The Ukraine crisis marks a new era in the relationship between Russia and the West: an era in which there are no shared rules. The European Union has failed in its post-Cold War efforts to include Russia into a sphere of shared norms. Russia has not only cast aside the norms of democracy and rule of law on which the domestic order in European states is based, but it has also violated the core standards of European security. As a result, rejecting the Kremlin’s game – that of power politics and the effort to re-establish spheres of influence – is an existential matter for the EU, and especially for those member states that border Russia.
For several years, Russia has been signalling to the West that it wants its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space recognised. The West has rightly refused to accept this approach, but it has not convinced Russia that its own policies in the region are benevolent. The further eastward that the EU’s normative dominance has moved, the more resistance it has met from Moscow. Now, the Ukraine crisis is severely and violently testing the limits of the ideas that underpin European integration: the belief that (economic) integration is the way to extend peace and prosperity across the continent.
The Ukraine crisis marks a new era in the relationship between Russia and the West: an era in which there are no shared rules.
In looking for ways out of the crisis, Europe’s eventual aim must be to reach an agreement with Russia on a renewed security order. However, the current disagreements are profound and trust has been lost on both sides. So, we should have no illusions that such an agreement will be achieved anytime soon. For the time being, even if a new agreement on shared rules were to be made, neither side could be sure of the other’s intentions to stick to the rules agreed.
As talk continues about the threat of a new Cold War, Russia’s immediate neighbours are the most vulnerable and have the most at stake. For the small nations bordering Russia, international recognition of the principle of national self-determination is essential. In a speech on 10 November, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö noted: “The final phase of the Cold War showed that attempts to hold peoples in a certain situation against their will are in vain. Sooner or later, the dams built to contain popular sentiment will break.” Any attempt by great powers to make an arrangement on the position of Ukraine would constitute another such dam. Instead of providing a sustainable solution, it would sow the seeds for future instability.
Ukraine’s vulnerability to Russian aggression sends an important message to other “border countries”, such as Finland and the Baltic States.
Ukraine’s vulnerability to Russian aggression sends an important message to other “border countries”, such as Finland and the Baltic States, as well as to their partners in the West. To get by in the absence of shared rules and to avoid the fate of Ukraine, they have to ensure domestic stability, the resilience of their democracies, the sustainability of their economies, and the credibility of their national defence. Ukraine was and remains weak in all these areas. The crisis has inevitably revived the efforts of Russia’s neighbours to boost their national defence, whether by strengthening the commitment of their NATO allies, as in the cases of the Baltic States and Poland, or by enhancing national capabilities and international partnerships, as in the cases of Finland and Sweden.
Furthermore, the West must remain unified as an essential part of the survival strategies of Russia’s neighbours, as well as a precondition for Europe’s ability to defend its values and norms. The EU seems largely in agreement that even a weak common policy towards Russia is a better option than no common policy at all. But worryingly, the EU does not share an understanding about the strategic importance of the Ukraine crisis or about the threat that Russia’s actions in Ukraine pose to European security. The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 served as a wake-up call that exposed the broader relevance of events in Ukraine, and caused the EU to impose economic sanctions on Russia in July. However, the imposition of punitive measures was soon followed by a debate on the prospects for easing the sanctions, which had little to do with the realities in the region in conflict.
The Ukraine crisis raises uneasy questions about Europe’s red lines in its efforts to counter Russia’s grave violations of international norms. The EU has quite simply failed to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its eastern partners. Its repeated statements underlining the importance of these principles have been shown to have little practical meaning and only serve to undermine its credibility.
While a failed state in Ukraine would be tragic and costly for the whole of Europe, economic collapse and political chaos in Russia is an even more dangerous prospect.
And yet, the EU has no alternative to supporting Ukraine, both for moral and for pragmatic reasons. For the sake of its own integrity, the EU cannot look the other way when a European nation is facing aggression because of its aspiration towards European values and closer relations with the West. And for the sake of its rational self-interest, it cannot let a large European country fall into chaos, since this would have serious spill-over effects, including the risk of the spread of violence, economic costs, and migration flows – not to mention human suffering.
While a failed state in Ukraine would be tragic and costly for the whole of Europe, economic collapse and political chaos in Russia is an even more dangerous prospect. Russia at the moment is characterised by a worsening economic outlook, an increase in nationalist fervour, the loosening of ties with the West, and a readiness to pay a high price in order to pursue its imperialist ambitions. The combination is dangerous and unsustainable. Western sanctions will precipitate the demise of the current regime, which will eventually come to an end, whether it happens in two, five, or more years.
Europe, and especially Russia’s European neighbours, should start thinking now about the possibility of a serious domestic crisis inside Russia. In the last days of the Soviet Union, the West helped to manage its breakdown by providing billions of dollars of aid. The time may come when we will once again need to consider assisting Russia in order to help avoid or manage its collapse. Contrary to popular opinion in Russia, we do not want chaos after Vladimir Putin.
Kristi Raik is Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
This paper is part of the Wider Europe Forum and is one in a series of five papers presented on 17 November at ECFR’s EU-Russia Strategy Group. This Group was set up in 2014 to provide a venue for a restricted group of European policymakers and experts to have an informal and high-level dialogue on Russia. It is supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation and the German and Polish foreign ministries.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.