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.

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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

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Peter Fray
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