Conference documentation: Europe one year after the annexation of Crimea

At the beginning of March, international experts discussed at the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation in Berlin Europe’s response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. They all agreed on Europe lacking a long-term strategy.

One year after the overthrow of President Yanukovych and Russia’s annexation of Crimea there is, after months of clashes, a precarious truce in Eastern Ukraine. However, while this has halted the conflict between separatists and government troops that was threatening to spiral out of control, Ukraine’s political and economic future remains more uncertain than ever before. The European Union’s crisis policy has created new political rivalries and, overall, seems to be rather clueless. In view of this, over 500 people attended the first day of the international conference “Ukraine, Russia, and the EU - Europe one year after the annexation of Crimea.”

It took place in Berlin on the 2 and 3 of March 2015, was organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and attended by numerous politicians and experts from Europe and the United States. Both days of the conference were informed by the belief that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its meddling in Eastern Ukraine has transgressed all rules of the European security system and presents an elementary challenge to the whole continent. The general thrust of the conference was that Europe will have to act decisively against this challenge.

At the same time, all experts attending the conference agreed that Kiev would not be able to score a military victory in the east of the country. At best, a lasting truce may freeze the conflict, giving the government time and scope to stabilise the economy and implement reforms – a process requiring rapid and generous financial aid as well as investment from Europe. All speakers criticised that, in this respect, there was a lack of political consensus within the EU, and that, thus far, EU policy had been guided by short-term responses, with no long-term strategy in place. If Ukraine is to become a successful democracy and a role model for the region, this will have to change very soon.

Russia’s threat to European order

Ralf Fücks, in his opening statement, touched on the conference’s central themes. He strongly criticised Russia’s new power politics and its aggressive stance, be it domestically or globally. Fücks stressed that President Putin was doing his utmost to undermine the new government in Kiev as, otherwise, Euromaidan may become a model for other Eastern European countries, including Russia. Thus far Europe has been unable to act effectively against Putin’s shrewd strategy that combines military and diplomatic means with propaganda and economic pressure. The size of this threat is considerable as developments in Ukraine are not only about the European aspirations of the Maidan movement but about the European Union itself. If the EU fails this critical test, the centrifugal forces already at work within the Union would rise to dangerous levels.

In his keynote speech, US historian and Eastern Europe specialist Timothy Snyder accentuated Fücks’ criticism, stating that, by now, the main purpose of Putin’s policies was to challenge the EU. After the swift fall of Crimea, the aim of Russia’s propaganda war had been to maintain momentum and quickly capture Donetsk and other cities in the Donbass region. After these plans failed, much to Putin’s surprise, the propaganda tactics became a strategy directed not so much against Ukraine but against Europe as a whole. Putin’s rehabilitation of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact showed that, once again, Russia is aiming to cut up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence.

As Stalin before him, Putin is trying to subvert the European order from within by supporting populist and anti-European political parties and movements in Europe. According to Snyder, the seeming paradox that this includes right-wing organisations is not just a collateral damage but part of Russia’s propagandist strategy, which, other than Soviet propaganda, does not want to convince Europeans of Russia’s goals but confuse them by spreading misleading and contradictory information that cloud Russia’s real intentions. This explains why Russia denounces the government in Kiev as “fascist,” while, at the same time, supporting the French Front National.

Some of the speakers from Ukraine and Russia very much subscribed to the idea that the crisis in Ukraine is part of a much wider, well-nigh existential conflict between the West and Russia. Mikhail Minakov of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy cautioned that, if Europe were it to lose this confrontation with Russia, it may very well end up as nothing but Eurasia’s western appendage. Lilia Shevtsova, a senior fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, also warned against viewing the present conflict as just another “crisis,” when it actually is a “clash of civilisations” – something Moscow is very much aware of and acts accordingly, while the EU is still in denial. Shevtsova also criticised the latest round of peace talks, calling Merkel’s and Hollande’s stance in Minsk too soft and an implicit recognition of Russia’s influence over Ukraine.

