Ukraine, the West and Europe

Ukraine. Freeze NATO membership and start EU accession negotiations immediately

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If, as the dictionary tells us, “to plan” means “to decide on a future course of action and how to implement it”, then Mark Galeotti is wrong to imply that “the Kremlin is unlikely to know any more than us whether an invasion of Ukraine is planned” 1. While President Putin does not know “if” and “when” he would intervene in Ukraine, invasion is an option that he might resort to, depending on circumstances and needs. It is, as such, thoroughly prepared.

Russian combat losses, Ukrainian resistance capabilities, uncertainties about the reaction of Russian public opinion, the effects of new international sanctions – in terms of the cost-benefit calculation, all these factors make invasion a problematic option, to say the least. By its very existence, though, invasion reinforces the other option, favoured by the Kremlin: the progressive destabilisation of Ukraine and, in the long run, its vassalisation.

President Putin’s intention to “regain control of Ukraine” seems to us beyond debate. This intention – and determination – on the part of the Kremlin is surely not, for the most part, explained by the risks of democratic contagion that the existence of a democratic and prosperous Ukraine would create. For Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s reintegration into Moscow’s fold would be nothing less than the culmination of his life’s work: the reinstatement of Russia to its imperial borders.

Moreover, every act in the course of this “great oeuvre” demonstrates Vladimir Putin’s qualities as an obstinate, determined and patient predator. In May 2004, the bombing that cost the life of Chechen President Akhmat Kadyrov capped off the process of retaking Chechnya that had begun five years earlier. In August 2008, three years after their Rose Revolution, Putin asserted himself to Georgians by annexing de facto South Ossetia and by pushing his troops to within a few kilometres of the Baku-Ceyhan gas pipeline and a similarly short distance of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. In 2010, five years after the Orange Revolution, he regained control of Ukraine with the election of Viktor Yanukovych as its president. In 2014, wrongfooted by Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, he responded by annexing Crimea de jure and part of the Donbass de facto. At the same time, he continued his gradual vassalisation of Belarus, seizing the opportunity of 2020’s Red and White Revolution to suppress any lingering hints of independence coming from President Lukashenko. Finally, in 2021, he took advantage of the Azeri-Armenian war to install his troops in Nagorno-Karabakh, putting them formally on the territory of Azerbaijan. 2

In our view, this “imperial revival” is not, to say the least, very reasonable. But, contrary to what Angela Merkel suggested in 2014, when she said that Putin had “lost all contact with reality”, that he was now “in another world” 3, it is all very rational.

It does not come from the leader alone, nor from his “psychology” alone. Rather, it is rooted in the long history of Russia – tsarist and Bolshevik – and in the disintegration of the USSR, seen not as the inevitable conclusion of the Bolshevik adventure and as an opportunity to be seized, but as a cataclysm, as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”, in the words of the President of the Russian Federation. It is to Vladimir Putin, to an information system at the orders and to the siloviki 4 apparatus, that we owe the transformation of what was once only feelings and resentments – present in large parts of the establishment and public opinion – into this new rationale. To recognise its significance in Moscow today is not to see it as legitimate, but to acknowledge it for the reality it is.

This rationale cannot, for obvious reasons, be translated into political claims. It therefore takes the form of security demands. These are the famous red lines: “no” to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, and, more recently: the establishment of no-go zones for operational exercises along the Russia-NATO contact line; the establishment of maximum approach distances for warships and aircraft, especially in the Baltic and Black Sea regions; and the resumption of a dialogue between defence ministries on issues surrounding the Russia-US and Russia-NATO borders. 5

The reality of the Atlantic threat to the Russian Federation can be debated (ad infinitum), whether or not the considerable Russian nuclear deterrent is taken into account. The fact remains that, whether the threat is imagined or perceived, purely instrumental or actually felt, NATO is presented as a genuine threat to the Russian Federation.

On the other side is Ukraine and its right to live in security within its borders, and to decide its political system and international alliances. President Biden clearly reminded us of these principles, underlining in particular that the decision to become a NATO member is one for the candidate country and the existing members.

Like the French president who said that “Europeans have no possibility of changing things” in this “frozen conflict” 6, the European Union can opt for a Pontius Pilate approach and decide not to do anything except rely completely on the United States and on political measures (sanctions) and military deterrence alone. That is a strange way of asserting Europe’s strategic autonomy!

One can take consolation, as Jean-Dominique Merchet does, from “the limits of Europeans’ geopolitical capacities in their immediate environment” 7, thus ignoring the geostrategic significance of Europe’s deleterious past political decisions. First and foremost among these: the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and – on the basis of political criteria that are fickle to say the least – Germany’s ban on arms sales to Ukraine.

