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2 – Let’s try a fresh start

in Conflicts · Crisis · Economics · Europe · Euroskepticism · GERMANY · Money · Nation · Person · Politics · Power · Russia · Ukraine · World 165 views / 7 comments

GEOMETR.IT  dahrendorf-forum.eu  05.04.2016


There are three basic perspectives to the question of whether the Ukraine conflict and particularly the wider confrontation in Russia’s relations with the West could have been avoided.

The first is related to Russia, the second to the EU and the third to Ukraine itself. Was the key problem the EU’s geopolitical expansion, or the threat of it, Russia’s great power ambitions and domestic politics, or political developments in Ukraine independently of both the EU and Russia?

In hindsight, the EU would have probably been better served to wait awhile with these developments. At the same time, it is not clear whether a pause or offering better access to negotiations and symbolic gestures towards Moscow would have been enough to prevent major problems.

Also, it cannot be ruled out that Moscow might have been emboldened by the EU’s timidity and assumed that an implicit Russian droit de regard (right of access) had already been accepted by the West. In any case, it cannot be argued that the EU was overly aggressive with its policies.

  • The EU supported Euromaidan, but the support was mainly verbal: for example Ashton issued a statement in Kyiv where she said she was “impressed by the determination of Ukrainians demonstrating for the European perspective of their country” and called for dialogue and negotiations.
  • In a similar manner, even the fathers of the EaP, Carld Bildt and Radek Sikorski, who are often criticised as having been overly eager in pushing for their policy, stressed that even though the EU remained prepared to sign the agreement as soon as President Yanukovych was ready to do so, “we will not be drawn into a meaningless bidding war over Ukraine’s future”.
  • Turning to Russia, one could argue that the Ukraine crisis and the confrontation in EU–Russia relations could have been avoided if only Moscow had simply accepted the EaP and the conclusion of the AA between Ukraine and the EU, and not seen either as hostile acts or a threat to its key interests. Yet this is far too simplistic.

As a result of these actions, Russia is neither more secure, prosperous nor respected abroad than before; if anything the Kremlin’s domestic support has consolidated, but if the annexation of Crimea was the most rational way of achieving that we face a far bigger problem with Russia than if we suggest that the decision was based on miscalculation. Finally, we may ask to what extent the conflict could have been avoided if Ukraine had been a more consolidated and politically well-functioning country.

  • First of all, it was rather clear that before the conflict, the majority of Ukrainians did not want to choose between Russia and the EU. Part of the problem was that Ukraine was put in a position where it had to make choices one way or the other.
  • The bigger problem, however, was the rampant corruption and the declining living standards in the country. A more legitimate and capable political leadership could have been able to postpone the choice and, in particular, prevent the protest movement from becoming a revolutionary force.
  • To a certain extent, Russia was reacting to the revolutionary situation in Ukraine and wanted to seize the moment by seizing land. This would not have been the case if the country had a more legitimate and better functioning government.


We are faced with a genuine dilemma. As was already mentioned, the narratives concerning the past are diametrically opposite with both parties squarely blaming the other. Therefore, although it would be easy to argue that the EU and the West in general need to reassure Russia that it is not aiming to cause ‘colour revolutions’ in Russia and that it can also support countries that choose to join the Russia-led EEU, it is hard to see how either of these assurances can be effective in the current atmosphere.

At the same time, the EU cannot simply accept the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, although it could, and probably will have to, compartmentalise the problem to stop it from poisoning relations indefinitely. In the future, some kind of a satisfactory international scheme will need to be found that gives normative legitimation to the transfer of the peninsula from Ukraine to Russia, but this can only take place once Kyiv and Moscow see eye-to-eye on the topic – a very difficult scenario to imagine for the time being.

In the meantime, the EU and the West could concede that Ukraine remains in a category of its own, but this can happen only if Russia shows genuine steps towards stabilising the situation in Ukraine and refrains from using similar tactics elsewhere along its borders. The improvement of ties requires restraint and reciprocity from both sides. Both parties should avoid attribution error and appreciate the fact that not all the negative actions are due to the adversary’s negative character, but should be attributed rather to situational factors


  1. A big leap in the form of a package deal that would magically restore the relations and sweep the problems away is not realistically possible. Restoration of ties will take time and patience. For that the EU and Russia can not only look at the future cooperation, but they also need to address the past.
  2. The key challenge ahead is to take baby steps to rebuild trust. The Iran nuclear deal and cooperation against terrorism in the Middle East constitute such areas where common ground can be found and trust built. The parties need to adopt a long-term strategic perspective and be ready to develop their relations and take bigger steps in recreating trust when the first experiences have been sufficiently encouraging.
  3. In the meantime, the improvement of ties requires restraint and reciprocity from both sides and readiness to take bold steps when the time is ripe.



1 – Let’s try a fresh start

in Conflicts · Crisis · Economics · Europe · Euroskepticism · GERMANY · Money · Nation · Person · Politics · Power · Russia · Ukraine 142 views / 6 comments

GEOMETR.IT  dahrendorf-forum.eu  04.04.2016

In hindsight the conflict in Ukraine and the consequent rupture in EU–Russia relations were a ‘perfect storm’ generated in the context of a combination of choices and mistakes made by all the parties. It seems safe to conclude that the current situation is one that no one wanted nor actively aspired to.

