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How the EU inflamed the Ukraine conflict

How the EU inflamed the Ukraine conflict

When Greece's Alex Tsipras met Russia's Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this month, it was grist to the mill for those who see Russia's hand in the war in eastern Ukraine as a Kremlin plot to break up the EU.

They include Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the acclaimed Bloodlands, who repeated recently on ABC radio his long-held view that, in Ukraine,'The chief fight isn't between Russia and the United States or even between Russia and Ukraine. It's between Russia and the EU.' 

This appeals to a view of the EU as a harmless giant, spreading the fruits of democracy and Europe's kinder version of capitalism across the continent in an act of far-sighted selflessness. But what if Europe's most serious security crisis in a generation were a result of Brussels' own flawed policies? To put it another way, does the war in Ukraine represent the limits of Western diplomacy or the tragedy of some of its premises?

Brussels' role in setting the stage for the crisis is one theme of an important new book, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, by Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer. Its main merit is the unusually searching light it shines on EU diplomacy. [fold]

According to received wisdom, the Association Agreement (AA) that the EU offered Ukraine in November 2013 was essentially a progressive document designed to strengthen Ukraine's liberal political and economic forces and thus help transform the country into a modern European democracy. 

Without necessarily denying that this was true at an EU level, Menon and Rumer stress that the AA's intended practical effect – indeed, its unacknowledged goal, for many EU members – was to wrench Kiev from Moscow's orbit and tie it economically, politically and strategically to Brussels, while avoiding the risks associated with full EU membership. Given Ukraine's divisions and Russia's sensitivities, they imply that this was like extending a lighted match to a pile of tinder. 

Economically reliant on subsidised Russian gas to sustain the high public spending of the late Soviet era, an independent Ukraine apparently wanted to have its cake and eat it too, simultaneously enjoying the benefits of both independence and the old union state. This, and the unresolved question of whether Ukraine was a 'state for the Ukrainian nation or for the people of Ukraine', was Ukraine's fundamental weakness, which the division between its western and eastern regions amplified rather than caused.

Yet it appears Brussels never fully understood the combustibility of Ukrainian politics or its fragile statehood. 

This mistake was only compounded by the conflicting aims of the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), out of which Ukraine's AA grew.  Rumer and Menon argue that, for all the emphasis on trade and internal reform, the ENP's most enthusiastic supporters (Sweden, Poland and the Baltics) had geopolitical goals. They wanted an unofficial buffer against Russia, with the post-national cover of the EU allowing them to disavow geopolitical ambitions and talk instead about democracy, human rights and economic liberalisation (the Western press rightly complains about Russian propaganda, but it's less often noted how often the EU practices its own doublespeak). Menon and Rumer write:

Though the ENP did not explicitly aim to create a wider sphere of EU influence or a collection of satellites subservient to Western Europe, the ENP's practical effect would still have amounted to creating a peripheral region where it would exert considerable influence. Extensive trade and economic relations would involve the EU as the dominant partner, and the EU would enjoy expanded political and cultural influence...In a word, Brussels' writ would be extended well beyond the European Union's borders to countries that were not even on the path toward EU membership.

Though Brussels presented the ENP as nothing but altruism, idealism and geopolitical self-interest in fact coincided. But by playing the Ukrainian AA down as nothing more than a 'trade deal', the EU refused to acknowledge, let alone prepare for, any of its attendant risks. As policy towards a country as deeply fissured as Ukraine, it was a cruel gamble. 

It was also wishful thinking when it came to Russia. The ENP's 'major weakness', Rumer and Menon write, was its 'premise, even if implicit...that Russia would somehow accept...the integration of post-Soviet states into the EU, and indeed that it would have no choice but to come to terms with that denouement, despite finding it disagreeable'. Yet 'historical, cultural, economic and strategic reasons' gave Russia ample grounds to do so. 

In other words, because Brussels was in denial about not only the geopolitical consequences of the ENP but also, even more damningly, its aims, it believed it could afford to ignore Moscow. Indeed, Menon and Rumer imply that Brussels simply found Russia – an old-fashioned power pursuing hard interests rather than values – impossible to fit within its model of the world. The gap was filled by the hope (famously 'not a policy', as the authors remind us) that Russia would see the world as Brussels saw it.

Not for the first time, this hope got the better of prudence. 

Before 2002, there was no shortage of warnings that Europe's very different national economies simply did not constitute an optimal currency area. Yet out of a mix of ambition, expediency and, as a recent report by the Centre for European Reform all but concedes, an excessively large measure of hope, Europe's leaders pushed ahead anyway. 

In foreign policy, as Henry Kissinger puts it in his recent book World Order, 'Everything depends on some conception of the future.' For many in Brussels and elsewhere that future is liberal, transnational and European. In Moscow, it is decidedly not. Whether or not it should be is a moot question. But making up the difference with wishful thinking simply isn't enough and the recent diplomatic initiatives by Germany's Angela Merkel suggest that Berlin at least now understands this. 

The appearance of a Greece-sized crack in EU unity on Russia is still a possibility before or after sanctions come up for renewal in July. If Europe's twin crises – the euro and Ukraine – morph into one, it will only confirm that the main danger facing Brussels isn't a Russian plot but rather, again in Kissinger's words, 'identifying its internal construction with its ultimate strategic purpose.'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mykhailo Liapin.

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