The Ukraine crisis and the West’s true problem

The West's reaction to the Ukraine crisis was not as big a disaster as many think

Some observers have heaped scorn on the West’s seemingly knee-jerk reaction to the crisis in Ukraine. But in fact, the West’s reaction was not so much a failure as some people think. And the West faces problems that would still remain even if it had reacted differently.

The Ukraine problem

Ukraine still poses a major problem, even after the presidential elections of 25 May. Too many of Ukraine’s politicians have behaved for too long like pilots about to crash, heading for a catastrophe and completely paralysed in the face of it. When he closed the door on the European Union, Viktor Yanukovych knew well that he would run into strong opposition back home. But he would not make even the slightest tactical compromise – if he had, he might still be in his villa.

After Yanukovych signed the agreement to step down no later than December 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament gave in to the fury on the Maidan and removed the president from office, even though it knew that this would represent an intolerable provocation to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Since taking over, the interim leaders have watched the events in Eastern Ukraine as if hypnotised. They have failed to wage a war for the hearts and minds of the people in the region, who, as polls indicated, did not want to become part of Russia, but were left alone with well-trained thugs and separatists from within and beyond the border. And in the end, the leaders in Kyiv did not know better than to send in troops, even at the risk of setting off civil war.

However, so far, the blood that has been spilled is blood on Putin’s hands. In Germany, many people believe that there is too much empathy for Russia from the Russlandversteher, the “Russia understanders”. But in a crisis, it is important to understand what the situation looks like to the other side. In the eyes of Putin’s Russia, the West is encroaching on Russia’s proper space in an attempt to contain it. At the same time, Russia believes the West is weak because of its dependency on Russian energy. It is decadent as a civilisation and spineless as a political actor.

Putin’s failed gamble

On the other hand, what has Putin’s Russia achieved so far? Only a single costly strategic advantage, achieved by ripping Crimea out of Ukraine. The achievement can be described as costly because Russia reneged on its agreement to leave Ukraine’s borders intact in return for Ukraine giving up its Soviet nuclear stockpile at the end of the Cold War. Putin’s Russia cannot be trusted to keep its word. This is a potentially serious long-term disadvantage: for example, who now believes Putin when he promises to co-operate with the new president of Ukraine?

Putin’s Russia also brought Ukraine closer to disintegration, in its efforts to prevent it from moving towards the EU or NATO. This, again, was achieved at a price. The complete disintegration of Ukraine – which is not yet out of the question – would mean that the eastern part of Ukraine became an economic and political burden for Russia. The western part would move closer to the EU – which Ukraine’s newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko has already stated to be his goal – and, yes, would get closer to some day joining NATO as well. Putin had wanted to raise doubts about NATO’s willingness to abide by its agreements, but NATO’s efforts have reassured the eastern members of the alliance that they can rely on NATO standing by its obligations.

Meanwhile, in Russia itself, Western sanctions will have gradual but unstoppable results, causing negative economic and psychological effects. Putin has had to turn to China, at a high price. This has reminded the Russian public just how much their president has isolated the country and damaged its future economic prospects. From Putin’s point of view, things do not look good. He is trying to realise his pet project, the Eurasian Union, through economic strength based on energy profits along with strong nationalistic sentiments (with religious undertones). But this project and this outlook have brought the country, for the time being, to a dead end.

The West’s success

The situation is not only of Putin’s making. The West could not stop Russia from meddling violently in Ukraine. But if, as indicated by the results of the presidential elections, Ukraine is moving in a better direction, then this is to a large degree the West’s success. And this success was not easily come by. Each country had its own reasons for pulling against the others and refusing to take action against Russia.

It should not have been unexpected that the United Kingdom was not prepared to rush headlong into comprehensive sanctions against Russia’s financial businesses, given that these enterprises are a mainstay of the UK’s economy. It was hardly astonishing that France hesitated to cancel or violate arms contracts with Russia, which were partly paid already. It was even less surprising that countries such as the Baltic States, Slovakia, Hungary, and Germany, which are heavily dependent on Russian energy deliveries, should pause before exposing their economies to energy supply crises. Japan, which is finally improving its long troubled relations with Russia, was clearly not going to be eager to worsen its situation. With the United States being far less economically involved with Russia, it was entirely predictable that it should see things somewhat differently, and, in consequence, be only barely able to keep control of the Western coalition.

But this whole situation was the West’s problem and no-one else’s. No-one else could act. Not the United Nations, paralysed by Russia’s veto power and by China’s disinclination to take on international responsibility. The BRICS club remained silent and so did the G-20. The West was faced with the first true threat to stability and peace in Europe since the end of the Cold War. And in applying sanctions against Russia, it managed the threat, even if only through awkwardly groping its way.

The fact that the West managed to present a united front in dealing with Russia was not the outcome of “leadership”, nor of obligations, nor of tactical alliances. Instead, it was the outcome of necessity. This, in fact, makes the solution – increasingly severe sanctions – more robust in the long term. When it was not really expected, countries felt bound by democratic values and they took action. Slowly, without knowing where it would end, they have made Putin’s Russia understand that it will pay a high price if it is to continue along its current path. With all their vital economic interests at risk, and even in the midst of opportunistic manoeuvring, Western countries bit the bullet.

All too often, in the public sphere, people regret that the West did not consider a military option. But if it had, many more people might have been killed. The outcome would have been uncertain, and Russia would have become an even more incalculable spoiler in the future development of Eastern Europe. If at some point in the future, in another crisis, the West should consider a military option, it would do well to remember the lesson of this crisis. Level-headedness – even if only in the absence of other choices – pays.

The EU’s collective action problem

Of course, the crisis is far from over. Tremendous risks remain, most of all for Ukrainians. But while the Ukraine elections are encouraging for the West’s ability to cope with future problems, at the same time, the elections for the European Parliament present an opportunity to take a more critical view of the EU’s inner workings during the Ukraine crisis.

The past few months have exposed two serious problems for the EU, which have the potential to turn into problems for Europe’s partners too. Under the Lisbon Treaty, European foreign policy is supposed to evolve out of the work of the European External Action Service. Where has the EEAS been? The major ideas, initiatives, and concrete measures throughout the Ukraine crisis came from member states. EU foreign policy emerged from inter-governmental co-operation, much as it did before Lisbon. This kind of process is often necessary, if only to integrate parliaments and constituencies back home. But the EEAS was created to provide impetus, to stimulate, and to initiate a coherent European foreign policy, to convince citizens in the member states. Why should citizens go out to vote for the European Parliament when they do not see the EU taking the lead in times of real crisis?

A related problem is that of the EU population’s diverse views. The rightist and populist parties across the region sympathise with Putin’s Russia in many ways. The common denominator between the different parties is hostility to the EU as a supranational institution. These parties have now been elected in greater numbers to the European Parliament, gaining a quarter of the votes in some countries, such as France. They are bound to weaken the impression that European unity remains solid even when Europe’s values are under attack. The lesson from both the elections held on 25 May is that the EU can achieve success even under tremendous duress – but its ability to do so in the future may be in danger. 

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


ECFR Alumni · Council Member & Former Senior Advisor to the Asia & China programme

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.