Ukraine is the unexpected crisis that shows us the limits of 'Soft Power'


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Eduard Kukan
Eduard Kukan

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia

The Ukraine crisis caught both the EU and NATO unprepared for security challenges many Europeans thought they would never have to face again. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, which only a year ago seemed to come from the pages of a John Le Carré spy thriller, became hard reality. The creeping invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russia, and the West’s mounting propaganda war with the Kremlin, have left our Euro-Atlantic structures in want of a bold policy response.  Can the EU and NATO come up with one?

To the surprise of many, co-ordination between the EU and NATO has been better than expected. Since the onset of the Ukraine crisis, EU and NATO officials have kept open their communication channels for discussing how to move forward. That’s a positive step, even if it took the Ukraine crisis to forge that level of co-operation.

Adding the transatlantic link to the EU through NATO, and building on these ties, should now be integral to the EU’s foreign and security policy. The Atlantic partners are also closer than ever now when it comes to economic and trade ties: the EU has just sealed a trade deal with Canada, and negotiations of the ambitious U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are moving ahead. The EU needs to take its Atlantic partners more seriously than has been the case and it must take greater responsibility for its own security instead of expecting the U.S. to foot much of its defence bill. The Ukraine crisis has shown that Europe’s self-perception as a growing economic power that doesn’t need hard power is badly flawed. This means investment in smart security, more intra-European joint defence projects and an end of duplications between the EU and NATO.

Adding the transatlantic link to the EU through NATO, and building on these ties, should now be integral to the EU’s foreign and security policy

Until Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a key problem was that the EU never really had a consistent policy for dealing with Moscow. What we instead shared with Russia was the idea that it should become a democratic and prosperous member of the community of nations, without hostile intentions vis-à-vis the EU or its neighbours. This was a worthy vision, but far from a workable policy. In practice, disagreements between EU member states about the nature of Russia’s regime, its foreign policy and intentions, as well as each EU member’s own self-interest prevented the EU and NATO from developing their own strategies for engaging – and perhaps countering – Russia.

The Ukrainian crisis has started to forge a convergence of EU and NATO member states’ views on how to read Moscow’s actions, and on whether and how to try to stop them. Understandably, some members are more prepared than others to go much further even if the steps taken during the summer would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. So it’s critical that this consensus should not wither away if the crisis is to be resolved by diplomatic means. The EU and NATO now need to work in concert, to be brave in their thinking and to act beyond the limits of the usual policy toolkit.

Even if the EU and NATO were to co-ordinate their policies perfectly, the Ukrainian crisis demands more than that of us. Communication is important, but so is the firm determination to defend the principles the two institutions stand for; non-aggression and a respect for other countries’ borders and their sovereignty. This should go beyond rhetorical support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity by imposing real costs on those who violate it, even if the perpetrator is one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers. The past few months have already seen a change in the Euro-Atlantic community’s relations with Russia: the stream of economic and financial sanctions, targeted visa bans on Russian companies and officials along with the arms embargo represent a U-turn in our relationship with Moscow.

Beyond fostering a lasting and peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis, EU and NATO leaders need to recognise that there’s no going back to business as usual with Moscow; the time has come for a thorough re-think of co-operation with Russia. We need to base our policies not on what we think Russia should become, but on what it is today. The Euro-Atlantic consensus on Russia is still fragile – and while it can help forge a bold action on the Ukrainian crisis, it also needs to inform our long absent Russia strategy. Beyond economic ties, protecting European security – including our own energy security – need to be integral to this strategy. And I see space for engagement of the European Parliament in this, with politicians from all 28 member states helping to bridge national differences and foster a Europe-wide response to this Euro-Atlantic problem. Closer work with political partners in Ukraine and the eastern neighbourhood should bring us to a clearer understanding of political reality. However, the ultimate key to handling Moscow’s adventures is greater unity within our own ranks.

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