Again we discuss in Europe – this time concerning the Ukraine/Russia conflict – the strength and efficiency of Europe’s foreign and security policy. For some observers the EU is failing totally in its defense of its value and specifically in defending Ukraine against aggression by Russia. Europe – according to this opinion – is giving in and compromising too much and therefore Putin is gaining additional influence and power. Judy Dempsey from Carnegie foundation expressed this opinion when she wrote: “The West lacks readiness for a long, drawn-out struggle with Moscow”!

Hannes Swoboda

For others like John J. Mearsheimer its all the mistake of the West and especially of the EU: “The United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis.” They did not take into account and respect the interests of Russia by supporting or even creating changes in the Ukrainian society and by enhancing Ukraine’s rapprochement towards the West. Russia has a right to maintain some zone of influence and this must be respected by the West.

Only in parenthesis: a similar discussion takes place in Asia concerning the desire and insistence of China in having at least a zone of interest and influence in the seas around the Chinese coast. Also here some argue the smaller neighbors have to respect their mighty neighbor. Others plead for a no to Beijing and ask to confront and challenge China, because of its expansionist activities.

Again, so it seems we find a clash of attitudes and foreign policy conceptions. History was, is and will always be characterized by a struggle for influence and power, so one side, strongly represented by Henry Kissinger. Others see or at least want to see progress towards a world in which values and human rights are progressively implemented. At least they long for sincere cooperation between states and peoples on the basis of respect of some fundamentals. This is also the philosophy of the European unification process. After so many bloody wars about the dominance of different empires and powers inside and even outside our continent a new Europe, a European Union should be established.

After the breakdown of the Soviet empire and of the Soviet Union itself these basic ideas should be transported into the wider European sphere and being implemented there as well. But today again we must confess: the readiness to build a new democratic international society and a Europe which is overcoming its dreadful and bloody history and refrains from aggressive actions and annexations cannot be taken for granted for everybody on our continent. So we had the Yugoslav wars and today we are confronted with a Russia which is not accepting our philosophy.

Big powers are more equal

A special case of and for Realpolitik is the role of big powers. All of them, the USA, Russia and China, maybe in future also India think primarily in terms of power and influence. The USA for example declared their regional influence zone officially already in the framework of the Monroe doctrine. And we all know the long history of threats and sanctions against Cuba. China has its One-China policy and in the last years has become more aggressive concerning the different islands in their neighboring seas.

Russia is in a special situation. While the USA kept its – at least relative military – global dominance, and China regained Hong Kong after the end of the British governance of that peninsula, Russia was on the losing side after 1989. It lost influence on the former satellites of Eastern Europe and “its” territory has been reduced, as it lost several states which were dominated by Russia inside the Soviet Union. And in addition they lost this influence when they were weak and could hardly demand more respect for their sphere of influence. The extension of the EU and of NATO – was de facto and perceived as – to the detriment of their sphere of influence. And this always leads to the desire for revenge.

When Russia grew stronger and got a stronger leadership with Putin II things changed. Already before that, in the case of Moldavia and Georgia, Russia created new spheres of influence, even if very small. They used, or better misused, the minorities on the fringe of these countries to support their separatism. Due to the following frozen conflicts they have always some local allies to make troubles and blackmail the governments of Moldavia and Georgia. In the case of Georgia Russia even did not change their policy, after their „main enemy“ President Shakasvilli could not run again and a more pragmatic and friendly President and government were installed.

EU neighborhood policy and Maidan demonstration

It was the purpose of the EU neighborhood policy to create a ring of friends around the EU. So also for the EU it is and was about a zone of influence, even with good arguments about democratization and the establishment of a free market economy as aim. In any case neighborhood policy was an offer and never direct or indirect force have been used by the EU. In addition to strengthen neighborly relations, a future membership of the European neighbors was at least not excluded.

But developments were not so easy, as planned by the EU. Armenia, which was part of this strategy and offer declined after strong pressure by Moscow. The Ukrainian President Yanoukowitch played a double game. He wanted offers from both sides, but in the end bowed to strong Russian demands and threats. He did not foresee, as probably nobody did, the strong reaction of an important part of the population.

