The ongoing unrest that has come to be called the Ukraine crisis is in reality three major foreign policy challenges rolled into one. All three of these challenges reveal the same structural problem hardwired into European foreign policy—a lack of strategy. And in all three of them, Germany is the key player on which a disproportionate chunk of responsibility rests.
Challenge number one is the situation in Ukraine itself. This is arguably the biggest of the three headaches.
The EU had long been advocating democratic change in Ukraine. But its foreign policy tools were mostly small-scale, technocratic ones designed to bring about incremental advances by means of trade liberalization and institutional reform. This, of course, never led to anything, and the suspicion never quite died away that the EU’s efforts were really just meant to cement the status quo and provide “stability” rather than bring about real change.
The task now is to define realistic aims for the EU’s engagement in Ukraine. Is the EU’s objective to defend the country’s sovereignty? Is it to reform the Ukrainian economy? Or to support a constitutional process? Is it to give the new government legitimacy? In short, what is the EU’s strategy?
The old European Neighborhood Policy has failed. Bits and pieces of it are still useful, but for Ukraine, a substantially bigger master plan must be drawn up. But is the EU in it for the long haul? Can it stay focused and determined over a time span of at least fifteen years—and at an intense level?
Doubts prevail. The EU is not united in its assessment, and it is deeply divided over how many assets should be assigned to the task. Germany, Europe’s richest and most powerful country, was a reluctant player in the EU’s Eastern Partnership from the beginning. How much enthusiasm can be expected from Berlin for a project many times the size of that initiative?
The second challenge is Europe’s—and the West’s—relationship with Russia. The Ukraine crisis has merely highlighted an issue that has been an uneasy one for at least a decade, if not longer.
Contrary to common myth, the West went out of its way to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia after the end of the Cold War. From the EU and NATO to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, from the Council of Europe to the WTO, the West bent over backward to invite Russia in and to accommodate Russian interests. No other non-Western country enjoys the same privileges of closeness and recognition.
If, despite all these steps, Russia still feels excluded and unwanted, it is because its leadership has put the country firmly outside the European context in almost all respects. Moscow’s position amounts to demanding a veto power over all institutional arrangements and political forums while trying to evade all possible limitations on Russian power that such systems entail. A country that embraces such an approach will remain an outsider by its own decision.
So what should a new EU Russia policy look like? It must be based on the recognition that in its current state, Russia cannot and will not be a partner like any other Western (and many non-Western) countries.
Another illusion that must be discarded is that a firm position vis-à-vis Russia will inevitably be seen as a provocation by Moscow and will lead to a deterioration of relations. The opposite is true: firmness with Russia is the precondition for good relations with it. From trade disputes to energy to foreign policy, this has been proven again and again. Weakness invites Russia’s disdain and aggression. Robustness creates a constructive atmosphere.
Is the West, in particular Europe, ready for this? It does not look like it. There is a rift between the United States and the EU, but, more importantly, there is also one among the EU’s 28 member states. Germany, again, is the swing state. Should Berlin come around, Europe could come around too.
But Germany is itself deeply divided. The country’s current relatively robust position is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal achievement against the wobbliness of much of her own party, her coalition partner, the population, and large parts of the foreign policy establishment. No great preconditions for firmness.
The third challenge in the Ukraine crisis is reassurance within NATO. The turmoil has demonstrated the need for such reassurance, given the threat assessments of countries from Scandinavia down through the Baltics and into the Central European corridor. The credibility of the alliance’s article 5 mutual defense clause rests on two pillars: America’s willingness and ability to defend Europe, and a minimum of unity and shared threat perceptions among NATO’s 28 members.
Both pillars have suffered in recent years, and neither is likely to return to full strength. Again, disunity is Europe’s key problem, and again, Germany is the country that could make a difference. But on everything that is hard security, the country is even more reluctant than on “mere” foreign policy.
The Ukraine crisis has laid bare Europe’s lack of strategy in three decisive fields: its Eastern neighborhood, Russia, and security and defense. That makes the crisis a test like none before. Europe’s post–Cold War order is threatened not so much by outside players but by its own disunity and lack of seriousness. This must end. Not all but many keys to the problem lie in Berlin. Welcome to the twenty-first century, old world.