Don’t humiliate Russia! Or how to repeat past mistakes at the cost of European security


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Xavier Bento
Xavier Bento

Programme Assistant at Friends of Europe

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that Europe “must not humiliate Russia so that the day the fighting stops, we can build a way out through diplomatic channels,” contesting that diplomacy must consistently be considered to address violent conflicts. Problematically, Macron simultaneously implied that negotiations could only take place if Russia can escape any form of shame or humiliation.

This gave rise to mixed reactions from other Western leaders. The United States Ambassador to the European Union, Mark Gitenstein, declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “humiliated himself” by his conduct in the war and that the West wanted to see him defeated on the battlefields of Ukraine. Similarly, former US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, claimed: “Putin will only negotiate when his army can’t keep marching forward, humiliated or not. Macron should focus on creating that condition.” The strongest European reactions came from the head of the Estonian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission, Marko Mihkelson, who stated that Macron was “still looking for ways to save war criminal Putin from humiliation,” and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis claimed Macron’s comments risked jeopardising the unity and security of the EU. Most notably, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba said that allies should “better focus on how to put Russia in its place” and that “calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it.”

By contrast, no reactions emerged from the German and Italian governments. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Prime Minister Mario Draghi have previously hinted that resolving the conflict might require Ukraine to comply with Russian claims on certain territories. The four-point plan Draghi put forward in late May included a bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine to clarify the future of Crimea and Donbas, which would, in this scenario, have almost complete autonomy. The Italian plan’s proximity to core Russian demands had led many to describe it as ‘classic appeasement’. For his part, Scholz has avoided non-committal or conflicting public announcements, refraining from affirming that Ukraine should recapture all lost territory, settling instead to comment that Putin could “not win” the war.

Calls to avoid Russia’s humiliation do not guarantee Europe’s security, but rather strengthen Russia and weaken the EU in the long run

The notion that the EU would be well advised to spare Russia prevails within the Union, not least among the leaders of three member states. This stance is not only disrespectful to Ukraine, but its strategic thinking is fundamentally erroneous and short-sighted, and even endangers Europe in the long term. Recent history reveals that indulging a Putin-led Kremlin is not only an impractical and reckless policy, but prone to placing many European nations in a position of dependency vis-à-vis Russia, creating divisions between EU member states, and thus, making the Union vulnerable to Putin’s intimidations and pressures. Calls to avoid Russia’s humiliation do not guarantee Europe’s security, but rather strengthen Russia and weaken the EU in the long run.

Macron’s posture relies on the precedent set by post-WWI Germany, a nation whose humiliation caused by the Versailles Treaty is often cited as a driving factor for its return to the battlefield 20 years later. The takeaway behind this is that deeply humiliated countries make for bad partners in peace. In this case, Macron’s phrase reflects an attempt to avoid ‘making things worse’ and antagonising Russia to an extent that would be critical for Western democracies.

However, Russia has undermined Western objectives even in the absence of any provocation or humiliation. The Russian management of the Syrian issue, even before its 2015 intervention, and its illegal annexation of Crimea are just two illustrations of this reality.

Moreover, Moscow has repeatedly shown its tendency to use compromise frameworks to leverage permanent interference in its neighbours’ affairs, rather than to seek conflict resolution. This was displayed most recently by the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, signed as a means to reunite Ukraine, but distorted by the Kremlin to enshrine a process that would see Russian-aligned administrations emerge in Luhansk and Donetsk. Making concessions that could be used by an adversary to maximise its influence and further escalate destabilisation abroad is evidently not a clever diplomatic strategy – and not one that Europe should rely on.

Putin’s demands contradict the very nature of what cooperation with Europe might entail

Behind this appeasement rhetoric lies a flawed and ineffective strategy for peace that is based on the premise that Russia still adheres to the post-Cold War status quo and seeks to integrate the European and Western circle. While this could have been true in the 1990s and the beginning of Putin’s first term as president, the perspective for improved relations suffered from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the pro-Western democratic changes in Georgia, Ukraine and to a lesser extent Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005, and Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008. Any prospects whatsoever ceased to exist after Putin’s 2012 re-election. Macron’s belief in a functioning appeasement strategy for Europe is effectively ten years outdated.

Nowadays, Putin’s demands contradict the very nature of what cooperation with Europe might entail, as made clear by recent draft agreements with the US and NATO. With demands such as NATO withdrawal from eastern Europe or officially closing the door on Ukraine’s membership, these documents reinforce the Russian president’s obsessions with the survival of his regime and the country’s geopolitical might. As seen with Ukraine, Putin is clearly willing to engage in hostile actions and even go to war when he believes these objectives are threatened or that Russia risks being humiliated. Here lies the core problem with trying to appease or indulge Putin’s Russia: as the protagonist, Putin defines the rules of the game. The practice of appeasement leaves Europe in a position of weakness, vulnerability and ill-preparedness.

Rather than passively react to Russia’s demands, the EU must fortify its voice and set its own terms to Russia, even if the Kremlin will reject them. The point is not to get Russia to accept European terms, it is to stop playing by Russian rules.

This will require European nations to considerably bolster their stance vis-à-vis Russia. This is already being done through NATO, which significantly reinforced its military posture on its eastern flank and prepares to welcome Sweden and Finland to its ranks. But the greatest change needs to occur within the European Union.

A sense of urgency alone cannot sustain a common sense of purpose and unify all member states over time

A more secure Europe can emerge only with an EU that is better prepared to deter – or face – Russia politically, economically and militarily. The Union will thus need to take actions in all three of these domains.

First, it is essential that the EU abandon ambiguity and adopt more unified rhetoric when addressing foreign policy issues. The relative speed at which the EU27 managed to agree on sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine constitutes grounds for hope; however, a sense of urgency alone cannot sustain a common sense of purpose and unify all member states over time. The EU now needs to prioritise its unity on the international stage.

Second, the EU must be willing and able to protect its interests and oppose any adversary seeking to undermine its objectives through the use of economic instruments. Although limited in scope, the EU has only just started to leverage gas imports to pressure Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, despite medium and long-term costs for the Union. The EU must hold its ground and further integrate economic instruments in its foreign policy toolbox to compel opponents. The fact that the EU needs Russian gas more than Russia needs European cash is not immutable.

Finally, the EU must endorse its willingness to militarily defend itself against any potential aggressor. While the military aspect of defence is and will remain in the hands of NATO, the EU and its member states should clearly express and demonstrate the will to take up arms if needed. Moreover, Europe must prove its determination and ability to defend itself alone; the US cannot, and will not, fight Russia in a full-scale war at a time when its greatest strategic threat comes from the Pacific. In its recent ‘The Case for EU Defense’ report, the Center for American Progress proposed that the EU must now “focus on developing and acquiring new capabilities that can enable Europe to act without the involvement of the U.S. military.” Accordingly, the report called for American leaders to stop opposing EU defence integration initiatives, maintaining that the current approach encouraged unnecessary redundancies among EU countries.

Only with a long-term, coordinated, intensified and complementary rearmament strategy will the EU component of NATO be able to play its part within the alliance

While many EU member states have already increased defence spending in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these efforts will now need to be elevated to the EU level to ensure close coordination between member states – an objective also shared by NATO. Only with a long-term, coordinated, intensified and complementary rearmament strategy will the EU component of NATO be able to play its part within the alliance as an effective deterrent force against Russia.

Instead of debating if it should or shouldn’t humiliate a belligerent nuclear power, the EU must strengthen itself to keep Russia from ever crossing the line as it did with Ukraine not but six months ago. After all, as John Chipman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) put it: “Humiliation is a mild punishment for war crimes.”

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