Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Europe: "No More Illusions About Russia"

Analysis of evolving US and European foreign policy responses to the Ukraine crisis.
By Daniella Peled

The Ukraine crisis has signalled a major shift in the West’s relations with Russia. IWPR editor Daniella Peled talks to Jana Kobzova of the European Council on Foreign Relations about what has changed, and the issues that might shape future policy.

The European Union and the United States seemed to disagree on the best way to respond to the crisis in its initial stages. Have their positions drawn closer?

The US and EU are bound to have different approaches to the crisis because they have very different positions and interests. The US is far away geographically, with no shared borders and with less trade than Europe.

The US can have a very strategic focus on key issues such as global and regional security – including Afghanistan – and nuclear disarmament. Russia plays a limited role in the Middle East, although it has managed to exploit the Syrian issue.

The exchange of people between Russia and the US is also quite small in comparison to Europe.

The situation with Europe is the reverse. Russia and Europe have a lot of trade links, a great deal of movement of people, especially from Russia to Europe, and energy is interconnected. Geographical proximity means that a number of EU member-states share borders with Russia. So they were bound to have different approaches to Ukraine.

But there has certainly been coordination and a unity of objective and goals over this issue. Neither side wants to see Ukraine partitioned or a further dissociation of regions from Ukraine. They want to see things return to how they were before, and both would like to see more democracy and further reforms in Ukraine.

On a certain level, the US was faster to react and more formidable in its response. It was the first to come out with sanctions and target some top people, and also pressured Europe to act in a certain way.

What is the significance of the steps taken against Russia so far?

The quite extensive way in which the US sanctions worked when it comes to banking is interesting. With Rossiya Bank, they didn’t just freeze its dollar transactions but banned other banks from engaging in dollar transactions with it. This is quite intrusive and – although not directly comparable – it is how Iran was gradually frozen out of the market, because everyone who traded with Tehran was targeted.

Rossiya Bank is not a big bank – it isn’t going to cause the collapse of the Russian banking system – but it serves the elite, and the sanctions are intended to punish that elite.

The EU sanctions are quite similar – mainly visa bans and asset freezes for people who are seen as part of Putin’s inner circle, or who played a role in approving the Russian troops movement into Ukraine. Also included on the list is Dmitry Kiselyov, director of Russia Today, which acts as the chief mouthpiece of Putin’s propaganda.

The EU has no hard power with which to respond, but the US does, especially through NATO. And they are exploring the hard power option. There are consultations about increasing the US presence in the Baltics and Poland, including joint policing of airspace and probably a number of other measures.

However, there is a kind of consensus between Europe and the US that for now, this is as far as they’re going to go to punish Russia.

It is mostly cosmetic, but still a huge thing. To slap sanctions on Belarus or Zimbabwe is one thing, but it’s quite another to imposed them on a nuclear power. If someone had suggested it six months ago, they would have been laughed at, despite politically motivated trials and the shrinking space for activism in Russia.

How is this likely to affect future links between the EU and Russia?

There will be a change in the quality of relations. No one has any illusions about Russia now. The assumption once was that Russia was a bit different, but part of the European continent, and that they would try to build on the similarities.

A number of European leaders, especially those geographically closer to Russia, feel vindicated – the Baltic states, the Poles and most other central and eastern states.

In Putin’s first term, from 2000 to 2004, he cared about how the West perceived him. There was a general attempt to mend ties with Europe and the West, such as post-9/11 offers of co-operation on security. In that era he had good relations with [German chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder, not to mention what were officially called “common spaces” in which the EU and Russia aimed to integrate with closer markets, cultural spaces and security.

Putin’s foreign policy changed after his first presidential term. He no longer cared about cooperation, apart from on issues essential to Russia, for instance Afghanistan. And the Russian elite no longer care about how it is perceived in the West.

This doesn’t mean they have given up on soft power, but it is projected more on the regions of largely Russian-speaking population and the former Soviet Union. It’s more than just language, and extends also to the Orthodox church. In recent years Putin has strongly defended conservative social values as opposed to those of the “decadent West”.

During the 2008 war with Georgia, the reaction was very weak on the Western side. Russia engaged in provocation for months in the run-up to the war. Tbilisi took the first step. It was a more complex situation and there was room for different interpretations.

In Crimea, it all was very blatant. There was no pro-independence movement in Crimea; it was not part of the public discourse. In 2008 in Georgia, not everyone was using the language of occupation and aggression regarding what was going on. Now this is the unanimous assumption.

Crimea is lost. The key concern of the EU and the US for now is to stop further incursions into Ukrainian territory and deter an invasion of southern or eastern regions, or a repetition of the Crimea scenario in Moldova.

As for NATO, it needs to strengthen its own security when it comes to European members.

How is EU policy towards Russia likely to change as a result of the Ukraine crisis?

Closer integration between the Russian and European markets is now on the back burner.

If the EU limits diplomatic relations or imposes visa bans, that doesn’t mean it can ignore Russia. But there is a significant lowering of ambition. The idea of ever-closer integration between Europe and Russia is off the agenda.

We don’t know whether there will be an EU-Russia summit in June. Possibly not. The G8 summit is cancelled.

One hopes that one of the lessons the EU takes from this is the need to strengthen its own vulnerable members against Putin, and address vulnerabilities beyond energy dependence.

When the crisis happened, Estonia, Latvia and Poland were quite dependant on Russia for their energy. Nonetheless, they pushed for sanctions. It reached a point where they didn’t care about the economic impact, but cared about their own security. They saw that if no strong action was taken, it would encourage more.

In 2009, Russia did cut the gas supply [in a dispute with Ukraine], but since then Europe has increased the budget for a regional energy market and shortened the time-frame for getting there. They are building connections so that if energy is cut off from Russia, they can get energy from somewhere else. For instance, Slovakia gets gas from Russia via Ukraine, but if that stops it can receive gas from Austria.

Putin said openly, “We are here to defend the Russians”. So Europe also has to ensure fully equal treatment for its Russian and other minorities.

And it needs to limit how Russia influences local politics by corrupting the political elite with shady business deals and economic links. They need to look into the whole money-laundering issue and at how complicit the European banks are in corruption.

Europe has to look at how it responds not only to transitional problems, but also to hard-core security threats.