It's time Europe adopted a tough "Containing Russia" strategy

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Photo of This article is part of our Ukraine Initiative series.
This article is part of our Ukraine Initiative series.

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Show more information on This article is part of our Ukraine Initiative series.

It is 10 years since Russia first invaded Ukraine and two since it unleashed a full-scale war on its democratic neighbour.

Ukraine’s military and civilian population have resisted with unity, inventiveness and astonishing heroism. Their courage and commitment have never been in question.

Yet Western support is flagging. Voices of doubt are holding up vital supplies, weakening Ukraine’s resistance and encouraging the aggressor.

This war is about much more than Ukraine. The Kremlin seeks to fundamentally undermine Western solidarity and democracy, to impose an authoritarian vision way beyond its borders. The security and values of all NATO and European Union states are at risk.

To revive public and political support for the Ukrainian cause, Friends of Europe has launched a campaign of multi-level engagement. We are mobilising resources to generate renewed solidary with the Ukrainian’s fight to defend their freedom and ours.

As part of the new Ukraine Initiative, we are publishing a series of articles by experts and opinion shapers. Contributors include Finnish parliamentarians Alviina AlametsäAtte Harjanne and Jakop G. Dalunde; Joséphine Goube, CEO of Sistech; Karoli Hindriks, CEO and Co-founder of Jobbatical; Dalia Grybauskaitė, former president of Lithuania; Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, former president of Croatia; Olha Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration; Hadja Lahbib, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs; Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former NATO Secretary-General; Oleksandra Matviichuk, Head of the Centre for Civil Liberties and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; Rose Gottemoeller, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO; Maryna Ovcharenko, a university student from Kharkiv, whose family house was destroyed by Russian air strikes; Kateryna Terehova, a restaurant manager-turned-volunteer helping forcibly displaced people and orphanages in Transcarpathia; Gennadiy Druzenko, Co-founder & President of Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital; Vasilisa Stepanenko, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at AP and Edward Reese, Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activist; and many others. 

Find out more here.

Giles Merritt assesses the wide breaches to the EU sanctions regime and calls for a tough new ‘carrot and stick’ approach that would appeal to Russia’s citizens.

Putin is winning. Worse, the West is allowing him to win. Much talk and disappointingly little walk has strengthened Russia’s view that Europe and the United States are soft, disunited, and incapable of resistance.

This summer is crucial as the war in Ukraine is approaching a tipping point. Rather than wait for Joe Biden’s hoped-for re-election, it’s up to the European Union to turn the tables on the Kremlin, and also to show Beijing that an ‘Autocracy versus Democracy’ stand-off cannot be in China’s interests.

The EU should launch a comprehensive “Containing Russia” package to show that Europe is determined to deny Russia access to all the technological and financial tools its economy requires. This non-military part of the strategy would be paralleled by a detailed long-term plan to enlarge and overhaul European nations’ defence capabilities.

The two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have seen NATO sabre-rattling and flurries of EU diplomatic activity, but little more. Fears of escalating the conflict into a full-scale war between nuclear-capable forces have blunted the West’s responses. Putin clearly believes his nuclear bluff is succeeding.

Symbols are important to Putin. The Kremlin sees the absence of a clear-cut Western strategy for containing Russia as a sign of weakness. It mistakenly interprets as indecision the slow process that democracies and alliances need when building consensus.

That said, the Russian leadership has so far had good reason to doubt the West’s resolve. The economic sanctions by the EU and US against Russian entities and individuals have emerged in a lacklustre and incoherent trickle of 14 packages since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and are widely derided as fleabites rather than body blows.

Incoming EU leaders should waste no time this autumn in declaring a no-holds-barred drive to isolate Russia from the global economy

Last year, US purchases of uranium from Russia stood at a billion dollars, making America the biggest customer. The EU’s ‘Freeze and Seize’ taskforce, mobilised within weeks of the 2022 full invasion, has not prevented sales to EU customers of Russian oil and gas worth €21bn.

Just as scandalous are the ‘back door’ transactions of high-tech goods essential to Russia’s war effort. The EU’s exports to Russia fell precipitously last year by €3.2bn, but new supply routes saw a sudden €3bn increase in much the same goods to Kremlin-friendly countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. India, which before the war in Ukraine, bought only one per cent of Russia’s oil, now takes 40 per cent of its output and has become a major oil supply source for Europe.

China is notoriously the chief entrepôt for sanctioned goods eventually destined for Russia, with some European corporations reluctant to stick too strictly to EU sanctions rules if that endangers their business interests. The West’s sanctions are, in short, riddled with holes, and the Russian economy has proved much more resilient than expected.

Incoming EU leaders should waste no time this autumn in declaring a no-holds-barred drive to isolate Russia from the global economy. They should also warn China’s President Xi Jinping that Europeans value their long-term security far more than their commercial relations with China. This, combined with a realistic 20-year EU defence cooperation strategy, could put paid to the widely-held idea that Europe’s real plan is to wait for the Ukraine crisis to blow over.

“Containing Russia” should be an uncompromisingly tough cornerstone of EU policymaking, although it would also make sense to leave member states free to ignore or soften some elements in order to lift the shackles of unanimity.

Paradoxically, this “Containing Russia” package should be paralleled by a more sympathetic attitude to the Russian nation. Rather than the EU’s present stance of ‘talking noisily but carrying a small stick’, to parody US president Teddy Roosevelt’s famous dictum, it should talk softly while carrying a temptingly large carrot.

The Kremlin appeals to Russians’ patriotism by presenting the EU and NATO as threats to their way of life. Putting the Russian economy on a ‘war footing’ is underlining this sense of menace, but it also presents Europe with a way to bypass Putin and his coterie and reach more level-headed people.

An all-out propaganda campaign detailing the benefits for Russian enterprises and their workforces of doing more business with the West would help to dispel hostility. Instead of complaining about the bots and malware of cyber-warfare, the West should use social media to reach Russian public opinion and contrast the hardships of Putin’s war with the comforts of peace and economic cooperation. It’s time to win some Russian hearts and minds.

The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe. 

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