Editorial of February 2022

By Sandra Fernandes (Professor at UMinho - School of Management and Economics /Researcher of the CICP)

Making the Europeans visible again: on the Ukrainian-Russian crisis

The world has its eyes turned to the uncertain faith of Ukraine, a country whose geopolitical situation has settled as an “in-between” State in post-soviet Europe. Since the annexation-reintegration of Crimea in 2014, and the war in Donbass and Luhansk, Kiev has de facto lost sovereignty over parts of its territory. The growing mobilization of Russian military resources at the Ukrainian border since 2021 has escalated the crisis, together with straightforward Russian demands on a new security pact for Europe with less NATO.

In this context, the media have been underlying that the European Union (EU) and the Ukrainians themselves are the noticeable absents from the tentative dialogues amid the diplomatic iron arm that is ongoing between Washington and Moscow. How to make sense of this apparent void? A few days ago, the words of the High Representative/Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, helped us in addressing this question.

Firstly, he considers that Europe is in danger, namely because the risk of overt war in the continent is high. His view on the logic of confrontation is as follows: “we have the coming together of the problems of the 19th century, i.e. the clash of empires; of the 20th century, i.e. the age of power politics and that of the 21st century, i.e. the weaponisation of inter-dependence.”[1] He sees the lack of political will in the EU as the main obstacle for the Union to be a geopolitical actor instead of a subject in foreign policy.

Secondly, Borrell addresses the Ukrainian-Russian crisis per se as a long-term situation already fueled in a context of hybrid warfare conducted by Moscow. The refutation of spheres of influence in Europe is made strong, along the investment in diplomacy and deterrence in the form of sanctions, and the diminution of the role of energy in EU-Russia relations in order to reduce “strategic dependencies.”

Thirdly, the High Representative mentions the external doctrine of the EU as a comprehensive approach to security and defense, vested in the new Strategic Compass. Besides developing military capacity through equipment, exercises and decision-making, the Compass also foresees hybrid tools to cope with foreign interference and disinformation. In complement to NATO, Borrell underlines the “European way of doing security” relying also on non-military tools. At the bottom line, he calls for urgent action because of the pressing changes in the geopolitical context, contrarily to previous documents that raised the bar for the EU in rhetoric but have not resulted yet in significant change towards capabilities.

There is, thus, self-consciousness about where the Union stands as a security actor in the current high-risk situation at its immediate borders. In particular, the development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) has been lagging behind other dimensions of the integration process. In a world of power politics, one might argue that the EU lacks a crucial instrument to be able to engage on security issues. But before one sentences the capacity of the EU to act, one should take a look at the bigger picture.

The EU and Russia are the biggest European neighbours and they have developed a complex, interdependent and, until 2014, fruitful institutionalized cooperation since the adoption of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 1997. Russia even contributed to one CSDP mission with four helicopters (EUFOR Chad/CAR) in 2008, besides regular meetings with the EU Political and Security Committee. Although political convergence and the adjustment of their respective roles in the shared neighbourhood became increasingly difficult since 2004 (EU Eastern enlargement and Putin’s leadership), sectorial dialogues and biannual high-level summits took place. The question is, then, what went wrong in EU-Russia relations?

Part of the answer lies in the adaptation of the international system after the Cold War after the victory of the American-led liberal order. If the EU was seen for a while by Moscow as an opportunity to balance the role of the United States and NATO in Europe and an opportunity to cooperate on common interests, enlargements and unilateral initiatives such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 have changed this perception. The Russian acceptation of the 1990’s status quo was indeed reluctant and the country did express clearly its security concerns beforehand.

Another part of the answer lies in the internal adaptation of the EU after the 2004 enlargement. The Euro-Atlantic integration of the three Baltic states was seen by them as the ultimate test to the West’s credibility, and integration was chosen while patently declining the Russian offer for security guarantees in 1997. Among others like Poland, these Member States have negative historical memories and narratives that are incompatible with Russian ones. They brought more demanding attitudes towards Russia, in particular respect for common principles and values. From this perspective, the relationship should not be merely subordinated to the pursuit of the strategic interests of the EU and its Member States.

