After Riga: How Can Europe Promote a More Peaceful Neighbourhood?

Posted on June 23, 2015 by


Image by EEAS

But a few weeks after the Riga Summit of EU and Eastern Partnership members quietly assembled and published its tentatively worded declaration, it is worth examining what Europe must really do to produce a peaceful neighbourhood.

Reticence is understandable—diplomacy over Ukraine is ongoing, and has been demonstrably sensitive to ill-judged pronouncements. Accordingly, this post will not call for an escalation of the war effort, narrowly defined—especially when the record for over-promising and under-delivering is so dizzying already; European states should find its prescriptions well within their capabilities.

Indeed, Europe already does much to promote peace in its neighbourhood. Economic and political integration has produced a stable, prosperous European order, and its steady expansion is testament to the demand for its egalitarian values. Nevertheless, this expansion has at least contributed to the outbreak of the most dangerous European conflict of the post-Cold War era: the war in Ukraine. Europe has been blindsided by Russia’s multidimensional assault and is yet to respond coherently; what it needs is stability in Ukraine, to recognise its relative strengths, and to stand firmly in the face of Russian aggression.

Europe should not forswear its integrating mission, but should throw its all into resolving the Ukraine crisis as soon as possible. The latest United Nations report estimates that more than 6,000 people have died since fighting began over a year ago, and one million are registered as internally displaced. Worse still, the fighting continues to poison ‘inter-ethnic’ relations (though Ukrainian ethnicity is far from straightforward), and has polarised international affairs, making a stable post-conflict settlement less likely by the day.

Europe must recognise where its strengths lie—principally in ‘soft’ power and its appeal to the civil societies, and not necessarily the states, of its turbulent neighbourhood. Failure here has been costly, and history will record that only after a year’s fighting is the EU adopting the terms proffered by Russia in March 2014—namely, Russian participation in negotiating Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement (AA).

Where ex-European Commission President, José Barroso, once said, “When we make a bilateral deal, we don’t need a trilateral agreement”, today the Commission urges an understandably dismayed Ukraine to enter trilateral talks. Between these statements Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula was annexed and, however boorish, Russian nuclear sabre-rattling makes it perfectly clear that Crimea’s status is no longer negotiable. Similarly, the declaredly independent Donbas region, with its Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, will not return to Ukraine’s fold without substantial and withering concessions on autonomy. The EU should refrain from all-or-nothing pronouncements—at least in private—for in Ukraine they are desperately ill-matched with its hard bargaining power. Failure to acknowledge this begets stagnation and war, not peace.

Of equal import, Europe must now recognise the gravity and breadth of the Russian threat, and do what is within its power to contain it. One must be mindful that this crisis comes at a time when threats to Europe abound, but the Russian threat is qualitatively different. Economic discord in Greece threatens the monetary union; democratic ‘backsliding’ in Hungary is an embarrassment to European values; and a harrowing migrant crisis in Europe’s Mediterranean neighbourhood is enlightening a policy area most member states—and particularly those with elections impending—would rather not talk about. Nevertheless, Russia outstrips them all, for it alone is an existential challenge to the foundation of European order: the inviolability of sovereign borders.

Furthermore this threat cynically pervades other issues. As former counterintelligence officer, John Schindler, articulated at the JBANC Conference in April this year, Russian political warfare (‘active measures’) eschews compartmentalisation and is holistic in its approach. As such, Russia’s war in Ukraine and its sponsorship of ‘Eurosceptic’ groups are not seen as distinct. (One truly sees its cynicism in Russia’s support for such disparate groups as Greece’s leftist Syriza government and Hungary’s populist anti-Communist Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán). Each is a component of a wider campaign, launched in the third presidency of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which holds no higher priority than the dissolution of the European project and the severing of its Atlantic artery.

Part of containing this threat is essentially palliative; it means identifying Europe’s oft-exploited weaknesses, and taking a disciplined approach to resolving them. EU member-states are, in this time of economic uncertainty, increasingly willing to trade long-term strategic interests for tactical victories, often at the domestic level. Whilst the Greek government has been warned to cease its flirtation with Putin’s financiers—a crude gambit in negotiating its international debt burden—more must be done to raise the costs of this tempting but short-sighted opportunism.

Orbán’s unprecedented assault on European values not only grants Putin a Trojan Horse in European decision-making—a political return on Russia’s sizeable investment—but also plays into Russia’s propagated narrative that Europe, and the West more broadly, uses democracy selectively, and as a cloak for the promotion of its self-interest. To counter this, the EU must clamp down on its backsliders, granting the Commission rights to monitor and appropriately sanction breaches of fundamental values—including the so-called ‘nuclear option’ of suspending recalcitrant states’ voting rights altogether. This is likely to be highly unpopular and dependent on the willingness of member-states to censure one of their own. Discipline will clearly be required in no small measure—discipline which can only be expected once Europe recognises the existential nature of the threat it faces today.

Discipline also means reigning in the undiplomatic bombast, which is by no means exclusive to Europe’s recidivists. Whilst the High Representative has performed admirably as a single voice for the EU, member-states’ voices still carry further; with this reach should come responsibility. David Cameron’s comments on “permanently” damaging the Russian economy were eagerly touted by Russia’s propaganda machine as evidence of the EU’s wantonly malicious intent; sanctions were thereby attributed, in the eyes of Russians, to the EU’s own ‘imperious’ nature—not to the war Russia is actively fighting in Eastern Ukraine.

Finally, where Russia has resumed many of its Cold War practices, Europe must match them. This does not mean competing with Russian active measures, but rekindling the practices that brought the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion: tactful diplomacy, an emphasis on civil society, and the principle that effective propaganda must always be grounded in truth.

There is room for optimism here. European soft power has produced populations in Georgia and Ukraine which see no alternative to European, democratic futures—despite Russia’s most fervent attempts to deny them these. European unity on sanctions has survived, despite objections, and a new programme of Russian-language TV broadcasting is a first step towards countering Russia’s propaganda enterprise, which for too long has held a monopoly on Russian-language televised broadcasting.

The crisis in Ukraine and the EU’s lacklustre response speaks volumes about EU foreign policy, but all is not lost. A disciplined approach, well acquainted with Europe’s relative strengths, could salvage much from the calamity in Eastern Ukraine, but only a Europe that defends its foundational values from within and without can hope to bring peace and prosperity to its embattled neighbourhood.