Russia and the Crisis in Ukraine: Implications for European Security

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To some observers, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine symbolizes the gradual erosion of Europe’s security architecture, as established by the Paris Charter, and the emergence of a new Cold War between Russia and the West. But are these pessimistic assumptions about the current state of East-West relations and Europe’s security actually justified? And if they are, then how can the West improve its ties with an increasingly bellicose Russia? These and other questions were the focus of the Center for Security Studies’ (CSS) latest Evening Talk. The guest speakers were Hanns Maull, who is a Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), and Andreas Wenger, who is the Director of the CSS. During their presentations and follow-on Q&A period, the two scholars elaborated on the broader security implications of the Ukraine conflict, the origins of Russia’s support for pro-Moscow rebels in the east of the country, and what adjustments the West (particularly Europe) should make to its Russia policies.

A Russia transformed?

Professor Maull began the proceedings by emphasizing that after a period of ideological disorientation, Vladimir Putin appears to have reunified his followers, and thereby cemented his power over the Russian population in the process. In Maull’s view, this step was both necessary and inevitable, given that the Russian president has largely failed to deliver the socio-economic modernization he promised upon gaining power at the turn of the century. (The one relative exception, it should be noted, has been the nation’s armed forces.)

Russia’s apparent return to ideological discipline and conformity then prompted Maull to declare – boldly, we might add – that the country’s current political identity could be compared with elements of Italian Fascism. However, Maull was also quick to emphasize that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine was not part of a neo-imperialist project that aims to recover lost territory. Instead, Moscow is more interested in the political advantages to be gained by constantly threatening to destabilize the region. One advantage, for example, is that by meddling in Ukraine Putin gets to avoid the popular protests Russia experienced between 2011 and 2013. The interventionism, in short, is an antidote to political discontent at home.

Indeed, it’s this fear of domestic political discontent that’s at the heart of the matter. As Maull sees it, it is Russia’s “fragile statehood” rather than past history which explains Moscow’s not so hidden-hand in the Ukraine crisis. Instead of being threatened by the expansion of NATO and the European Union (EU) into its former sphere of influence, Maull believes Putin is more concerned about internal challenges to his rule. The external dangers posed by Western encroachment into Russia’s near abroad remain merely philosophical rather than actual.

Towards a more productive relationship

Professor Maull concluded his presentation by emphasizing that it is Europe and not the United States that holds the key to easing tensions with Russia. At most, Washington should be “leading from behind,” a strategy that’s in line with the Obama administration’s now well-established pivot to Asia. With this admonition in mind, Maull cited three possible considerations or options for improving East-West relations.

  • Brussels needs to recognize that while the Western project is still popular throughout Eastern Europe, the political realities of the EU’s neighboring states are fundamentally different from the rest of the continent. Russia’s strategic interests in this region mean that these states’ political orientation cannot be changed quickly.
  • Efforts should be stepped up to reintegrate Russia into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Negotiations on long-term oil and gas delivery contracts might be a logical place to start.
  • Finally, the EU could work with Russia to tackle aspects of its “fragile statehood”, such as helping it overcoming problem associated with its tax system.

Broadening the perspective

Professor Wenger began his presentation by declaring that the Ukraine crisis confirms that the integrative and liberal European security project has now come to an end. This failure comes at a time when the transatlantic security partnership is gradually ‘thinning out’ and instability in the Middle East, North Africa and an increasingly restive Balkans region pose clear threats to European security. However, despite these negative trends, Wenger doesn’t believe that the confrontation in Ukraine is a conflict over world order, or that Russia will try to bolster its position in concert with the other two sides of the “authoritarian triangle,” China and Iran.

What is unclear though is whether Russia will remain a revisionist and anti-Western power for the foreseeable future.  This lack of clarity is due in no small part to the “fragility” of Russian statehood, as emphasized by Hanns Maull in his presentation. Indeed, Professor Wenger built on this point by emphasizing that Russia’s economy remains in dire straits, its society is crippled by corruption and it continues to over-rely on oil exports, a situation made even more precarious by the dramatic decline in global oil prices. In response, Moscow seems to be hoping that the Eurasian Economic Union – with Ukraine as a key economic partner – will help counter these problems.

So, how should Europe’s response to the above circumstances, the ongoing problems in Ukraine, and the challenges posed by an anti-Western Russia? Professor Wenger’s recommendations included the following.

  • Adjusting Western strategies incrementally will not suffice. There are too many schisms at play now. For example, while the EU remains divided over the sanctions regime imposed on Russia, NATO doesn’t completely agree over the further stationing of troops on its eastern borders. In addition, senior Western policymakers remain divided over the terms and conditions for rapprochement with Russia and the possibility of Ukraine joining the EU and NATO. In short, the West’s overall response to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis needs to be better coordinated, with the United States and Germany providing the requisite political leadership.
  • The sense of urgency caused by the crises in Eastern Europe and North Africa should inspire Europe to look past the Euro-Atlantic security framework. The European continent is not just an outpost in a new US-Russian global standoff. It is a regional power that needs to tackle these immediate security challenges head-on, with or without US help.
  • The West’s strategic focus must shift from enlargement to consolidation, particularly in the ex-Soviet space. In other words, if Brussels wants to improve its relations with Russia, then it should stop all efforts to bring Ukraine into the EU for the foreseeable future.

The Elephant in the room

The issue of Russia’s “fragile statehood” and the role it has played in shaping Moscow’s relations with Ukraine inevitably dominated the question and answer session. Skeptics asked if Russia’s ongoing support of Ukrainian rebels is really about safeguarding Putin’s power and influence at home. And by the same token, they questioned whether NATO’s and the EU’s apparent “encirclement” of Russia is merely a secondary concern for the Russian President. After all, didn’t the Alliance effectively break then-US Secretary of State James Baker’s promise to Mikhail Gorbachev “not to move NATO an inch eastward” when it incorporated Poland, the Baltic States and other former Warsaw Pact countries into its ranks?

In response to this rhetorical question, one could say that Baker’s verbal promise was neither official government policy nor made to what is now the Russian Federation. However, it would be naive to think that Russia has never viewed NATO’s rapid expansion with a sense of unease, particularly in the case of stationing ballistic missile defenses in Poland. This may indeed be true, but it also remains highly unlikely that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine is merely a neo-imperialistic response to the West encroaching on his strategic backyard. Instead, the compelling argument remains that Putin fears the possible domestic fallout from Ukraine “deciding to go West” and what this might mean for his grip on power. Indeed, it’s this reality that ultimately prompted Hans Maull to label the Russian President’s adventurism in Ukraine as the work of “a master tactician, but not a great strategist.”

Mattia Balsiger is a Student Editor at the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) at ETH Zürich.

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