This leaves us with the difficult question of finding a constructive way forward. In this respect it is easy to be a pessimist. A lot of mistakes have been made and a lot of trust essential for the restoration of ties has been lost. Indeed, if EU and Russian leaders want to restore their relations, it is fundamental to rebuild some trust.

For that the EU and Russia can not only look at future cooperation, but they also need to address the past. It is not possible to simply swipe the slate clean and let bygones be bygones.

The conflict in Ukraine and the consequent crisis in EU-Russia relations took the EU and its member states largely by surprise.

Russia’s reaction to the domestic crisis in Ukraine and the forced annexation of Crimea was, in the words of the EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, “an act of aggression” and a “breach of Russia’s international obligations and its commitments” that has made the EU ponder both the relative merits of its own policies as well as the future prospects of meaningful relations with Russia.

  1. The same applies also on the Russian side, where in a recent intervention the Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov remarked that there should be no return to ‘business as usual’, but a more thorough rethinking of relations is called for.
  2. In hindsight it is easy to argue that both the EU and Russia should have seen the crisis coming. The dramatic nature of the rupture was a surprise of sorts, but otherwise the events of 2014 were perhaps a natural culmination of a longer term crisis in relations between the EU and Russia, an unwanted outcome that was nevertheless bound to take place eventually between the two increasingly disillusioned ‘strategic partners’.
  3. Yet, if neither Russia nor the EU actually wanted this crisis, it should have been avoidable. When and how did EU–Russia relations end up on a trajectory where the confrontation in fact became unavoidable? Was it doomed already from the beginning or did it depend on some unfortunate decisions as the Ukraine crisis unfolded? There are several possible answers to these questions, and each of them implies slightly different kinds of solutions to the present crisis.
  4. Clearly, the choice that was crucial in escalating the conflict was Russia’s and it could have been avoided. At the same time, the EU should have approached its policies and relations with Russia with more caution and foresight and it cannot, therefore, escape a certain share of responsibility for these tragic events either.


An important backdrop to the current conflict was the growing feeling on both sides that the practical cooperation under the auspices of ‘strategic partnership’ had failed to live up to expectations or fully meet the interests of either party.

  • Interpretations of this failure are diametrically opposed, with both parties seeing the fault mainly with the other. On the EU side, the usual refrain has been Russia’s unreliability as a partner. In the EU’s view mutual agreements have not been honoured by Russia and deliverables have largely been left undelivered.
  • Perhaps the most prominent case has been the drawn out process concerning the phasing out of Siberian overflight fees, but in the EU’s view the problem has not been confined to isolated instances, it has become systemic.

Before the conflict escalated, the Russians could acknowledge this problem. Sergey Karaganov described the problems in EU–Russia relations in 2003: “Whatever have been the failings of Europe, a considerable part of the problem in the EURussian relationship should be placed at Russia’s doorstep.

  • The most obvious failing is Russia’s economic backwardness. The country’s level of corruption and criminality, the frequently illegal intervention by the state in economic activity and the sorry state of its court system cannot but baffle and infuriate the Europeans.”
  • Over time, this basic dynamic resulted in EU–Russia relations becoming increasingly dysfunctional despite the adoption of new common schemes, such as Four Common Spaces and Partnership(s) for Modernisation.
  • In the view of the EU, the guilty party in the deterioration of mutual relations was Russia, in particular as far as the Ukraine crisis was concerned. Jose Manuel Barroso, before leaving office, defended the EU’s enlargement policy towards the East by saying that without the EU enlargement, Russia’s appetite would not focus only on Ukraine, but on Bulgaria and the Baltic states.
  • Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council defended broad sanctions against Russia by stating that : “the only effective answer to Putin’s clear and simple policy is pressure. [His policy is] simply to have enemies, to be stronger than them, to destroy them and to be in conflict”.

In addition, and particularly during the crisis in Ukraine, Russia has started to take issue with the EU’s motivations and objectives in the neighbourhood. To quote Chizhov again: 10 | LSE IDEAS – Dahrendorf Forum Special Report. March 2016 “The inward-looking peace project has acquired a new somewhat messianic dimension – the EU now “seeks to advance in the wider world… principles which have inspired its own creation” (Art. 21 TEU).

… These worrying trends have converged in Ukraine. May I remind you that back in May 2013 EU high officials were making it clear that the Vilnius summit of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) later that year would be about ‘winning Ukraine’ in a ‘geopolitical battle of Europe’. This was clearly a wrong approach”.

The growing irritation and even suspicion between the two has thus been palpable. It was conducive to creating a political dynamic in which a key ingredient became what psychologists have called the fundamental attribution error (FAE).

As a result of this error, actors perceive the hostile or otherwise problematic actions of others as emanating from the inherent dispositions or characteristics of others instead of merely reflecting the situation one finds itself in.



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