The Ukraine crisis is a threat to Europe's security architecture


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Urmas Paet
Urmas Paet

Member of European Parliament and Former Foreign Minister of Estonia

There is now a long list of conflicts and security threats that affect Europe directly or indirectly. As well as Ukraine, the list includes Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it highlights the worsening international security situation, and for EU countries it means an increased terrorism risk, waves of people trying to escape the horrors of war and a need for more humanitarian aid than ever.

Europe’s number one security concern, of course, is Russian aggression in Ukraine. The Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the reaction of democratic societies to it, has gone through several phases. With the benefit of hindsight, one might well say the EU lacked effectiveness in the pre-conflict period. Before the Vilnius summit in November 2013, there had been no EU consensus on whether to conclude an Association Agreement with Ukraine. EU governments either didn’t want to commit themselves to a European perspective for Ukraine, or were using the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko as an excuse. The real reason for the delay was an unwillingness to take the step forward with Ukraine that the association agreement would have meant. And by the time they finally reached agreement it was too late. Russian pressure on Ukraine had become so great that the then president Viktor Yanukovytch didn’t dare to sign the agreement with the EU. The moment had passed, and the world knows what happened once the Maidan protests began.

We in Estonia, and in other Baltic states, must clearly understand that in this tense situation we must be able to make choices that are free of external pressures

Yanukovytch was ousted and Russia began its military aggression in Ukraine to prevent the country from moving westwards and away from Russia´s sphere of influence. Russia basically repeated the events of 2008 when it attacked Georgia and fostered ‘breakaway’ governments in the frozen conflict regions of South-Ossetia and Abkhazia with the aim of dashing Georgia’s hopes of NATO membership.

The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 prompted Europe along with democratic countries elsewhere to adopt a fundamentally more active stance towards the Ukraine crisis. At first, European sanctions were imposed. But the essence of the conflict had yet really to make an impact on public opinion in western Europe. The Ukraine conflict tended to be seen as merely another example of slavic bickering that had little or nothing to do with western Europe. It took a horrible tragedy to change that; for this war reached western consciousness last July, when Malaysian Airline’s Flight MH17 was shot down with the loss of all its passengers and crew. The shift in European public opinion was such that suddenly Estonia and other like-minded countries were no longer seen as “Russophobic”.

NATO took steps to strengthen security on its eastern wing, and the NATO-Russia Council was suspended. Additional planes had already been sent by the U.S. in March to strengthen the protection of Baltic airspace, and in April NATO decided to step up security, with Estonia’s Ämari airport to become the base for Baltic air policing. By the beginning of May, Ämari had become host to Danish fighter jets, which were replaced at the end of August by German planes. With U.S. army units now permanently based in Estonia, the clear message is that NATO is a well-functioning security organisation.

When President Barack Obama visited Tallinn in early last September, he made it plain that protecting Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius is as important as protecting Berlin, Paris and London. Shortly afterwards, the NATO summit in Wales was being hailed as a success in Estonia because it defined the alliance’s reinforced presence in our region as the ‘new normal’.The unconcealed presence of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine by the end of August last year finally made the EU act more forcefully. This mostly took the form of strengthened sanctions against Russia, and it will take time for these to have an effect. Unfortunately, there are not many alternatives to sanctions when political and diplomatic efforts have brought no success.

There can be no political solution in Ukraine if that were to mean permanent new areas of frozen conflict

We must keep on trying to find a political solution to the crisis, but that will be difficult as long as Russia continues preventing Ukraine or any other former Soviet Union country from moving closer to either the EU or NATO, and tries to either keep them or bring them back into its own sphere of influence. The EU’s sanctions should therefore not be lifted until the reasons for those sanctions have disappeared, which does not seem likely to happen any time soon. On the contrary, fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, there have been reports of human rights violations in Crimea and in both hundreds of thousands of people have fled from their homes.

These developments make it all the more embarrassing to hear some EU leaders call for the lifting of sanctions and a return to business as usual. The EU cannot afford to be split, while the trend towards closer co-operation between Moscow and both far left and far right populist parties in Europe is alarming, especially when financial support is involved. And there are already many members of the European Parliament whose views are clearly influenced by Russia.

There can be no political solution in Ukraine if that were to mean permanent new areas of frozen conflict. Both Crimea and Donbas are already in that situation because of Russia’s activities. Of six EU partnership countries, five have either one frozen conflict and sometimes even two; South-Ossetia and Abkhazia, in Georgia, Moldova has Transnistria, Armenia and Azerbaijan have Nagorno-Karabakh and now Ukraine has Crimea and Donbas. Russia’s purpose in creating these frozen conflict areas is to influence the choices open to these countries.

The communiqué issued after NATO’s Newport summit in Wales noted that Russia´s aggressive actions against Ukraine fundamentally challenge the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace. This kind of message would have been unthinkable a year before. Russia had previously been treated as a partner, but its use of military force against a neighbour and the forceful changing of a country’s borders as a means for dealing with disagreements has created a new situation. The security policy positions of Estonia and likeminded countries have thus become the mainstream of European security thinking.

In light of all this, one might ask whether the crisis has led to the collapse of Europe’s security architecture. For 20 years Europe has built a system relying on security collaboration with its underlying principles of refraining from either threatening or using force, of respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, the inviolability of borders, and the right of states to choose freely their allies. These principles are contained in the UN Charter and in such underlying documents of European security as the CSCE’s Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, and also in the Founding Act on NATO-Russia relations.

The EU’s sanctions should not be lifted until the reasons for those sanctions have disappeared, which does not seem likely to happen any time soon

Russia violated these principles when its troops set foot in Ukraine. But that violation does not necessarily mean the end of Europe’s security architecture. A violation of agreed principles doesn’t make them automatically null and void, for this crisis has both unified and strengthened Europe. But even if the basic principles of that architecture still apply, the security environment has clearly changed. Borders have been changed by force and the predictability of international relations has been seriously reduced.

We in Estonia, and in other Baltic states, must clearly understand that in this tense situation we must be able to make choices that are free of external pressures. Our EU and NATO membership has given us the sense of security we never had before. Yet countries in our neighbourhood have had to experience such Russian actions as constant airspace violations in Finland and Sweden, the dangerous manoeuvres of Russian warplanes in the European airspace, the re-opening of charges against Lithuanian nationals who refused to join the Soviet army or the abduction from Estonian territory of police officer Eston Kohver and his unlawful detainment in Russia.

So what future actions are open to Europe? We have been accustomed to seeing the EU in the positive light of a soft power. In many parts of Europe, theis perspective has led old enemies to accept and respect each other. Europe faced almost no external opposition to its enlargement processes, let alone to its association agreements. But now that Europe’s soft power has clashed in Ukraine with Russian hard power, a whole new situation has been created that we must adjust to.

Europe values the sanctity of human life, the liberty of individual, including freedom of expression and conscience, the comprehensive protection of human rights, democracy and compliance with agreements. But to the east of our neighbourhood there are powers that question these values. Freedom of expression, including internet freedom, is being suppressed by various means and free media replaced by propaganda. The interests of state administration are more important than private property rights, so we are entering a new phase of ideological confrontation. On the one side there are the democratic values on which our prosperity is built, and on the other a “civil religion” that gives priority to the interests of the authorities. We in the EU and NATO know which is the right side to be on.

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