“Since the Euromaidan, the fall of the Yanoukovich government and the subsequent annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of Western Ukraine, the EU has shown unprecedented unity”, argues Dirk Schuebel, Head of Division for Eastern Partnership at the External Action Service. At an event of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in cooperation with the think tank network 4Liberty in Brussels, foreign policy experts debated if Russian aggression in Ukraine could lead to a new divide in the EU. In Schuebel’s view, the EU has been able to speak with one voice in foreign policy for the first time, especially if we think of the lacking coordination and agreement on other crisis, as for example Syria or Lybia. Not only on the adoption of targeted sanctions, so-called restrictive measures, have the member states shown unity, but also in their pledge to fund Ukraine’s much needed modernisation process. In March 2014 they pledged a sum of 11 billion euros, out of which already 4 billion have been disbursed. Knowing the lengthy bureaucratic procedures of the EU, this is an unusual speed.
Petras Auštrevičius MEP from Lithuania, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, was more critical of the EU’s response towards Russia. He likened it to “an orchestra playing different songs at the same time”. Auštrevičius believes that various economic interests of member states create profound divisions. However, if there is any positive aspect to be found in the Ukraine crisis, it would be the strengthening of NATO. “The strategic threat represented by the Ukraine crisis has but NATO back on the agenda and given it a new role”, argued Auštrevičius.
His Baltic neighbour, Urmas Paet MEP, former Foreign Minister of Estonia and member of the Delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, agreed with Auštrevičius on how divisive the Russian aggression could be for the EU. Paet deplored the attitude of some EU member states, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. After having decided the sanctions in the European Council, some governments argued back home that they were against them. He also warned of Russian attempts to further divide EU member states and influence European policies. But, in his view, Russia is much weaker than many EU member states governments perceive. The size of the economy being comparable to the Spanish economy, mostly relying on gas and oil, Russia is trying to cover up for the economic mismanagement with nationalist rhetoric of past grandeur.
Csaba Tóth, Director of Strategy at the Hungarian think tank Republikon Institute, drew the parallel to Hungary. There too, the government of Victor Orban is using national pride and past glory to hide problems. “Russia creates a new paradigm – a strong leader and the redefinition of borders along ethnic divisions through the use of force”, he warns. By coincidence, Russian president Vladimir Putin, held his annual speech at the same time as the Friedrich Naumann Foundation conference. In his speech Putin said Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimean Peninsula in March was a “historic event” that would not be reversed. He likened Crimea to the Temple Mount in its foundational importance to Russian civilization.
Tóth believes some political forces in Europe perceive the Russian policy in Ukraine as a model and find easy excuses for Russian invasion of Ukraine. The typical argument to explain Russian policy would be that “the chaos in Ukraine during Euromaidan and after the fall of the government, forced Russia to intervene”. But Tóth believes that Russian aggression in Ukraine is a strategic decision and that this strategy does not stop in Ukraine.
Even though our experts did not believe that an aggression on the Baltics would actually happen, they warned against the creation of new frozen conflicts in the European neighbourhood.