The war between Russia and Ukraine: a threat to European unity

Le HuffingtonPost, 5 février 2015, Strade, 6 février 2015

Against the backdrop of renewed fighting in Ukraine, we are seeing more and more signs of division at the heart of the European Union. In the last few weeks alone, the Hungarian Prime Minister has announced his support for the new gas pipeline project that will link Russia and Turkey, and that Europeans will be expected to join, effectively giving up connections via Ukraine. Moreover, Viktor Orban is apparently preparing to host a visit by the Russian President in Budapest. Miloš Zeman, the Czech President, has also continued to be at odds with the rest of Europe by steadfastly maintaining that the Kremlin does not have a hand in the war in Donbass. At the same time too, France has been conducting bilateral negotiations with Russia aimed at restarting the exportation of pork products that was suspended after the Russian boycott of agricultural and food products of EU provenance. The Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico, will not stray from a certain generosity towards Moscow, while Bulgaria is under enormous pressure given substantial Russian investment in the country. But there are even greater concerns on the horizon: with Syriza and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) now in power in Greece, we see more clearly how intimately connected some of their high-level members are to Russian figures who are known for their important roles in fostering Vladimir Putin’s imperial designs.

All of this is extremely worrying. And not simply because it bolsters the master of the Kremlin in his belief in the efficacy of his policies aimed at dividing Europe. But also because it undercuts the results – however limited and insufficient – of the policies that Europe and the United States have hitherto pursued, and because it risks leading quickly to a critical questioning of those very policies.

Such an eventuality would be all the more detrimental given that the Western policy of support for Ukraine and of containment of the Russian regime needs time. It is not a question of seeing whether the policy of sanctions, combined with a drop in the price of petroleum products, works – it does work – it is to see when it will produce significant results and whether those are enough. In its 2015 budget, the Russian Federation has continued its policy of allocating an unprecedented amount of resources to defense. Moreover, the level of reserves that Moscow has accumulated demonstrates that any economic policy of sanctions needs time to bear fruit. According to the Russian economist Andreï Illarionov 1, it will take eighteen months to two years before such an economic policy can have serious effects on the regime.

It is therefore of paramount importance to couple short terms policies with medium term policies. We believe that these latter must take into consideration two levels of intervention while also satisfying a preliminary requirement.

Preliminary requirement: preserving European unity

Given the relations that certain big names in Syriza and the Independent Greeks have with visible Russian figures, the very first signals that the new Greek government is sending about the EU sanctions against Russia are unsurprising, but they nevertheless do not bode well for European cohesiveness on the issue. Or, more explicitly, they prefigure policies laden with vetoes: one member State risks blocking all the others, or a great majority of them. In order to avoid finding themselves in this untenable situation, the member States of the EU could, in an exchange of good manners, accept to soften the conditions on Greece’s debt, for example by linking the payment of the debt to the rate of growth, as Yanis Varoufakis, the new Finance minister, requests; for its part, Greece could recognize that a common policy with regard to Ukraine and Russia is of vital interest to the Union. On the basis of article 48 § 7 (the « passerelle » clause) of the Treaty on European Union, the twenty-eight member States could unanimously decide that all decisions concerning the Union’s policies toward Russia and Ukraine, as well as other countries within the Eastern partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldavia) and Macedonia, would henceforth be made by a qualified majority.

Allowing Ukraine to defend itself

The first level of intervention is to provide weapons. More and more people are recognizing that without appropriate weapons, Ukraine will have a difficult time guaranteeing even its own lines of defense around the Donbass, which is occupied by the Russian army and its auxiliaries. In accordance with the agreements reached at the last NATO summit, any NATO member State can make a unilateral decision in this area. While that may be a good thing, given that no State has veto rights, it would still be politically desirable for a certain number of EU States – especially the larger ones – to jointly announce a decision on the matter.

Anchoring the reforms in Kyiv

The second level of intervention is as important as the first and concerns the support for the reform process that is going in Kyiv, particularly in the areas of the police and justice.

The means that the European Union has thus far provided are woefully insufficient. The economic crisis hitting the EU, and the weakness of the available resources, do not explain the whole story. Some member States have not yet fully realized the stakes that are involved in the Ukrainian situation. In such a context, instituting a tax on Russian petrol and natural gas, as Paul De Grauwe of the London School of Economics 2 suggested after the Russian annexation of the Crimea, currently seems to us the best way to create sufficient funds to meet the challenge. Moreover, the drop in the price of petroleum products that has occurred in the meantime should make this even easier. As De Grauwe has also noted, the cost increase for European consumers would rapidly be offset by the need on the part of the Russian providers to bring their prices in line with the competition. By instituting a « Crimea tax » and a « Donbass tax », the European Union would thus be able to shift a substantial part of the costs of the reform process in Ukraine, as well as of reconstruction efforts, onto Russia.

Negotiations?

The growing number of violations that Russia and its allies are perpetrating on the Minsk accords makes any recourse to this « format » of negotiations unthinkable. But we cannot stop there. Russia’s behavior must lead the West to realize that, for the moment at least, Moscow has no intention of negotiating; rather it fully intends to pursue and intensify its imperial policies in Ukraine, and – through Ukraine – its policy of destabilizing the entire European Union. Faced with a war that directly concerns the EU, there is no longer any space for Member countries to hide behind a supposed role as mediator 3. The Heads of State and of the EU government have already decided that the gravity of the situation is such that they must assume direct responsibility. The time has come for them to take on that responsibility collectively and for them to confer upon Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, the task of speaking for the entire Union and for jointly coordinating initiatives to prevent Russia from pursuing its imperial designs.

(Translation: Anis Memon)

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Notes:

  1.  » Ukrainians Cannot Count on Sanctions or Falling Oil Prices to Stop Putin, Illarionov Says « , Paul Goble, The Interpreter, December 2, 2014
  2. « Is een Europese taks op Russisch olie en gas een optie ? », Paul De Grauwe, De Morgen, 4 March 2014
  3. «If France wants to maintain its ability, alongside Germany, to dialogue with Russia, I am not certain that it is in the best position to provide arms to the Ukraine », in « Armer l’Ukraine pour qu’elle se défende, pourquoi pas ? », Arnaud Danjean, le JDD, 1 February 2015

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