Unified EU response on Ukraine will not be simple

Officials seek a clear position but sanctions would affect some states more than others


EU leaders today gather for a two-day summit in Brussels that is expected to be dominated by the evolving crisis in Ukraine.

As the euro zone crisis has subsided, foreign affairs has emerged as a key focus for the EU in recent months, with developments in Ukraine plunging Europe into one of its biggest foreign policy challenges of recent times.

Critics of the EU have long chastised the bloc’s competencies as regards foreign policy, with many citing its belatedness in dealing with the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Despite the creation of a foreign policy wing under the Lisbon treaty, the EU’s common foreign and security policy remains limited, as the EU tries to balance the very different prerogatives of its 28 member states.

The situation in Ukraine is arguably different – the EU’s decision to directly engage with Ukraine on an association agreement, and Kiev’s decision to withdraw from that process, directly triggered the current crisis, leaving the EU inadvertently implicated in the ensuing events. The EU’s close ties with Russia in terms
of trade and energy also demanded a response.

To date, the EU has taken an incremental approach to the situation in Ukraine. The emergency EU summit two weeks ago outlined a three-step approach, the first of which was a suspension of visa and investment talks. On Monday, stage two was triggered when EU foreign ministers agreed to travel bans and asset freezes on 21 individuals.

Whether the EU will move to the third step, which could involve broader economic, energy and financial sanctions, remains unclear, with leaders more likely to expand the list of targeted individuals.

From the outset of the crisis, the EU has been divided, with countries such as Poland, Sweden and the Baltic states favouring strong action on Russia, while Germany, Austria and Mediterranean countries have been urging caution.

German interdependence
The prominence of Germany in the current discussions is significant. For historic reasons, Germany has tended to take a backseat in EU foreign policy, with Britain and France, the only European members of the UN Security Council, taking a lead.

Germany’s particular interdependence with Russia in terms of energy supply and exports has forced it to take centre-stage in the current crisis. Despite having toughened its stance in recent weeks by agreeing to sanctions, yesterday Germany was still insisting that further “escalation” of the situation meant Russian military entry into eastern Ukraine, much to the dismay of many of its eastern European neighbours who are urging tougher action.

The reality that punitive sanctions will affect some EU countries more than others is a key consideration for the EU as it weighs up its options. This applies particularly to energy, with some countries almost entirely dependent on Russian gas. However, a combination of high energy reserves due to a mild winter, access to alternative liquefied natural supplies, and the EU’s diminishing dependence on Ukrainian gas pipes to carry Russian gas, means the EU is probably better positioned than it was
in 2009.

But the EU-Russia relationship is not confined to energy. The complexity of individual member states’ economic relationship with Russia was illustrated by comments earlier this week by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who suggested the UK should consider penalising Russian oligarchs in London, if France suspends a €1.2 billion deal to supply two warships to Moscow.

Stressing the need for a unified response, EU officials yesterday voiced concerns that Russia was attempting to exacerbate differences within the EU, noting Vladimir Putin’s mention of specific countries, such as Germany, in his speech on Tuesday.

Officials also played down suggestions that the decision to sign the political chapters of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine tomorrow morning at the summit could be seen by Russia as provocative.

Strong rhetoric
But for most analysts, the key outcome of today’s summit will be whether the EU articulates a position on whether the annexation of Crimea by Russia is acceptable. According to officials, no real discussion of what exactly would trigger “further measures” has yet taken place, and member states have not articulated a collective vision of what “red line” Russia has to cross before further action is justified.

Despite strong rhetoric from EU leaders about the unacceptability of Russia’s incursion into Crimea, there is no appetite for military action or peace-keeping activity, something that would fall under the auspices of Nato in any event. US vice-president Joe Biden’s suggestion that the US was considering sending forces to the Baltic region to conduct ground and naval exercises has been one of the rare mentions of military activity in the various responses by Western leaders in recent weeks.

Nato has remained cautious in its statements on the crisis, echoing the sentiment of other Western leaders, though the US in particular has noted that the alliance remains committed to collective defence.

Ultimately, however, the very existence of Nato, which was born out of the cold war, is likely to be the main deterrent for further Russian action in Eastern Ukraine. The threat of Nato intervention, even if not deployed, may allow the EU some breathing space ahead of next week’s G7 meeting in The Hague, as it continues to consolidate its response.

Suzanne Lynch is European

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