The shift became evident when Poland, and later Lithuania, used their veto power in the Council of the EU to draw attention to problems in their relations with the Kremlin in 2007. They argued that they used their veto power to gain attention and build solidarity. At the time, Polish claims began to seem more legitimate because Estonia and Lithuania also experienced a high level of tension with Moscow, which involved oil shortages, problems with cross-border trafficking, and the removal of a Soviet monument in Tallinn. As part of the stagnation in EU-Russia relations, the slogan of solidarity was endorsed at the Samara summit in May 2007 by the President of the European Commission to support Poland, Lithuania and Estonia in their problems with Russia.

Since then, solidarity has become a moto to engage with Moscow, alongside resilience. From the EU’s point of view, relations with Russia have entered a new phase since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. From then on, the Union started to promote the relationship under the so-called “five points” which are indicative of the procedures to be applied. Pre-existing agendas, such as negotiations on visa liberalization or a new cooperation agreement, are on hold due to the condemnation of the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine.[2]

Today the Union engages with Russia in a more cohesive and coherent way at the community level as demonstrated by the “five points” and the renewal of sanctions against Russia since 2014. This state-of-play is in contrast with the previous criticisms about the prioritization of strategic interests to the detriment of normative principles and a common position. However, despite the improvement regarding internal coherence, the EU still lacks a common strategic approach towards Russia.[3]

Besides the attempts to find areas of dialogue such as climate change, and the willingness to solve disputes through diplomacy, Brussels’ core instrument to pressure the Kremlin is indeed sanctioning. The sanctions concerning Ukraine address two situations condemned by the Union: the misappropriation of Ukrainian State funds (individuals) and the undermining of Ukrainian territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence (individuals and entities). In late 2020, a new regime of sanctions based on human rights violations was adopted and applied in 2021 to Russia (Navalny case). However, sanctions on the misappropriation of funds already explicitly signaled the protection of human rights as an imperative for EU sanction regime.[4]

What the Union should and/or could do more in the twilight of the security architecture in Europe? It should engage taking into consideration its own interests and values and reinforce its role as a Euro-Atlantic partner that is able to act in Europe. This goes hand in hand with developing its capacity to act as a security provider. European citizens would certainly appreciate the way forward where the EU words are met by actions. But let’s not forget that despite the fact that the EU is slow by nature, it is also strong when it achieves consensus. Europe’s security landscape is definitely changed and the EU bet on diplomacy and non-military measures is its alternative to war. The EU just approved a new macro-financial assistance to Ukraine up to 1.2 billion euros. This additional package is meant for short-term policy measures to strengthen state-building and resilience efforts, on top of already existing funding for the support the rule of law, improve the business climate and recovery from the fallout of the pandemic.[5]


[1] Borrell, Josep (2022), “Europe in danger: what next for EU security and defence?” – Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the Bibliothèque Solvay, January 25. https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/110084/“europe-danger-what-next-eu-security-and-defence”-speech-high-representativevice-president_en

[2] The 2016 five guiding principles of the relationship are as follows: implementation of the Minsk agreement as an essential condition for any substantial change in the EU position towards Russia; strengthening relations with the EU eastern partners and other neighboring countries, especially in Central Asia; strengthening the EU’s resilience (energy security, hybrid threats and strategic communication); need for selective engagement with Russia on issues of EU interest; need to create person-to-person contacts and support Russian civil society; Council of the European Union (2016) ‘Foreign Affairs Council. Main results’, available at: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/fac/2016/03/14/ (accessed April 2018).

[3] See Fernandes, Sandra (2021) Intra-European Union Dynamics: The Interplay of Divergences and Convergences. In T. Romanova & M. David (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of EU-Russia Relations. Structures, Actors, Issues (pp. 37-47). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

[4] Council of the European Union (2014a, March 5) COUNCIL DECISION 2014/119/CFSP of 5 March 2014 concerning restrictive measures directed against certain persons, entities and bodies in view of the situation in Ukraine. Council of the European Union. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32014D0119

Council of the European Union (2014c, March 17) COUNCIL DECISION 2014/145/CFSP of 17 March 2014 concerning restrictive measures in respect of actions undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. Council of the European Union. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32014D0145

[5] European Commission (2022), Commission tables proposal for €1.2 billion emergency macro-financial
assistance package for Ukraine, as announced by President von der Leyen, February 1. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_22_674


Pictures credits: Teefarm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s