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European Union to Ukraine: sorry, you’re on your own

Through a lack of military might and political will, the European Union is not going to intervene in the Ukraine-Russia dispute, writes international affairs expert Donnacha Ó Beacháin.

The European Union’s greatest achievement is also the one we take most for granted. After Europe was repeatedly torn asunder by aggressive expansionist regimes, the EU played a vital role in healing the wounds and insuring that common values and ever-increasing interdependency made war within its borders inconceivable.

Over the decades the EU has had a magnetic pull on its neighbours. Indeed, it was Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to discard a deal with the EU for a subvention from Moscow that ignited the current tragic events in Ukraine. The EU has grown rapidly from six to 28 members (13 in the last decade alone), the vast majority of which now use the same currency. But mastery of soft power has not been mirrored by a comparable rise in hard power. The EU’s common security and defence capabilities are still very much in the embryonic stages. It has few military muscles to flex other than those under the direct control of its member states and, consequently, is unable to take decisive military action beyond its borders.

Within the EU there are 2 million men and women in uniform, certainly enough to confront Russia. There is, however, insufficient military co-ordination and political will to use them for the kind of operation that might dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Crimea. As far back as 1999, the European Council agreed on the basic organisation structure of a rapid reaction force of 50,000-60,000 troops.

Fifteen years later these plans remain aspirational. Each member state remains in control of its own military, and in the highly unlikely event that the EU would take military action to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty each member state would pay for its own contribution. Putin has worked on the assumption that the EU is as much united by money as values and more likely to throw money than troops at the problem.

In addition to this military impotence, there is also political paralysis. Decisions require consensus, which inevitably means that only the lowest common denominator is implemented. While opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been widespread, there is no appetite for any action that would inflict pain on the economies of EU member states.

Targeted economic sanctions are now the weapon of choice for the EU. On March 17, after long deliberation, the EU finally agreed to freeze the assets and impose travel restrictions on 21 individuals in Ukraine and Russia who the EU believes have contributed to the current impasse. This deterrent has been employed in the past, for example on individuals in Belarus and Transnistria, with minimal success. The EU is Russia’s largest trading partner by far, with oil and gas constituting over three-quarters of these imports. Only when Europe weans itself off this dependency can it have the self-confidence to confront Kremlin aggression. Putin’s experience in previous wars in Chechnya and Georgia has taught him that the EU will huff and puff but, ultimately, will do little to blow his house down.

Some have argued that Russia is responding to provocations from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU. According to this narrative of “defence-motivated expansionism” Russia has seen NATO and the EU expand to its doorstep, undermining its traditional sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. But this is to invert the sequence of events. When the Cold War ended there were many — not least within NATO itself — who questioned whether the organisation had a future. After all, it had been established to confront the Soviet Union, and with the collapse of that adversary, it seemed NATO had lost its raison d’etre.

The current crisis in Ukraine has underlined the paucity of policy options available to the EU.”

What injected the organisation with renewed vigour was the queue of former Soviet states and satellites requesting, nay demanding, entry into the protective umbrella. They feared — and recent events have certainly vindicated those fears — that the Kremlin’s weakness was temporary and thus sought to escape the abusive cycle of history while they could. Far from NATO or the EU aggressively seeking new members, they acquiesced to a concerted drive from ex-communist states to join. A small state like Estonia, with a population of just 1.5 million, of which at least a quarter are ethnic Russians, can rely on the EU and NATO to fend off the Kremlin’s covetous glances. The much larger Ukraine, however, is very much on its own.

As a hyper-centralised dictatorship, the Kremlin can act decisively. It has moved with such alacrity in Ukraine that diplomacy has struggled to keep pace. With the certainty of a man who knows the value of the prize and is desperate to win, Putin has put all his chips on Crimea. Poker-faced, he has challenged the EU to see his tanks and troops and raise him. All other players — the EU, NATO and the United States — though holding better hands have decided Ukraine is not worth a major confrontation.

Putin is a canny operator who has thus far chosen his battles carefully but has also displayed a willingness to take risks. It was the Chechen war that transformed him from relative anonymity to manly war hero, though it came with a price tag of several thousand lives. The 2008 war with Georgia, which shares some commonalities with the current conflict, also achieved Putin’s strategic objectives, proved popular at home and invoked no sanctions from the West.

Invading neighbouring countries under false pretexts has a long and ignoble history in Europe. It was how Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland in 1939. Indeed, the Kremlin’s official justification for invading Poland was to defend the interests of its ethnic kin. Putin’s rationale for intervention in Ukraine is similarly disingenuous and self-serving.

Good fences make good neighbours. So too do good defences. The current crisis in Ukraine has underlined the paucity of policy options available to the EU. The EU’s vacillation on Ukraine echoes British premier Neville Chamberlain’s infamous rationale for standing by while Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia. It was, he said, “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”. If history has thought us anything in Europe it is that the appetite of the aggressor only grows with the eating.

Inertia now only invites ever-greater trouble later. Only then it may be impossible to divert a much more destructive calamity.

*Donnacha Ó Beacháin is director of research at Dublin City University’s School of Law and Government, where he lectures on post-Soviet politics

8
  • 1
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    No one thinks defence is worth spending money on until it is needed. Then it is too late.

  • 2
    Meemo Eldin
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Godwin’s Law.

