Europe is between a rock and a hard place. In order to meet the challenge posed by the annexation of Crimea, Europeans will have to unite around shared global imperatives rather than being divided by Russia’s asymmetric impact on the EU. In the past, relations with Russia were one of the most divisive issues – if not the most divisive issue – in European foreign policy. In the last five years, the differences between member states, based on geography and history as well as economic and security interests, seemed to have narrowed. But the Ukraine crisis has the potential to undermine Europe’s fragile cohesion and to open up old fault lines between EU member states and to create new ones.
So far the EU – led by the so-called Weimar Triangle of France, Germany, and Poland – has remained united in response to the Ukraine crisis. But the common line is still based on shaky foundations and, as is often the case in European foreign policy, reflects the lowest common denominator. On 21 March the European Council tasked the European Commission with preparing a “third wave” of sanctions targeting the Russian economy. But this seems not to have deterred Putin from further destabilising eastern Ukraine. Thus the EU now faces a difficult debate about what to do next. Divisions are already surfacing and several clusters of member states, each with their take on Russia, are emerging.
At one end of the spectrum are the Baltic states, Poland, and Sweden, which have been pushing for a bold response, despite some of these states’ extreme dependence on Russian gas. So far they have opted for moderation in the name of a common EU position. However, if the situation deteriorates further, they will likely insist even more on wide-ranging sanctions.
At the other end of the spectrum are Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and Spain, which have varying degrees of economic links with Russia but all worry about any steps that might put in jeopardy their sluggish recovery. For Italy, Russia is also an important energy and trade partner. Greece and especially Cyprus are traditional Russian allies. Cyprus is a special case because of the extremely high levels of Russian investment and tourism, and close to 2 percent of residents in Greek Cyprus are Russian. Central European countries such as Slovakia (which is working on a new gas deal with Russia), Hungary (which has recently signed a contract with Rosatom to double the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant) and Bulgaria (which is proceeding with its section of the South Stream pipeline) also want to avoid antagonising Russia.
The big three member states are somewhere in the middle. France and the UK are crucial for the efficiency of sanctions and do not exclude the possibility of imposing them if there is no other choice. But they are insisting on the “equal pain” principle – that is, each member states should make roughly equal sacrifices based on its specific economic interests in relation to Russia. Germany, the key country because of its economic importance to Russia, is still hesitating. A major re-assessment of Germany’s approach to Russia – traditionally based on the idea of co-operation with Russia – is now taking place and it is not clear how it will end. The question of sanctions could divide the German political establishment and even the grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.
It is not only an escalation in the conflict with Russia that could be source of new tensions among the EU member states. In fact, an attempt by Russia to seek a diplomatic solution could be equally disruptive. Some member states saw the Lavrov memorandum (which outlined Moscow’s expectations and conditions, such as the federalisation of Ukraine, reconstruction of the government in Kyiv, neutrality, etc.) as a good compromise – or were at least ready to accept to some extent Russia’s claim to have a say in Ukraine’s domestic affairs. Others would see this as a capitulation to Russia. If the EU is serious about looking for compromise when the time is ready, it should start now to discuss possible options and scope for a common position. If, on the other hand, the EU is unprepared, its unity might evaporate in negotiations with Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.