Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its amassing of troops on the border with Ukraine have come as a geopolitical shock to Europe. These events are forcing the EU to reconsider long-held assumptions about its relations with Russia and about the character of the European order.

For more than two decades, the EU assumed that Russia was on a path of transformation, heading toward liberal democracy and a market economy. A long and rocky path, of course, but one that would leave Russia looking much like a European country. All EU policies toward Russia were based on that assumption and were meant to encourage and support Russia on that path.

Ulrich Speck
Speck was a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the European Union’s foreign policy and Europe’s strategic role in a changing global environment.
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Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2012 and his increasingly autocratic policies have already cast serious doubt on this paradigm. Now, the ongoing unrest in Ukraine is making it clear that Russia is on a different trajectory. Moscow is challenging the fundamental international norms on which the European state system relies: territorial integrity and the sanctity of borders. Putin is openly contesting Europe’s peaceful order.

These developments come as a shock to a Europe that had assumed that its partnership with Russia would continue to deepen and that a conflict with Russia had become unthinkable. The assumption among most European experts and policymakers was that Putin would not openly challenge the West because of Russia’s interconnectedness with Europe and its dependence on energy sales and technology transfer. They also believed Putin highly valued membership in Western clubs that gave Russia global leverage.

But a new geopolitical constellation appears to be emerging in Europe’s East. Europeans must now answer the difficult question of how to deal with a Russia that is simply not interested in the kind of mutual engagement the EU has offered for the last twenty years. It is time for the EU to adopt a firm stance toward the Kremlin.

The Return of Imperial Russia

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has seemed on track to become a normal nation-state. But its behavior in the Ukraine crisis makes Russia look like an imperial power again.

Nation-states have clearly defined borders, while empires consist of centers and peripheries without such clear delineations. Empires have little respect for the territorial integrity of other states, and they expect weaker neighbors to subordinate themselves to the imperial center. Countries in the vicinity of empires do not possess full sovereignty.

The Ukraine crisis has made it evident that there is a pattern emerging in which Russia encroaches on the sovereignty of its neighbors. When Russia went deep into Georgian territory in 2008 and tried to split off the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, most Western observers saw this as a one-off event provoked by Tbilisi. But now it seems that Russia is a revisionist power that does not accept the status quo of 1991.

At the moment, it is unclear how far this ambition goes and what price Russia is ready to pay for its renewed imperialist adventures. But it is quite possible that Ukraine could be just the beginning of a new push to regain influence and control over the entire post-Soviet space.

Control of the Post-Soviet Space Over Relations With the West

For years, the prevailing view in the West was that Russia objected only to NATO membership for the former Communist countries and not to closer relations between those states and the EU. Today, however, preventing neighboring countries from seeking closer association with the EU is a key goal of Russian foreign policy.

In 2013, it became clear that Moscow would try to derail the European aspirations of post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus. In September of that year, Armenia suddenly canceled a political and economic association agreement with the EU that it had been planning to initial at a summit in Vilnius two months later. Yerevan announced that it wanted to join the Russian-led Eurasian customs union instead. It was widely assumed that this U-turn was due to pressure from Moscow. The Ukraine crisis started when Kiev made a similar U-turn shortly before the same Vilnius summit.

The fear in European capitals now is that Russia will try to prevent Moldova and Georgia from signing their EU association agreements, planned for June 2014, by provoking similar conflicts and crises.

If forced to choose, Moscow apparently prioritizes control of countries in the post-Soviet space over good relations with the EU and the United States. Moscow seems ready to accept a considerable amount of tension in its relations with Brussels and Washington to keep its neighbors away from those Western powers.

This gamble seems to be paying off domestically, at least in the short term. Putin’s approval ratings have gone up. The country’s new, imperialist foreign policy seems to please a majority of Russians. It may well become a key building block of a new ideology centered on conservative values and nationalism.

