European insecurity after Crimea

The “express annexation” of Crimea has raised the issue of the continuing need for security guarantees in Europe.

The “express annexation” of Crimea, together with instability across eastern Ukraine, has raised an issue that West Europeans have forgotten after decades of comfortable security, but which is vital for the countries of the post-Soviet sphere that are knocking on our doors: the continuing need for security guarantees in Europe.

The absence or violation of security guarantees is at the root of the main inter-state conflicts in modern Europe. And as Czechs and Slovaks, for example, know well, lack of commitment to previously given guarantees inevitably causes powers in an imperialist and revanchist phase to overreach and to miscalculate.

The ups and downs in Europe’s relationship with Russia since the Cold War are informed by Russia’s objective of recreating European security architecture and instating new security guarantees that conform to its interests. The European order is structured around three basic axes: NATO as a hub for collective defence and a platform for American power in Europe, the European Union as a political and economic authority, and the OSCE as a political and security forum. Russia feels that this order is grossly unfair, because it only represents the West and takes no account of Russia’s role as an important power. This feeling is compounded by Russia’s perception of NATO’s eastward enlargement and (to Brussels’ surprise) the EU’s eastern expansion as a direct threat to Russian security interests.

Russia has given several warnings of its attitude to European security structures. One such warning was the war in Georgia in 2008, shortly after the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, which (albeit somewhat ambiguously) opened up the Atlantic path to Georgia and Ukraine. The second warning, in the initial stages of the Ukrainian crisis, was seen in Russia’s pressure to put the brakes not just on NATO enlargement, but on a watered-down enlargement of the EU through the Association Agreement with Ukraine.

Russia has combined its agenda of force and pressure with an agenda of diplomatic initiatives towards the creation of a new European security architecture. The core element of this new structure would be the mutual recognition of security guarantees by means of an international agreement. Despite some progress, the central point of disagreement has no clear solution. Russia wants a security guarantee that de facto hollows out NATO and affirms the principle of spheres of influence, which would give Russia, as illustrated in Ukraine, the prerogative to determine which alliances certain states can and cannot take up. This would be a violation of the basic principles of the Helsinki Final Act. And the divergence between the two sides is exacerbated by the neo-tsarist, revisionist agenda of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. The annexation of Crimea is, therefore, the third warning for ex-Soviet countries, such as Moldova, who do not have security guarantees and yet are trying to pivot to the West – and perhaps for some allies too.

Russia has wiped out the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guarantees that, together with the United States and the United Kingdom, it gave to Ukraine, a sovereign country that in return relinquished its significant nuclear arsenal. Russia has also shattered the trust needed to underpin the dialogue on security in Europe that it had itself set in motion. By doing so, it has tarnished the credibility of its diplomatic agenda.

The destabilisation of Ukraine sends two other messages that will echo beyond Ukraine’s borders. One of these messages goes out to nuclear proliferators in the context of a period of heightened geopolitical competition. From Barack Obama’s Prague vision of denuclearisation in 2009, the Ukraine scenario may cause nuclear powers to move gradually towards the minimalist agenda reflected in the Nuclear Security Summit held at The Hague in March 2014. Secondly, the situation potentially sends other greedy players a message of impunity. For this reason, sanctions, among other measures, should be deployed – not so much for getting Crimea back, but rather as deterrence to the escalation of adventurism and revanchism in the East and beyond.

Spain, as a European country with little strategic dependence on Russia, has displayed diplomatic caution in framing its response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its overall destabilisation of the region. Spain’s diplomatic stance is aimed at achieving a balance between conflicting needs: the need to de-escalate and the need for EU solidarity and a firm EU response. Spain is keen to avoid escalation, so it has misgivings about imposing full-fledged sanctions on Russia, and it has emphasised the need to keep diplomatic channels open. But for the sake of European unity and to prevent spillover effects from Russia’s breach of the European security order, Spain generally supports targeted EU sanctions as well as the deterrence measures proposed by NATO.

But this response is not sufficient for a key EU country. Spain has an opportunity to mix its traditional distaste for harsh measures with the furthering of synergies with its Eastern European partners and allies, most importantly Poland. European solidarity requires, first, a mutual understanding of security perceptions, and, second, the institution of joint cooperative measures. Spain has much to gain from a deeper engagement with its Eastern partners, beginning with Poland. This engagement should take place through the Weimar Triangle Plus, which includes Spain and Italy in addition to France, Germany, and Poland, as well as through NATO assurances in the run-up to the NATO Summit set to be held in Cardiff in September 2014. Spain should also focus on bilateral diplomatic initiatives. It should build on ongoing diplomatic partnerships between the Spanish and Polish foreign ministers with joint visits to Eastern Partnership and MENA countries. Showing firm commitment to EU/NATO members’ security would help Spain to gain greater understanding from its partners of its security concerns in the broader Southern Neighbourhood, such as the Sahel region.

*A shorter, earlier version of this text was posted by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo 28 March

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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