Analysing recent European policy towards Russia, Lilia Shevtsova blamed Europe and especially Germany for being naive, for having false expectations, and for pursuing a misguided rapprochement. Shevtsova accused Germany of having propped up the Moscow regime for years. She added that in London (or “Londongrad”) the results of such wrong-headed strategies are plain to see, with Russian businessmen creating a tight network of financial interests and social contacts and acting as Putin’s fifth column. According to Shevtsova it was only last year that Germany and Europe finally began to adjust their policies towards Russia.

Will the EU have to respond militarily?

Most participants felt that Europe has to show its new and determined stance towards Russia by refusing to recognise Ukraine as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. In his opening statement, Ralf Fücks rejected a neutral Ukraine, as this would negate a European outlook for the country and recognise Russian hegemony. However, hardly any speaker could envision a military confrontation between Europe and Russia over Ukraine. Former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner pointed out that Europe’s armies and defence budgets are comparatively small and that the majority of Europeans is opposed to any military confrontation with Russia. According to Kouchner, at best the current truce in the Donbass may develop into a frozen conflict.

In spite of such sobering analyses many speakers supported the shipment of arms and military equipment to Ukraine – to help Kiev secure its eastern frontier. For Lilia Shevtsova the often-repeated claim that there is no military solution is disingenuous, as many cases exist that are very much open to just such a solution. Mikhail Minakov added that, despite its size, Russia’s military is weak and highly inefficient. On the second day of the conference, which was an expert talk closed to the public, and in reaction to these suggestions, a political scientist from Bulgaria warned that the idea of arming Kiev and containing Russia militarily was a fallacy, adding that the comparison made by some speakers to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, albeit tempting, is false, as Vladimir Putin is no Slobodan Milošević, nor is the nuclear power Russia in any way comparable to Serbia.

However, a number of speakers argued that, despite all objections, European defence policy has to respond to Russia’s challenge. Many viewed Europe as far too reliant on the US, and Timothy Snyder argued the case that Europe will have to become more self-reliant in matters of defence. He added that Putin respected power more than anything, and that an operational European force of 15,000 soldiers could have sufficed to improve Merkel’s and Hollande’s position during the negotiations in Minsk.

Sanctions instead of strategy

Usually, demands to develop a common European defence and security policy are followed by comments suggesting that insurmountable political obstacles will prevent such an integration. This time it was Bernard Kouchner, amongst others, who pointed out that because of conflicts of interest a common European military will not become a reality in the foreseeable future. Disagreement on security policy goes beyond military aspects. The political scientist from Sofia noted that the attitude of southern EU countries towards the conflict in Ukraine differed substantially from that of Eastern European countries or the Baltic states. Opinion polls showed that 80% of Poles felt directly threatened by the conflict, while in Italy or France Islamic fundamentalism was perceived as the greatest challenge.

This was confirmed by an MEP who, from first-hand experience, explained the crisis in Ukraine had occurred at a time when the EU was in disarray because of the euro and financial crises. Her impression was that within the EU there existed no shared understanding of what the crisis in Ukraine meant and that very few members believed that this constituted an attack on Europe. In such an environment long-term crisis management is impossible, and the negotiations undertaken by Merkel and Hollande in Minsk were not the result of strategic considerations but a knee-jerk reaction to American reports about possible weapon shipments to Ukraine.

Other areas of European policy that matter with regard to the crisis in Ukraine and the EU’s activities in Eastern Europe also received little love from conference speakers. Energy policy was thought to present the best prospects for making progress towards real crisis management. In Germany, the realisation that a dependency on Russian oil and gas presented a security risk has caused a paradigm change. Still, most speakers expected that the path towards a European Energy Union would be long and thorny. Other than lip service there was scant evidence for a willingness to push ahead with the comprehensive integration of European energy markets, and all truly important energy policies are still shaped at a national level. Some experts also voiced concern that the current emphasis on energy security may slow down the transition to more efficient and climate-friendly energies.