Careful to Avoid a Strong Western Response

While Moscow is prepared to accept some tension with the West, it is aware that it is too dependent on Europe to endure comprehensive economic sanctions should the Europeans opt to impose them. What Russia wants to prevent is a united Western front that is ready to seriously confront and push back against Moscow.

As a result, the Kremlin is choosing its tactics carefully to avoid such an escalation. It is employing covert action in Ukraine and denying all responsibility for events there. Russia is acting in phases, moving quickly and decisively on the ground before pausing to check the Western reaction and engage in talks. In addition, the Kremlin is trying to win allies in Europe and the United States and spread its narrative in the West.

The experience of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, after which Russian-Western relations were quickly restored, may have led the Kremlin to conclude that the risk of confrontation was manageable this time around. And the West’s muted response to the annexation of Crimea, which now seems to have been largely accepted as a fait accompli, may have reinforced the view in Moscow that Russia should not be overly concerned about the prospect of lasting damage to its relations with the West.

The calculation in the Kremlin appears to be that the West would be prepared to accept Russian control of Ukraine if the alternative were a conflict with Russia.

The EU Did Not Intend to Confront Russia

The EU, meanwhile, slid into the conflict with Russia unintentionally. The union’s relations with its Eastern neighbors are governed by the Eastern Partnership (EaP), an initiative that was not designed as a tool for use in a geopolitical struggle. This policy was never meant to challenge Russia.

The EaP offers market access and political and economic support to six countries―Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine―in return for reform. However, the EaP does not hold out the prospect of EU membership, and by offering only association and free trade, the EU sent the signal that it did not seek a geopolitical competition with Russia.

When it became visible in 2013 that Moscow opposed such agreements, EU member states failed to stand up for the EaP. They did not react to Russia’s blocking of Ukrainian imports in August 2013. They did not work hard to win over broad public support for EU association in Armenia or Ukraine. And they did not signal to Moscow that they were determined to support their Eastern neighbors’ freedom to choose their own alliances.

Despite having initially signed up to the EaP, the member states’ political support for the partnership was halfhearted at best.

Germany’s Reluctant Leadership

Despite being cautious, and nervous about a geopolitical confrontation with Russia, Berlin has assumed some leadership during the Ukraine crisis. It was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who became Putin’s main European interlocutor. She played a key role in shaping the EU’s plan for three escalating levels of sanctions against Russia, of which the first two are now in place. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier played an active role as well, often by working with his Polish and French counterparts in a format known as the “Weimar triangle.”

With the Ukraine crisis, the question of how to deal with Russia has become a hotly debated topic in Germany. German public opinion is divided on the issue. Merkel, while cautious in her public remarks, represents a camp that is in favor of a tougher response, while Steinmeier, a longtime collaborator of former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, represents a more reluctant camp. Both leaders, however, believe that the German approach needs to combine the threat of sanctions with diplomatic initiatives toward Russia.

Three elements are shaping German opinion: hope to restore Germany’s partnership with Russia, a fear of confrontation, and economic ties. An alliance with Germany has always been a key goal for Putin, who in the 1980s was a KGB agent in East Germany. There has been sympathy in Germany for such an alliance, especially among the Social Democrats, the party of Schröder and Steinmeier. But as Russia has become more authoritarian and aggressive of late, fear of a new cold war has reemerged as a fundamental dimension to the German debate and has overshadowed any perspective of closer cooperation. Meanwhile, in terms of economic interests, Russia is an important market for some large German companies, and Germany gets more than a third of its gas and oil from Russia.

While Germans are largely sympathetic toward a Ukraine fighting for reform and are shocked at Russian military aggression, they would generally prefer not to be forced to confront Russia. A recent poll found that 49 percent of Germans would like the country to take “a middle position between the West and Russia,” and support for tough sanctions is rather low. This general mood limits the chancellor’s room for maneuver.

Germany has played a very active and visible role in the current crisis, yet it has always been keen to work with the EU to forge a strong joint approach. The fact that Berlin has supported the idea of sending EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton as the only EU representative to multiparty talks on Ukraine on April 17 in Geneva demonstrates that Germany is very much interested in keeping Brussels in the game.

