To Ukraine, Crimea seems to be lost to Russia. But how did this most severe crisis between the East and the West ever since the end of the Cold War come about? The EU – like Russia and Ukraine – committed grave yet avoidable mistakes, too. A background article by Stefan Bernhardt
The Crimea crisis has been an international surprise that nobody expected after the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Whereas Moscow blames the West and the Ukrainian interim government for the crisis, the EU and the USA accuse Vladimir Putin of breaching international law with the purpose of expanding the Russian territory and sphere of influence. Ultimately, each side blames the other. Objectively speaking, each conflicting party has made crucial contributions to the outbreak of the crisis. To begin with, this article will reflect on the EU’s actions.
A bad negotiation partner
Concerning Russia, the EU has not appeared to be ready to compromise in many areas, or has engaged in pretend negotiations during the past 20 years. A confidence-building measure, like visa facilitation or even the lifting of visa requirements, have always failed because of the EU without any justification. In the cooperation agreement with Russia, the EU was just as little willing to relinquish the demand of a liberalization of the Russian energy market, even though this would amount to the Russian state’s abandonment of essential revenues and to the jeopardizing of Russian jobs; accordingly, it had been clear from the very beginning that the Kremlin could not agree to this.
Nevertheless, the EU did not display willingness to compromise. As a result, the Kremlin has come to the view over the years that the EU is not a negotiation partner but instead someone who makes demands and does not want to negotiate. And yet, not only could one observe the rising discontent in Moscow but also that Brussels – despite these obvious problems – would not alter its course of action.
Amateurish geopolitical games
Apparently, the EU is not able to enter negotiations or a dialogue with all Ukrainian governments in power, but only with pro-European governments. For instance, the EU did not manage to use Yanukovych’s interests for the EU – after all, Russia has already proven that, with generous amounts of money or support, he can be moved to make concessions. Even when, in the Orange Coalition, the at first unconditionally pro-European powers turned towards their own power-political interests. However, the EU did not adapt its politics or its methods to the new conditions, unlike the Kremlin. It was the same situation in the 90s under Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.
Instead, under Kuchma and Yanukovych, the EU supported the opposition as well as the revolutions. This has led to a destabilization of the country and, ever since the Orange Revolution in 2004, engulfed it in a permanent political crisis, the climax of which is the present Crimea crisis. In this way, the EU rendered Ukraine a plaything, instead of engaging in a dialogue with the Kremlin about the competitive situation in order to reach a compromise or a modus vivendi for Ukraine. Confrontation was preferred over dialogue.
Mistakes during the crisis
The political crisis in Ukraine in 2014 followed the same pattern. With the association agreement, the EU made Yanukovych an offer at the end of 2013 that did not appeal to him. He used this situation to ask for a better offer from Putin and received it. His financially motivated orientation towards the Russian advances was predictable. The EU’s reaction, however, was neither a counteroffer nor a dialogue. When the people subsequently made their voices heard on the Maidan in Kiev and started protesting against their government again, the EU utilized this against the unwelcome government in Kiev: EU politicians travelled to Kiev regularly, displayed their support of the demonstrators, exerted pressure on the acting government to stand down and they accused Moscow of interference until Yanukovych was overthrown.
In the course of the Crimea crisis, the EU seemed to be overwhelmed as well. Even in this difficult situation, the EU was incapable of speaking with Moscow about Ukraine. Since it did not want a military conflict with Russia, there was just one course of action left to it: Negotiating and making Putin a counteroffer for Crimea. Apart from signaling willingness to talk, there were not any concrete proposals that could have been the basis for negotiations or dialogue. Instead, it reacted with threats, demands and sanctions. Each of them badly communicated because the EU, due to the reciprocal economic dependencies between Brussels and Moscow, could only take symbolic action against the Kremlin. The EU could not impose more than selective refusals of entry.
Drawing the right conclusions for the future
The EU’s policy towards Russia needs to change. After the Crimea crisis, the trust between the East and the West is completely shattered. It shows where EU policy leads to: conflict. For 20 years, no trust-building measures were taken and no real partnership was built. But a more professional course of action in states like Ukraine is what would be the most important. Even if the opposition is politically closer to the EU, the support must not be organized in such a way that a country is thrown into a permanent political crisis, destabilized and demoted to a geopolitical plaything. These developments were observable, yet the EU did not change its course of action. Ultimately, the Kremlin made the decision to trigger the Crimea crisis in order to assert its own interests; however, the EU set up the crisis, making it possible and necessary for Putin in the first place.