  • 3
    Iskandar
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Good lord Crikey! Did the ghost of Joe McCarthy drop this screed into your letterbox? Or now that The war in Afghanistan is winding down are the Anglo-Americans looking for their next enemy. The late Gore Vidal once predicted that sooner or later the National Security State will set Russia up as an enemy again, and that seems to be what they are trying.

    This piece is so full of opinionated misrepresentations of history that it would take an essay to debunk it point by point, and it frankly is not worth the effort. I’ll just call it narrow-minded right-wing cr*p and comment on only one point.

    The small post-Soviet states like Estonia seemed to have a naive belief that joining NATO and the EU was a benign act that would bring peace and prosperity. Instead it brought missile bases onto their soil and an obligation to contribute to military adventures like Afghanistan and Iraq. Both adventures have gone pear-shaped, and Russia, always conscious of security of its western borders, has been provoked. Then again, maybe that’s what was intended. The military-industrial complex is getting hungry.

  • 4
    Malcolm Harrison
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    the west happily watched the Soviet Russian empire fragment. now it is beginning to reassert its own self identity. crimea has been russian for about 250 years and not russian for about ten minutes (actually the last 25 years). this is not a re-run of hitler’s anschluss. why are we surprised and why is there so much hand wringing and knee jerk anti-russian responses. i listen to the ABC and there the language, the adjectives and verbs, have taken on a not so subtle disparagement of russian actions. norman hermant tonight based his entire story assuming that Putin intends to invade east ukraine. only media journalists and frightened people are making these assertions which at present have no foundation.
    russia has provided a perfectly plausible motive, nobody is dead (well almost nobody), and the crimean citizens voted in favour. yet we democrats in the west say this plebiscite has no validity, but nobody can explain why, except to point knowingly at Putin’s obvious land grab. using the word ‘dictatorship’ to describe the actions of a democratically elected government as the writer of this piece has done is certainly not an innocent choice of words. m.

  • 5
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Thursday, 20 March 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    The usual mainstream media propaganda.

    Never mind Russia; “we” need to recognise just how weak “we” have become.

    A continuing Western economic and social crisis has been greatly worsened by criminal Imperial adventurism.

    In the waging of a war of aggression against Iraq, war criminals and mass murderers George Bush, Tony Blair, and John Howard did not merely commit crimes against peace. They also bankrupted the US economy, triggered Peak Oil, lengthened the occupation of Afghanistan, and triggered the global financial crisis.

    Those Imperial wars assisted a divide between richest and poorest in America that is worse than in nearly all Europe and Asia but about that of Rwanda and Serbia. Inequality is worse in the United States today than in any advanced industrial country for which there are data. Worse, the gap is widening.

    Maintaining the growth obsession means crisis then collapse as forced demand exponentially exceeds supply, meaning a classic capitalist crisis of overproduction. Third World economies will stay Third World, due not only to increasing resource pressures, but also to being asset- and income-stripped by globalisation. ‘Economic growth’ would not in any case alleviate the problem of global poverty; not having done so in the centuries prior to the Great Recession it certainly won’t now given peak oil, peak water, peak minerals, climate change, and peak food.

    That our system is hitting its limits is shown in each crisis being worse than the last. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote recently: “The evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.”

    Media spin, denial, and trivialisation of important issues and exploitation of trivial ones therefore remains a serious problem, especially given the power of the Murdock media machine.

    Imperial power plays were once simply part of the First World’s waste. As those Imperial wars and human rights violations abroad have led to erosions in civil liberties and falling living standards at home, we are now also victims of our tolerance of ruling class violence.

  • 6
    Ian
    Posted Thursday, 20 March 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Iskander, you put it very nicely.

    IMO Russia was painted into a corner and had to respond aggressively or run the severe risk of becoming yet another victim of the Western expansionist empire.

    The EU/US crossed the unadvertised but obvious “red line” and Russia has done the rest of the independent world, including China a service in responding as it has.

  • 7
    Dion Giles
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    It’s not a matter of strength or weakness but of whether the right of peoples to self-determination should be opposed at all. The central principle of a civilised world, one for which millions upon millions died not all that long ago, is LIBERTY, including the right of peoples to self-determination.

    When the butcher Nikita Khrushchov gifted Crimea to the Ukraine, nobody consulted the Crimean people. And
    now, for reasons armchair geostrategists uninterested in liberty speculate over, suddenly the long-denied right to self-determination falls into their lap.

    Anyone committed to liberty would be over the moon. But not the self-styled “international community” (actually the elites who rule the international community with the nervous applause of the useful idiots ). They bellow a howl of rage and claw for their gun. And they find they’re outgunned!

    Vlad Putrid, the butcher of captive Chechnya, is no friend of liberty. So why did he act to free the Crimeans to make their own decision? My guess is that the Russians are funny about having NATO and an unelected horde of slavering Nazi savages thrust slap bang against their border. When the Wall came down there were specific undertakings NOT to revitalise the Axis and advance NATO to the edge of Russia. The Russians are showing they’ve kept their powder dry.

  • 8
    Ian
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Dion I think your analysis is correct but your referring to the two Russian leaders as butchers is a little disingenuous since there are no shortages of such butchers amongst NATO and its allies and no-one uses the word “butcher” to describe them each time their names are mentioned.

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