The EU Is Divided About Confronting Russia

The question of how to deal with an aggressive Russia is splitting the EU. Western and Southern member states tend to be reluctant to challenge Moscow over Ukraine, while Northern and Eastern countries are more willing to adopt a confrontational course. Western and Southern Europeans do not feel the same urgency to stabilize the Eastern neighborhood as many Central Europeans do; they have a very different history and threat perception. Western EU member states tend to favor keeping good relations with Moscow and see less need to confront Russia.

When it comes to weighing up the merits of a more muscular reaction, there are two opposing arguments at play. Some take the view that the West should not directly counter Russian military aggression in order not to escalate the situation in Ukraine or provoke Russia. Most Central Europeans, however, would like NATO to offer greater reassurance to send a clear signal of deterrence to Moscow.

U.S. Engagement

During the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, the United States has generally assumed that the EU would take the lead on stabilizing its neighborhood. But the more the situation in Ukraine has escalated, the more the United States has stepped up its role. After some initial frictions, the United States and the EU are now cooperating closely on Russia and Ukraine.

Washington has played an important role in reassuring NATO allies in Central Europe by boosting its presence. Indeed, as is often the case, the United States is more outspoken and appears more decisive to confront Russia than Europe is.

In addition to its support through NATO, Washington is also engaged in high-level diplomacy. Regular phone calls take place between Obama and Putin, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is heavily involved in talks with Russia and Ukraine. The United States has also applied sanctions in the form of travel bans and asset freezes.

But it is the EU that has the strongest card―the threat of economic sanctions that would hurt, given European-Russian economic interconnectedness.


The Ukraine crisis has revived the prospect of a confrontation between Europe and Russia. Europeans must face questions of hard security that they hoped they had left behind forever. For years, the concept of defense meant supporting military operations abroad; now, territorial security is back on the agenda.

This is certainly not the beginning of a new cold war. But a Russia that attacks a neighbor out of the blue is a discomforting reality that requires Europeans to reconsider fundamental assumptions about their security and their relations with Russia and the common neighborhood.

Europeans must accept that, in contrast to EU countries, Russia did not become a “postmodern” state keen to strike deals, build joint institutions, deepen interconnectedness, and engage in win-win solutions. Instead, Russia remained a sovereign state with the mind-set of a traditional power, including the ambition to dominate and even conquer other countries.

For two decades, the EU has offered Russia a closer relationship based on “postmodern” terms, but Moscow has rejected that offer. Instead, the Kremlin appears to see the EU’s approach to Russia as a sign of weakness and an implicit acquiescence to the Kremlin’s ambition to reshape the neighborhood according to its imperialist designs.

The EU has two options in response to Russia. It can openly or quietly accept that Russia is again assuming the role of an imperial power in the post-Soviet space. That means that the international order as enshrined in the UN Charter does not fully apply to post-Soviet countries, which would have only a diminished form of sovereignty―or even none at all. That would also carry the risk of Russia becoming accustomed to using military aggression as a means of conducting foreign policy.

In the short term, such a response would relieve Europeans from the pressure to confront Russia now, as it would make it possible to restore good working relations with Moscow. In the longer term, however, Europeans would end up with a neighbor who might become a serious security threat.

The other option is for the EU to clearly signal to the Kremlin that it is ready to defend the international order and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of post-Soviet countries. An EU prepared to assume such a role would react to Russian aggression in the common neighborhood immediately and decisively with all diplomatic and economic means available. It would improve deterrence inside NATO and would support post-Soviet countries in their efforts to build up their defenses. It would work with the United States on a joint strategy to prevent Russia from undermining stability in the EU’s neighborhood. And it would redouble its efforts to make Russia reconsider its aggressive turn by offering the country more incentives to become a partner in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Such a course would be more demanding in the short term. But it would have a good chance of deterring the Kremlin from further imperialist adventures.