Ukraine crisis: EU looks for role in Russian row with West

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Image source, Ukraine foreign ministry/AFPImage caption, The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has been on a solidarity visit to Ukraine's front line

It was the man who brought stability first to a flailing eurozone and then most recently to turbulent Italian politics who neatly articulated Europe's weakness in dealing with Russia.

Mario Draghi, for now Italy's prime minister, lamented that the continent didn't have the collective military might to deter Moscow amid its troop build-up on the Ukrainian border.

"Do we have missiles, ships, cannons, armies?" he asked rhetorically on the eve of Christmas. "At the moment we don't."

If Italy's so-called "Super Mario" feels powerless, then what hope for everyone else?

Brussels: A virtual bystander

The Italian leader is not alone in his deep frustration that Europe is being excluded from the key conversations about the biggest security issue in its backyard.

The EU has been sidelined as Presidents Biden and Putin talk to each other directly – demonstrated most notably by their video call last month, the opening moments of which were released.

Image source, ReutersImage caption, The two leaders spoke via in early December and again last week by phone

Brussels, like the rest of us, could only look at the screen as the game of high-stakes, bilateral diplomacy began: a virtual bystander not given the password to log in.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell's visit to the frontline in Ukraine on Wednesday has been an attempt to prise open a door to greater involvement. Discussion on the security of Europe and Ukraine must include Europeans and Ukrainians, he told reporters.

EPA/Ukraine governmentIt's not just the US and Russia. If you want to talk about security in Europe, Europeans have to be at the table and the agenda isn't just the issues Russia has put on the tableJosep Borrell
EU foreign policy chief

But a single visit will not reconfigure the EU's role, or lack of it, in dealing with the latest episode of Putin muscle-flexing.

"Russia simply does not see the EU as a powerful or strong player in the game," says Tinatin Akhvlediani of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

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"The EU has shown over recent years it has many internal disagreements when it comes to its own foreign policy, defence, security issues and over co-operation with Nato."

She believes the EU should lay out a coherent, long-term strategy for a bigger role in its relationship with Ukraine, and she is encouraged it is the destination of Mr Borrell's first trip of 2022.

At least this latest venture eastwards to engage with Russia has been more successful that his previous one. The EU's top diplomat was humiliated on three counts last February when he travelled to Moscow:

  • First, his hosts expelled three diplomats accused of joining illegal street protests in support of the jailed dissident Alexei Navalny. Mr Borrell found out through social media
  • Second, Russian authorities then scheduled a court appearance for Mr Navalny in a glass cage and hit him with new charges
  • The final insult: Russia's veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used a joint press conference to denounce the EU as "an unreliable partner" trying to imitate the United States in its actions

Certainly the EU would crave a fraction of the political weight the US still carries on the world stage.

On the day of Mr Borrell's Ukraine visit, arguably the more significant European foreign affairs trip was Germany's new foreign minister's to Washington.

Anna Baerbock, co-leader of the Greens, has taken a tougher approach on Russia, and China, and that is welcomed by the Biden administration.

Image source, ReutersImage caption, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in the US that Russia would face serious consequences for any renewed violation of Ukrainian sovereignty

But just because a senior German minister speaks the same diplomatic language as the fluent French-speaking Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that doesn't translate to bigger EU influence on the Russia and Ukraine situation.

Fears for Europe's eastern flank

As always it's the hotline to the leaders' offices in individual European capitals where the power lies – not in the EU's European External Action Service in the centre of Brussels.

The big concern for the EU is not just that it's left out in the cold over non-EU member Ukraine, but that it will be frozen out of discussions on its entire eastern flank.

Ahead of US-Russia talks in Geneva on 9-10 January, President Putin has used the escalation in tensions to present radical, new demands that he claims would help calm the situation.

Chiefly, Moscow would have a veto on Ukraine membership of Nato – and remember an attack on one Nato member constitutes an attack on all.

Also, the security landscape in Eastern Europe would be rolled back 25 years to a time when the likes of Poland and the Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had not yet joined the EU or Nato.

While it's unthinkable that the West would seriously consider the proposals, they are now part of a conversation Russia has initiated on its terms and it will want to discuss them further in Geneva.

Nato has managed to play a more prominent role than the EU and is convening foreign ministers this week.

The Putin demand for no further Nato expansion in Europe has been met with consternation by countries such as Finland and Sweden. Both are already EU members and insist it should be their choice if they wish to join the alliance.

This video can not be played

To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Media caption, Russian troop build-up: View from Ukraine front line

"None of us really know what the Kremlin's actual game plan is," says Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

She doubts the US would allow meaningful discussions about Europe's geopolitical order and security order to get under way without European leaders being involved, but says there needs to be a realism in how much the EU can achieve in its quest for a seat at the top table.

"I don't see a silver bullet. The EU is a different sort of animal, and it will probably never be a foreign policy actor similar to powerful nation states like Russia or the United States."

Ms Liik believes the best action is to harness the collective might of 27 economies, as the EU will never have its own army.

Redefining Europe's mission on the world stage will not be quick or simple. And in the short term, there are plenty of national distractions:

France's President Macron is squarely focused on re-election in April and Germany's new three-party coalition government is just finding its feet.

Italy has enjoyed political stability since Mario Draghi became leader last year, but it is now convulsed by a search for a new president – a role he may jump to.

The EU may not like it but Washington and Moscow are the two main characters taking centre stage.

More on this story

  • Navalny trial a 'low point' in EU-Russia relations

    Published5 February 2021

  • No time for war: Russians see no chance of conflict

    Published25 December 2021

  • Putin to Biden: New sanctions would be big mistake

    Published31 December 2021

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