Probably many of the organizers of the Maidan demonstrations did not see the consequences themselves. As often with these developments, the course of events were out of control for many of the players. And so the compromise negotiated by three EU foreign ministers was soon history, Yanoukowitch left the country. And the EU could only have insisted on the negotiated agreement by standing against many young and enthusiastic people of the Maidan people, who wanted to get rid of the oligarchic regime and appealed to the EU not to forget, that they are fighting for European values.

And these dramatic changes inside Ukraine induced a sharp reaction of Russia. It seems the occupation and annexation of the Crimea and the intervention in Eastern Ukraine was already planned, in case Ukraine would drift into the EU and/or NATO orbit – geopolitical and domestically/ideologically.

It is a big question, if this reaction could have been foreseen and expected. And it is another question if this reaction could have been avoided. Evidently there were experts who described Russians or at least Putin’s feelings in view of the extension of the Western Hemisphere. And some of them made it clear, that Ukraine was the casus belli, in its truest sense. Looking to the history of Russia and the relevant myths, and the loss of its influence through the use/misuse of its weak position after the breakdown of the Soviet Union one could have been aware of the possibility or even probability of the Russian intervention.

How to react to Russia?

Recent analyses show, that some of the western negotiators promised the Russians, at least orally, that there would be no expansion of NATO close to Russia’s border. Mary Elise Sarotte in her analysis in Foreign Affairs, “A Broken Promise?” draws the following conclusion: “Put simply, there was never a formal deal, as Russia alleges – but U.S. and West German officials briefly implied that such a deal might be on the table, and in return they received a ‘green light’ to commence the process of German reunification.“

In addition, at the NATO summit of Bucharest a longterm promise of future membership has been given to the Ukraine, even if there were many reservations with some NATO members. Now an association agreement is not equal to NATO membership. But considering Putin’s plan for a Eurasian Union, the offer of a comprehensive association agreement between EU and Ukraine was clearly drastically weakening Putin’s strategy and plan. And obviously Putin did not want another defeat and reduction of Russian influence, he in the contrary thought about a counter-strategy. That at least could have been foreseen.

Another question is, if Europe should have given in to these fears and sensitivities of Putin and if some compromise solution would have been possible. Was it really not possible to develop and implement a rapprochement for Ukraine towards Europe – including the support for the respect of basic values and human rights inside Ukraine – without offending Russia?

On the other side, if it was not so much the trade agreement with the EU but much more the Maidan movement and their demands for democracy which annoyed Putin, would some compromise on the trade sector have helped?

Nobody can for sure answer these questions. But one can still say that it was somewhat naive from EU politicians and from the Maidan movement to expect Russia and Putin to accept another defeat. That the territorial gains of today cannot really compensate the losses of the past and the defeat in Ukraine itself, especially if Ukraine goes the way of democracy is obvious for us. But often it is not about facts but about symbols and myths. And Putin gained at least inside Russia a lot of additional support, at least for now.

The result of these developments, with which we are confronted is a mixture of sanctions and counter-sanctions, a fragile truce in the Eastern Ukraine and some talks on the implementation of the association agreement between the EU, Russia and Ukraine. What is still missing is a concept, how the West and especially Europe should deal with our neighbor Russia. And such a strategy is the more necessary as we have to realize that many governments of this world did not support the Western resolution in the UN General assembly condemning Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, including China, Brazil, India and also Israel.

And we could not even rely on support from Russia’s immediate eastern neighbors, who could also fear Russia’s aggressiveness – even if Uzbekistan abstained and some did not show up to the vote. Again we have to recognize, that the Central Asia states are especially dependent on Russia and partly have many Russian speaking citizens, even if one can see some differences of their leaders with Putin. And as the EU Central Asia strategy has been abandoned/failed we as Europeans cannot hope for opposition against Russia from there. We have nothing much to offer them.

Yes, a UN member and especially a member of the Security Council should not act illegally and annex foreign territory. But Israel is permanently occupying illegally foreign territory, is criticized by some, but not sanctioned. The US and some EU countries have illegally attacked Iraq and have not been sanctioned. And not only Russia did use their veto in protecting illegal actions, this is also done by the US and other members of the Security Council. All this facts do not justify Russia’s illegal actions against several of their neighbors, but it should give us some thoughts about morality and values inside our own policies.

There is another decisive factor, when we regard Putin’s policies: these are the internal measures of withdrawing and reducing civil rights and promoting a society based on restrictive conservative and religious values, contradicting many values of an open society. These policies are closely connected with Putin’s foreign policy as this was the case with some Czars who also promoted a reactionary domestic policy and created at the same time a New Russia partly on today’s Ukraine territory.

