Ukraine, Eastern neighbourhood in peril: Where is Geopolitical Europe?
Written by: Ruxandra Seniuc
23 February 2022, 9:30-11:00 CET (Wednesday)
This event was organised by GLOBSEC in cooperation with the Ukrainian Centre for European Policy (UCEP) and with the support of the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS). The open discussion happened less than a day before Russia’s military forces entered Ukraine.
The purpose of this closed-door event was to shed light upon the ability of the EU to speak and act as one united voice in the current European geopolitical whirlpool and the unfolding Ukraine-Russia crisis. The EU has often been criticised for its lack of geopolitical ambitions and failure to reach convergence between the Member States in its pursuit of a coherent European Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The escalation of an armed conflict in Ukraine brings severe and immediate consequences to the whole region, affecting EU countries through economic losses, waves of migration and humanitarian issues, and a long-term energy crisis. The experts assessed that there is a high chance for Ukraine to be the subject of a Russian attack, preparing for the worst-case scenario – that of Kyiv being attacked from all sides, with strong incursions into Mariupol and Kharkiv. These should be met with swift and proportional Western sanctions.
The following themes were covered:
- Russian foreign policy and Kremlin’s goals concerning Ukraine
- Geopolitical actors and potential responses in the region
- Successful mechanisms of deterrence
This event was held in an open discussion format with over thirty-five experts from EU member states and Ukraine, who focus on the Eastern Neighbourhood region, European affairs, and defence and security issues. Introductory remarks were provided by Vladislava Gubalova, Hanna Hopko, Marchin Zaborowski, Maria Zolkina, and Liubov Akulenko.
The falsification of history to achieve neo-colonial goals
Experts assessed that Russia’s moves were somewhat predictable, Putin acknowledging during his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 the changing world order, whilst criticising the NATO enlargement scheme, and the US dominance and use of force in international relations. Similarly, the leadership in Kremlin has often been accused of fabricating facts in order to make Russia’s interventions legitimate, such as questioning Ukraine as a nation-state and accusing the Ukrainian population of fascist attitudes towards the Russian-speaking population, through various disinformation campaigns, as a tactic of information operations and warfare.
NATO expansion was prevented in 2008 with the invasion of Georgia, however, if Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, this can lead to further cannibalisation of adjacent territories such as the neighbouring Baltic states, Finland, or Transnistria. Nevertheless, one cannot cease to wonder – are Russia’s aggression and expansion truly done as a mechanism to support its defensive claims (as it has previously been done in the history of its nation-building processes)? Or is that just an excuse to achieve its long-desired multipolarity?
So, what is Putin’s end game? Russia wants to ensure that there is a full blockade enforced that prevents Ukraine from accessing EU and/or NATO membership. Short term moves aim to secure those instruments favourable for future negotiations that would give Russia the necessary leverage over the Ukrainian crisis.
Possible scenarios in Donbass
The conflict in Luhansk and Donetsk did not have enough time to freeze, with ceasefires often being breached according to the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Shelling in this region is made to target critical infrastructure such as energy power plants and bridges, which often ends up damaging civilian buildings and interfering with educational and healthcare premises such as schools, kindergartens and dispensaries, accentuating the phenomenon of displacement of the local population. At the time of the event, there was no evacuation scheme put in place (not organised, forced, nor voluntary), but this matter has been reconsidered and is prone to change if heavy shelling and firepower are enforced. The fear is that the minute evacuations are announced in critical strategic points such as Schastya, expectations are high that the Russian troops would increase their attacks and will move their troops further into the Ukrainian territory.
Three potential scenarios for Donbass have been provided:
- Putin will stick to these separatist regions;
- Putin will stick to the jurisdiction of the region and push forward;
- A scenario similar to the Georgian one in 2008 – annexation (and federalisation in order to achieve that Russky Mir).
How are NATO and EU countries responding?
The only moments in history where Russia was efficiently deterred and stopped from pursuing its actions were in 1948-1949 and 1961 during the blockade of Berlin and the Cuban Missile Crisis because there was a real threat of a military counter-attack on behalf of the West. Therefore, the best response to the current situation caused by the assertive actions of the Russian Federation is that the West is prepared to sanction Russia with swift and proportional determination – be it financial sanctions, ceasing the Nord Stream 2 gas project, and strengthening the presence of its troops on the NATO Eastern Flank and the Black Sea region. EU’s actions must converge with the ones of NATO.
Although there are political divisions within the narratives of some Central and East European countries, Europe must stay united and act as one coherent voice. In case of an invasion, these countries are in the immediate proximity of Ukraine and will be directly affected and involved as ‘eastern flank nations,’ either by accommodating NATO battle troops from participating member states or receiving refugees that flee the Ukrainian territory. Turkey’s questioning loyalty to the North Atlantic Alliance can be restored, asking if and to what extent they are willing to go in showing solidarity to the Crimean Tatars or closing down the Dardanelles and the Bosporus Straits. Furthermore, it was asserted that the Normandy Format should also consider bringing up these countries to the negotiation table – among France, Germany, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation.
“Sanctions need to be more severe”
All parties agreed that there is an imminent need for sanctions. They need to be swift and proportional to Russia’s actions in Eastern Ukraine in order to effectively create deterrence. However, they should not only resort to technological and mainstream elite financial sanctions – reducing access to capital markets and payment systems such as barring Russian banks from SWIFT should be taken into consideration. The aim is to prevent a scenario that leaves Ukraine in Putin’s hands.
Financial sanctions should not solely involve Russian banks. Russia makes use of South Ossetian banks to direct finances to Luhansk and Donetsk Popular Republics. These transfers are not being made directly through Russian banks in order to avoid international sanctions as repercussions. Therefore, if we want to break the chain and counter financial flows, sanctions need to be extended to South Ossetian and, potentially, Abkhazian banks.
The potential of EU membership for Ukraine
The EU-Ukraine ties have never been so strong, looking at the enhanced political dialogue and economic cooperation, especially when it comes to Ukrainian exports on the European market once economic ties were shattered with its eastern neighbour. Kremlin’s increasing aggressive behaviour towards Ukraine in the last couple of months backfired and ended up pushing the latter more and more out of Russia’s so-called ‘sphere of influence’ – “Putin is the person that is stimulating Ukrainians to do the things that were deemed as impossible before.” The next step forward is to consolidate Ukraine’s membership perspectives, bearing in mind the possibility of EU fast-tracking accession for Ukraine.
Professionals and international experts must continue to stay engaged with their Ukrainian counterparts as a sign of support and raising awareness about citizen diplomacy.
Since the beginning of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, in hindsight, much of the experts’ predictions and recommendations have already been met.
*The summary is published within GLOBSEC GEOPE—Geopolitical Europe: Are the Member States Ready for It? Project supported by Jean Monnet Actions of the EU’s Erasmus+ program.
*The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.