As the EU faces multiple internal issues that thwart any coherent strategy all that is left to put pressure on Russia are economic sanctions. Speakers at the conference were ambivalent about whether the sanctions thus far imposed have been effective, and no one seemed to believe that such measures will change Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. The demand to extend sanctions to the energy sector found little support – the practical obstacles were seen as too great. For the foreseeable future Russia will remain an important supplier of gas to Europe. The alternative, that is, to increase pressure by importing less Russian oil, was largely rejected as such an approach could lead to a dangerous escalation, never mind that Russia may find other buyers on the global markets.

Despite these reservations, everybody agreed that the present sanctions will not only have to remain in place but will need to be tightened. A French journalist demanded to expel Russia from the international SWIFT banking system and European anti-trust procedures against Russian energy companies. Bernard Kouchner defended the sanctions and said they were already hurting the Russian economy. Evgeny Gonthmakher of the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations confirmed this, adding that smaller companies were the ones most affected and that there was a looming banking crisis. According to Gontmakher, all of this may lead to a surprisingly rapid decline of Putin’s popularity ratings. He also expressed the hope that a political transformation will occur in an orderly fashion, as no-one is able to predict what political direction Russia will take, if Putin’s government collapses. Lilia Shevtsova, on the other hand, said it is necessary to embrace such a scenario because, as she explained, only a Europe willing to stare into the abyss will be able to fight Putin with rigorous sanctions.

Shock treatment for Ukraine

Today, Ukraine is at the brink of an abyss. Many conference participants demanded that, in order to avoid imminent national insolvency, the EU will have to provide Ukraine with rapid and generous aid. The present strict conditions tied to Western financial aid were widely criticised. Many thought that too much pressure was being put on Kiev, and that it was unrealistic to expect the speedy reforms from a country in a conflict situation. Europe, so the feeling, will have to give Ukraine more time – and, as Marieluise Beck stated very clearly, it will have to accept that in the meantime and during an emergency some financial aid will be siphoned off through graft. Thus far, however, there is a marked lack of generosity. A multi-billion Marshall Plan for Ukraine, as demanded by some experts, seems unrealistic today. Ralf Fücks and Marieluise Beck both expressed their disappointment with the rather distant or even frigid response the changes in Ukraine received in the West. Fücks added that on the left the attitude towards Euromaidan has become a marker, distinguishing “libertarian” from “authoritarian” tendencies.

There was little agreement on the best course for reform in Ukraine. On the one hand, many endorsed a comprehensive liberalisation of the economy and a campaign against a “Soviet mentality,” meaning, for example, that people expect constantly low energy prices. An economic expert from Kiev argued that economic liberalisation was a necessity, if only to push back the informal economy and create revenue. On the other hand, some voiced concerns that reforms could quickly fail for lack of massive investment and broad popular support. The vital financial aid provided by the IMF is tied to rigorous austerity measures that will result in major welfare cuts. Ralf Fücks noted that in other countries such programmes had also caused a steep drop in public investment.

Some Polish experts pointed out that there was little chance that Ukraine with all its contradictions would be able to follow the example of Poland, which, after 1990, had undergone such “shock treatment” with great success. Jacek Kucharczyk, Director of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, reminded the audience that Poland, at the time, had had very good prospects for joining the EU, which is why the Polish people had been willing to bear the social hardship caused by the reforms. Today’s Europe is much less generous and there are no plans for Ukraine to join the EU. Another Polish expert added that while in 1990 the notion that a market economy was the engine driving prosperity was generally accepted, today this is no longer the case. Consequently, liberal economic reform could easily mobilise a bevy of political opponents, which, in turn, could destabilise the already fragile Ukrainian state.

A filmmaker from Kiev pointed out that the Euromaidan had also been a movement for greater social justice, a goal initially supported by many in eastern Ukraine. The reason that, at a later point, many in the Donbass region had rejected the movement was partly Russian propaganda – but also anxiety about welfare cuts, a massive rise in energy prizes, and radical reform on the back of the people. If, once again, social justice were to become a major issue in the debates on reform that are taking place in Kiev, this would contribute greatly to reuniting the country at some point in the future.

Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.