In a narrow-minded analysis one might also forget the enormous demonstration of geostrategic capacity represented by the EU enlargement to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. A similar demonstration was passed over in the early 1980s, when European countries refused to listen to those – like Marco Pannella – who, wanting to ward off the worst that was to come, called for the opening of European Community accession negotiations for Yugoslavia. 8

Even excluding the scenario of an open Russia-Ukraine war that might spread beyond the borders of Ukraine, the scenario of a progressive destabilisation of Kyiv would have disastrous consequences for all the states of the Union. For example, the use of the migrant weapon, by the proconsul in Minsk, on the border between Belarus and Poland (400 kilometres) – the latest episode of hybrid warfare – might be transposed to a vassalised Ukraine (2000 kilometres of border with the EU and Moldova). This should give pause to all those who worried, as did the Netherlands 9 in particular, about the dangers of mass emigration of Ukrainians – which of course did not happen – following the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

These are the facts of the difficult equation to be solved. Ukraine and the member countries of NATO and the EU must come up with a proposal for a solution that takes into account, as far as possible, Russian demands, without compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty and security.

The shape of a “demanding dialogue with Russia” 10 and an outline of a proposal

If, as the French president declared on 10 December, we “need a demanding dialogue with Russia” in order to “pacify the region” while remaining “at Kyiv’s side”, then the EU must draw up a proposal that meets the objective set: pacification. There will otherwise be no prospect of genuine dialogue but only declamatory posturing.

Since two organisations are involved, the proposal should be twofold and joint: it should come from both NATO and the European Union.

NATO members would propose to freeze the process of Ukraine’s accession to NATO for a period of ten years.

This « freeze » would not affect the bilateral relations of NATO members with Ukraine. Nor would it affect the NATO-Ukraine partnership as it exists today, with the exception of the presence of operational military forces of NATO countries in Ukraine. In return, Russia would withdraw its armed forces from Belarus. The freeze would also be automatically declared null and void in the event of a new Russian power grab in Ukraine. Finally, it would be accompanied by an explicit clause stating that it would be in the light of the Russian Federation’s future behaviour towards Ukraine, including the currently occupied or annexed parts of Ukraine, that NATO member countries would consider Ukraine’s application for NATO membership at the end of the ten-year period.

In return and “at the same time” – to use an expression dear to the French president – the EU member states would immediately open negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU.

Alongside new sanctions in the event of a new Russian act of force, as announced by President Biden and the State Department, the opening of the EU accession process would provide a response to the other threat, more insidious than that of open conflict: that of a progressive destabilisation of Ukraine by Russia. From this point of view, the campaigns to weaken President Zelensky and former President Petro Poroshenko and the growing antagonism of the Ukrainian oligarchs are particularly worrying signs. The EU accession negotiations would allow for a tight and binding agenda of reforms to be established and would thus help consolidate and stabilise the Ukrainian state.

The concomitance of the two decisions is obviously important, as are the deadlines for the implementation of such a proposal. Russia’s threatening attitude – whether it is the prelude to a new power grab by President Putin or part of a wider scenario designed to promote the gradual destabilisation of Ukraine – paradoxically creates a window of opportunity to consolidate the rule of law and democracy in Ukraine.

Will the EU member states want to break with the policy of “Nyet” to everything, and seize this opportunity?


Translation: Harry Bowden | Voxeurop

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  1. “Kremlin Unlikely to Know Any More Than Us if Invasion Is Coming to Ukraine”, Mark Galeotti, The Moscow Times, 23 November 2021
  2. To be complete, the list should include Russian politico-military operations in Syria, Libya and, via the company Wagner, in around ten African countries.
  3. La Libre, 3 March 2014, “Merkel: Poutine a perdu tout contact avec la réalité”
  4. siloviki: state instruments of force (secret services, police, army, etc.)
  5. Communiqué of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 11 December 2021
  6. “Ukraine: Emmanuel Macron et le chancelier Scholz tentent de faire bonne figure”, Jean-Dominique Merchet, L’Opinion, 10 December 2021
  7. Jean-Dominique Merchet, op. cit.
  8. Marco Pannella, European Parliament
  9. This deliberation should also cover the inappropriateness of submitting questions relating to international relations to a referendum, as the members of the Italian Constituent Assembly of 1946 understood very well when they explicitly excluded these questions from the fields open to referendum.
  10. Jean-Dominique Merchet, op. cit.

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