It is obvious, that the EU is very critical of these domestic and external policies of today’s Russia. These policies contradict our basic values and interests. As it is obvious, that the extreme right in Europe shows understanding and even support for Putin’s nationalistic strategy. Nevertheless it would be helpful to stay vigilant but at the same time realistic. Putin is neither Stalin nor Hitler. And to declare – without any proof – that Putin wants to reconstruct the Soviet Union is not helpful. These accusations create fears but are not able to lead us towards an exit strategy out of the present crisis in Europe.

EU has to look for an exit strategy

If war and military solutions are excluded as the way out, we have to find another strategy. Sanctions are an understandable reaction and contributed also to some cohesiveness of the EU’s approach towards the Ukraine crisis. But we should be aware, that some of these could be contested at the European Court, as was successfully the case with some sanctions against Iran, and we shall see what the Court will decide. But a cycle of sanctions and counter-sanctions is not a fruitful way out. It contradicts our strategy of open economies and global agreements.

We cannot avoid starting to design an all-European security structure where Russia, but also the US can find its place. Certainly, if Russia has the illusion, that Europe would accept a security structure and concept without US participation than we see way to find an agreement.On the other hand, we Europeans must have our own ideas and concepts how we can involve our European neighbor Russia and the US in such a comprehensive Atlantic structure. Maybe we missed the chance, when Medvedev as Russian President proposed such a security structure. Maybe it was just a propaganda gimmick. But we did not test the sincerity of his proposal. Anyway we have to have a vision of our “Common House” and its future, which we must oppose Putin’s nationalistic and divisive course

Perhaps we can come to some “modus vivendi” as was the case with the Soviet Union. Also at that time a strong defense capability was not in contradiction to negotiations to establish peace and security on a continent where different foreign policy and domestic approaches were present. And so it could be now. Europe has to find a way, whereby it can combine a value oriented policies internally and with regards to our neighbors and a Realpolitik which is preventing wars

One of the challenges will be to find an agreement with Russia, when the popularity of NATO in some our member countries and especially of NATO membership in Ukraine has been dramatically risen – due to Russia’s behavior. Some Ukrainian politicians even demand to reconsider the question of nuclear disarmament, as Russia has violated the Budapest agreement, which has constituted respect for Ukrainian borders including by Russia in exchange for giving up nuclear weapons. But again this stronger popularity of NATO can help to talk with Russia out if strength hand not of weakness.

Another consideration must concern the attitude of the EU towards the Eurasian Union or the Customs Union Russia is building up with some countries from Belorussia to Kazakhstan. As the EU could not establish a strong Central Asia strategy in right time, Europe has to think how it can deal with the future Customs Union and also find and use some different approaches inside that Union. Still not everybody of the Central Asian political classes would be happy to be too dependent on Russia and not every country/government can just be manipulated by Putin. Irrespective of the character of the different national leaders and parallel to strengthening the human rights dimension inside these countries together with local initiatives, Europe has to find specific „alliances“ with governments of Central Asia to limit Putin’s aggressive strategy. And of course we also have to strengthen our contacts and cooperation with China, again without denying our fundamental differences concerning human rights.


Europe is in a mess, but a way out must and can be found. With some honesty, we must confess, we did not regard all possible and probable reactions of Russia, when proposing the association agreement especially to Ukraine. And we did not take into account Yanukowitch’s reactions in view of his dependence on Russia and Putin personally. Looking to Russian decline in the years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, a strong reaction was to be expected. And looking to the cases of Moldavia and Georgia an additional land grab and support for separatism also on this case could be expected as well. These are facts, but that does not mean, that Russia’s actions and reactions are in anyway justified.

But now it is about the future, even if we do not know the end of the Ukraine crisis yet. Overall Europe and our values are still on the winning side. Yes, with Ukraine we got some setback, but there is no reason for defeatism. It is up to Europe now to take the initiative and to design a new all – European strategy which would include a serious offer to Russia including on security, without losing our vigilance towards Putin’s actions. We should not be naive but we have to take realities, all of them, into account. Russia is part of our continent, even if Putin and many of his followers are not sharing our values. A certain respect for Realpolitik does not mean we have to give them up. We can and must continue to fight for our values inside (!) and outside the EU.