After months of Vladimir Putin’s saber rattling over Ukraine, Russian officials have been on a diplomatic tour of Europe this week, meeting with the US in Geneva and NATO in Brussels. In the midst of this diplomatic whirlwind, Europe’s largest diplomatic club has been absent. The EU has no formal role in the talks, although its officials are working out possible sanctions to impose on Russia if the Kremlin decides to invade Ukraine.
The EU’s exclusion from talks about war and peace in its own backyard hurts. “Between Putin and Biden, Europe is on the sidelines,” read a The world headline last week. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, issued a nonchalant note. “I don’t care,” he said when asked by the BBC whether the United States should have gone ahead with the Geneva talks. The Russians, he said, had “deliberately excluded the EU from any involvement,” but the United States had assured him that “nothing will be agreed without our strong cooperation, coordination and involvement.”
Officials have downplayed exclusion from the EU. “European allies are at the table, because European allies are in NATO,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Following the NATO-Russia talks, Stoltenberg plans to brief the EU defense ministers that they will meet in the northwestern French port city of Brest on Wednesday night. The two organizations have 21 member countries in common and pages of commitments to enhance cooperation.
Not everyone believes this reassuring story about Europe’s absence at the head table. “It worries me a lot,” Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister, who is now part of the European parliament, told The Guardian. “The EU is a neighbor of both Ukraine and Russia, these are countries with which we have intense relations. And what happens between them affects several member states. Of course we should be there and I’m surprised we aren’t. “
The EU’s foreign policy chief, then Catherine Ashton, was at the table with the US, Russia and Ukraine in 2014 in Geneva, following the invasion of Crimea. France and Germany later switched to the narrower Normandy format, speaking with Kiev and Moscow, in an attempt to end the conflict in Ukraine. “It was the actions of some member states, Germany and France, and a diplomatic error by Ukraine in accepting the Normandy formula, and then the Minsk formula, which has got us nowhere,” argues Sikorski. “Through a series of missteps we have ended up with the EU excluded from an issue of vital importance to us.”
In an uncomfortable irony, the crisis is unfolding as the EU’s defense and foreign ministers meet this week in Brest to discuss how the EU can be a more powerful player in a global order challenged by authoritarian powers and rogue actors. The search for “strategic autonomy” of the EU is championed by France, which this month assumed the rotating presidency of the EU. Europe, said a senior French government official, must be “totally sovereign, free in its choices and master of its own destiny.”
Another Russian invasion of Ukraine is an obvious big test for “sovereign” Europe. More than 100,000 Russian soldiers are stationed around Ukraine’s borders and US intelligence has reported that 175,000 could be deployed by the end of January.
EU leaders have warned of “massive consequences” in response to any other military aggression against Ukraine. The precise consequences are a closely guarded secret, as officials believe that telegraphing the details would benefit Putin by allowing him to gauge his response. Even high-level diplomats say they don’t know exactly what the European Commission has prepared. Nonetheless, an extensive list of options has emerged, spanning finance, technology, and individuals.
In the event of a full-blown invasion, Russia could be cut off from Swift, the banking messaging system that connects 11,000 corporations in more than 200 countries. The oligarchs close to the Kremlin could have their assets frozen in western jurisdictions. The EU would also be under pressure not to approve the controversial NordSteam II gas pipeline, which is complete but must overcome regulatory hurdles before Russia can start pumping water to Germany.
“The Swift option is an option that is being closely scrutinized,” said veteran French diplomat Pierre Vimont, who was the EU’s top foreign service official between 2010 and 2015. “It needs to be closely scrutinized, and perhaps more personalized financial penalties, as well as individual penalties ”. The end result would depend on the nature of the Russian aggression, he said. “If the Russians continue with a large-scale direct military invasion, one might expect the EU to respond with the same force.”
Diplomatic sources suggested that a full-scale invasion would unify the EU to act, while a continuing campaign of Russian hybrid attacks, disinformation and support for the Donbass delegated forces makes the decision more difficult. European countries trade more with Russia and have more to lose than the United States, making calculating sanctions more complex.
“If on the contrary there is still pressure from Russia, but we stay with the same level of tension, it will be more difficult,” said Vimont, referring to Nordstream in particular. “It seems that this will depend largely on the circumstances.”
Meanwhile, member states remain divided over whether to set up an EU military mission to train the Ukrainian army, joining an EU civilian mission that has been on the ground since 2014 to help Kiev upgrade the police force. the courts and border forces.
Poland, the Nordic and Baltic states would like to see a complete military training mission with EU boots on the ground, while other countries wonder if the same result could be achieved by increasing financial aid to Ukraine. The question has come and gone, since the Ukrainian government requested a military training program last July.
Sikorski argues that Ukraine has much greater needs than European countries. “What Ukraine really needs is a batch of anti-ship, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, but these would be national decisions. I hope the member states are preparing contingency plans to do so if Putin follows through on his threats. “
Tomás Valášek, a member of the Slovak parliament and a former ambassador to NATO, opposed assuming the EU would split, pointing to the bloc’s decision to impose broad economic sanctions against Russia in 2014, measures that remain in force. “Historically, history suggests that when Russia crosses the red lines, we do the right thing, rather than the other way around.”
“What [Putin] It has done more recently, with the concentration of more than 100,000 soldiers in Ukraine, and now with the unprecedented demands for a security architecture, which has actually had a unifying effect. We have gone from a merely normal level of subterfuge and provocation to something new, something that is already unifying Europe ”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism