the rules-based system.

· Coordinates with US policy.

· Clear ‘line in the sand’ message to Russia, e.g. preventing encroachment in Eastern Europe.

· Russia will, in the long term, have to take the EU seriously. It cannot continue to undermine its democratic values without consequences.

· Wields the only power Russia respects that the EU has (economic). It also engages (and reinforces) EU soft power.

· Ukraine represents a potential strategic ally and economic partner. Such a policy should fix it within the EU orbit.


· EU agreement will be difficult. France and Italy appear to favour engagement.

· Russia may well respond and escalate tensions.

· President Trump’s position has been contradictory (although Congress has been far firmer) the EU could risk isolation.

The EU’s Achilles’ heel is its lack of unity — it will no doubt be challenging for certain member states to agree to this policy. Therefore to give it a chance of success, the EU should show flexibility where it can to achieve consensus. Specifically this could mean allowing member states to deal flexibly with Russian energy supplies (noting though that Nordstream II is a highly suspect project). However such flexibility on energy should be conditional on member state investment in implementing the integrated internal energy market and development of alternate energy sources. This would blunt the ability for Russia to use its energy supplies as a political weapon. The EU could also allow for certain flexibility on other matters such as Chinese BRI investments in countries such as Greece and Italy in return for their support (FT 2019).

Policy Alternatives

Three other basic policy options exist for the EU: maintaining the status quo would be the easiest option albeit accepting that it lacks coherence and may well just prolong the situation; cautious engagement with Russia could maintain pressure but open the door following positive verifiable Russian actions; or an ambitious ‘reset’ of the relationship could see acceptance of certain key Russian demands given in return for significant positive steps.

1. Maintain status quo


· Likely to achieve acceptance by member states, i.e. is achievable.

· The EU can, just about, maintain that it is defending its values including the interests of its eastern members and Ukraine.


· Russia appears able to weather the current sanctions regime, its policies have not changed. It has little respect for the EU’s actions.

· Russia therefore may be unlikely to change its approach — prolonging the agony long term in Ukraine; fighting may return in earnest in the spring/summer.

2. Cautious engagement


· Some commentators (e.g. Kinsella 2017) argue that Russia cannot be isolated, and that the West must reach out to it taking into account its security concerns about its ‘near abroad’. Indeed this is the mood music recently emanating from the Élysée in Paris. They also argue that Russia has legitimate concerns in protecting Russian speakers abroad and that the vast majority of the population of Crimea wanted reunification with Russia.

· This is likely to be popular among some member states that are more sympathetic to Russia’s position and simply want to focus on other local challenges.

· A positive tone could be set, and so Russia may lose international legitimacy if it did not respond positively.


· Could damage relations with the UK and Baltic nations, and also the US (Congress).

· Past history (e.g. Minsk negotiations) suggests Russia would likely take what was given and use ‘smoke and mirrors’ to feign cooperation. The EU would thus ultimately lose leverage.

· Fails to recognise the serious fundamental difference in values between Russia’s leaders and those of the West. This policy would likely ultimately end up akin to the below.

3. Ambitious reset: negotiate and look to appease


· An ambitious carrot-over-stick approach to unlock years of conflict such that, with help, Russia may ultimately become a more liberal democracy or at least become a more trustworthy partner to the EU.

· The EU and its member states have significant problems to deal with: the Euro crisis, the refugee crisis and Brexit, removing Ukraine/Russia (albeit arguably by throwing Ukraine under the proverbial bus) as a long term problem would be a major policy win for the EU allowing it to focus more on other areas.


· Completely undermines the EU’s stated core values. It would mean rejecting the Ukraine’s democratically stated desires by effectively ceding it to Russian influence. This would send a stark message to other countries suffering oppression in the region and indeed globally. It would undermine the EU’s standing.

· In various forms, this has been tried in the past and failed (e.g. the Clinton/Lavrov reset, 2009): a repeated cycle follows hope: disappointment, frustration and ultimate crisis.

· Unlikely to be deliverable (e.g. position of Baltic States) and would drive a wedge between western allies, consequences could be grave on cooperation in other areas.

· Feeds Russian illusions of grandeur.


The Ukraine crisis, brewing ever since the massive electoral fraud orchestrated by the then pro-Russia government (with significant Russian support) and subsequent Orange Revolution in 2004/05, shows no signs of ending. In 2014, following the ‘Euromaiden’ protests, Russia annexed Crimea and sent its forces into the Donbass region to support separatists where they remain. On 17 July 2014 a Russian-supplied missile shot down flight MH17 murdering 298 people. The UN estimates that 13,000 people have been killed since 2014. While the recent crisis remains frozen, Russia demands significant long term influence and effective control over the Donbass to reign in the separatists there.

Since the fall of communism, Russia has been responsible for two Chechen wars — in 1994 and 1999 (including the virtual destruction of Grozny); antidemocratic meddling in Abkhazia and Moldova and the 2008 invasion (and continued occupation) of Georgia. Add to this Russia’s abusive use of force in Syria supporting the Assad regime and a multitude of undemocratic and illegal actions at home and abroad (including two verified foreign assassinations in Salisbury and Berlin) and this demonstrates the behaviour of an illiberal, malign international actor.

Russia’s leaders have demonstrated they view the international sphere as a zero sum game of power where all parties have hostile intentions (Giles 2019). Russia’s leaders believe fundamentally that the West is intent on keeping Russia down (Galeotti 2019). However Putin is not a Machiavelli. He is a product of a system, not its creator. He is an opportunist but one that is deeply insecure, cautious and risk averse. He prioritises his regime’s stability (Calder/Light 2018, Galeotti, 2019). Furthermore the leadership believes that Russia has a fixed right to special international status (Kotkin 2016, Giles 2019) that allows it influence over its neighbours. Leaders in the EU should not fall into the trap of assuming Russia’s leaders think like they do and will change given the chance (Wohlforth/Zubok 2017).

The depressing conclusion is that Russia’s current generation of leaders will not accept anything less than the ability to undermine the democratic functioning of neighbouring states’ institutions where it suits them to do so.

And yet the West maintains massive (and growing) advantages over a declining Russia. In terms of GDP, Russia is a minnow against the massive EU goliath ($1.6tn against $18tr including the UK). Defence spending also highlights this: EU spends €200bn annually; while the US spends 686bn and Russia only $66bn. Despite success in Syria Russia actually has a very poor ability to project power.

Russia has not innovated its economic growth and faces long term demographic decline. Its massive border is a source of weakness and its leadership and political system while brutally effective is very brittle. Russia’s neighbours engage in strategic hedging but typically aim historically to align more with the West. It has massive resources but climate change threatens this.

The EU also faces existential threats but its challenges are, to a large degree, within its control. Greater integration and the completion of the Euro as a global reserve currency could unleash significant further soft power globally. However its disunity holds it back notably of late the break-down of the Franco-German political motor. The MidEast crises and relations with Turkey represent significant risks. The EU nevertheless does have significant soft power not least because many non-Europeans want to trade with it, become a member or live there.


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Financial Times (2019). How Italy’s ruling class has warmed to China investments. https://www.ft.com/content/4b170d34-40f9-11e9-b896-fe36ec32aece

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Fintech investor/director. Brit in Barcelona. LSE IDEAS MSc graduate in International Relations.

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