The EU has won, Russia has lost

If Russia’s aim was to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence, it has clearly failed

This article was originally published in El Pais.

OK, it does sound strange. I guess we are just not used to it. The European Union is rarely a source of good news. But if you look back and, even more importantly, into the future, you will see the hard fact that Russia has lost and the EU has won, despite the onslaught of nationalist rhetoric and military muscle that Putin has treated us to over these past few months.      

At first glance, we see that Russia has not only annexed Crimea, but it has also placed eastern Ukraine under the control of pro-Russian militias. You could say that Russia has not only bagged an extremely valuable strategic prize (the Crimean Peninsula and the Sebastopol naval base), but it has also chalked up a second objective: to destabilize Ukraine. In so doing, the idea is that Moscow, without cost to itself, has achieved something of incomparably greater significance: managing to defy the post-Cold War European order, based on the inviolability of borders and a rejection of the use of force, substantially devaluing NATO’s capacity to deter and making the Atlantic Alliance look like a pathetically useless tool.

But now, turn the situation on its head. If the aim of Russia was to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence, it has clearly failed. Far from bringing in the nationalist and anti-Semitic extreme right as some had predicted, the May 25 elections, given a clean bill of health by the international community, resulted in victory for Petro Poroshenko, a new president who can lay claim to complete legitimacy in terms of stabilizing the country and aligning it with the EU (if, of course, he does not make the same mistakes as his predecessors). Without Ukraine, Russia’s planned Eurasian Union is simply not big enough to become a genuine alternative center of power. As for the energy rapprochement between Russia and China, it is clear that the Chinese are too smart to confuse Moscow’s interests with their own.

Russia’s problem is that it has won a game which is obsolete. In refusing to engage in a contest of military deterrence and spheres of influence, the European Union has understood much better which power dynamics are important in today’s world. The first two rounds of sanctions adopted by the EU and the United States, backed up by the threat of a third with deeper implications, have been well judged. This action has sent a crucial message to Moscow: its geopolitical conquests will come with a prohibitive economic cost. In need as it is of sweeping modernization, the Russian economy cannot exist in isolation from the European Union, which is still the leading economy in the world and first in commerce and investments. As we have seen so vividly in these past few years, there is no sovereignty outside the financial markets. Welcome to the 21st century, dear Russian friends.

Follow me on Twitter @jitorreblanca and in the blog Café Steiner at

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


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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