Russia’s war against Ukraine has exposed the deepening cracks in Europe’s understanding of itself as the West’s core, and in its positioning vis-à-vis an openly adverse Russia. Fragmentation processes were ongoing in Europe prior to this war, both above and (with longer-term effects) below the surface of European external policies. Russia’s successfully conducted war in Ukraine—as reflected in the Minsk Two “armistice”—exploits Europe’s growing incoherence. Basically, Moscow and Berlin worked out Minsk Two, at heavy costs to Ukraine, while European institutions looked paralyzed. It is to a dysfunctional Europe that the Barack Obama administration has downloaded its own share of responsibility for dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine.
US policies had unwittingly contributed to Europe’s strategic involution, now seen over Ukraine. The United States alternated between a wrongly focused engagement with Europe (e.g., mobilization for protracted expeditionary wars) and partial disengagement from European security policy (removal of conventional-force deterrence, the failed “reset” with Russia). All this undermined US capacity for setting or influencing European foreign and defense policies. Inadvertently, it removed the US brakes from Europe’s own processes of fragmentation and drift. Meanwhile, Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought those processes compellingly to light.
The Kremlin, however, aims beyond Ukraine. It aims for European consent and even cooperation to establish a Russian sphere of influence in Europe’s eastern neighborhood, as part of an overall European settlement. Reversing the post-1991 settlement, the new one should empower Russia to participate “on an equal basis” in decision-making on all European security and economic affairs. A deal between Russia and Europe at Ukraine’s expense (were it to develop from the Russo-German Minsk Two nutshell) could mark the start of the above-described process in Europe. This would enable a remilitarized Russia to intimidate a demilitarizing Europe, participate in European policies in order to subvert them, splinter the Europeans against themselves, and decouple Europe from the United States.
Russia regards Ukraine as the possible laboratory of a new European security model. Russia and Germany (preferably with some European player in Germany’s tow) would jointly handle security issues in Europe’s East, bypassing or pre-empting the European Union’s or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) common policies. The “Normandy Group,” which is handling the “Ukrainian conflict” (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine), is the current tool in this experiment.
This format in and of itself undermines the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. In their stead it introduces a West-European sub-group (Germany and France) while awarding Russia the decision-making powers that Russia does not enjoy in the existing institutions such as the EU and NATO.
The “Normandy” format could only have taken shape amid the leadership vacuum in Europe at this time. Russia is exploiting that vacuum in its own interests through this group. Germany is using this format as an antechamber from which to usher Russia into European decision-making processes—a vision of Ostpolitik.
Russia and Germany are calling the tune in the “Normandy” quartet; France looks pleased to be cast even as second fiddle behind Germany; and Ukraine is captive to the consensus worked out by the three powers on terms favoring Russia. Successive “Normandy Group” meetings have demonstrated how this mechanism operates at the heads of state/heads of government level and the ministerial level. Moscow and Berlin initiate joint proposals; Paris is consulted and agrees; they present their proposal to Kyiv (which faces the fait accompli); and they have the proposal endorsed publicly by the “Normandy Group.” The result is then referred variously to the EU, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the United Nations Security Council for approval. Their formal imprints are sought in order to legitimize those decisions post factum.
The results include, thus far (in chronological order): unilateral Ukrainian ceasefires; legitimization of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” through the Contact Group and the Minsk agreements, in turn legitimizing the partition de facto of Ukraine’s east; constitutional changes demanded of Ukraine as pre-conditions to Russia’s implementation of the Minsk Two “armistice”; passive acceptance of the Russian grab of Debaltseve; rejection of Kyiv’s proposals to replace or supplement the ineffective OSCE mission with an EU or a UN mission.
Beyond conflict management and armistice terms, however, the “Normandy Group” is pre-empting the EU’s association policy and NATO’s open door policy. It is in the Normandy forum that Russia, Germany and France have prevailed on Ukraine to insert Russia into re-negotiating the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement. This concession became a component of the Minsk armistice package. And despite Ukraine’s national choice, the Russo-German-French consensus holds that Ukraine must renounce the goal of NATO membership, reinstating a “nonaligned” status, as part of an overall European settlement with Russia. Beyond Ukraine’s case, such restrictions set worrisome precedents for Georgia and Moldova in terms of their own national choices.
Most of the “old” Europe—pre-1999 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union—does not acknowledge the wider implications of Russia’s war in Ukraine (let alone the fact that it is a war). That group treats this war, instead, as an internal conflict localizable in Ukraine, solvable to Russia’s satisfaction at Ukraine’s expense, to be followed by normalization of Europe-Russia relations, without adverse consequences to Europe or the Euro-Atlantic relationship. Most of the “new” Europe (Central and Eastern), on the other hand, regards Russia’s war in Ukraine as the opening stage in a strategy to overturn the post-1991 status quo, in Europe as a whole and beyond.
The “old” and the “new” groups, however, are no longer homogenous. The Nordic countries straddle an increasingly fluid “old”-“new” divide regarding Ukraine. The United Kingdom is now at last moving toward the United States–aligned “new” Europeans on Ukraine. The European debates focus mostly on how to proceed with the sanctions on Russia, which are due soon to expire.
On March 9, at the White House, in Washington, EU Council President Donald Tusk (former prime minister of Poland) noted, “Our enemies use propaganda against us, violate the sovereignty of our neighbors, they want to weaken the political commitment of the Western world. Today we can see with full clarity that they are trying to divide us in Europe, as well as Europe from America” (EuroNews, March 9). Tusk, however, represents one of the two competing policy lines at the EU in Brussels. The EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, Federica Mogherini (former foreign minister of Italy) represents the Russia-First line in that divided institution. Italy’s incumbent prime minister, Matteo Renzi (who happens to be Mogherini’s political patron), visiting Kyiv and Moscow on March 4–5, suggested “federalizing” Ukraine to satisfy the “pro-Russian regions” (Corriere della Sera, March 5).
The EU’s drift and NATO’s aloofness are parallel responses to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Their parallelism was perhaps built-in to some extent, given the two organizations’ membership overlap. Some of their member countries had, all along, placed their own bilateral relations with Russia above strategic considerations generally, and above Europe’s eastern neighborhood in terms of priorities. Apart from this common factor, however, there are separate considerations at work that are shaping the EU’s and NATO’s attitudes, respectively, amid this crisis.
NATO’s aloofness in this case seems largely pre-determined. For more than a decade, the Alliance has neglected its eastern partners’ security requirements, even where those requirements closely overlap with NATO’s own. While NATO self-recused from conflict-management in the neighboring post-Soviet space, Russia enjoyed a free hand in initiating, “freezing,” and even “resolving” conflicts there on Russia’s own terms. The Kremlin seems well along to repeating that performance at a higher level of sophistication and on a larger stage in Ukraine’s east.
It is precisely in Ukraine, however, that a NATO-Ukraine Distinctive Partnership had flourished after 1995, positioning Ukraine by 2005 for a possible start on the membership track. NATO and the US were regularly conducting multiple exercises with ground, air, and naval forces in Ukraine during that period. Both sides, however, failed after 2005 to build on those achievements. That kind of relationship seems almost utopian from NATO’s side at the present juncture. The Ukrainian president, government and parliamentary majority are eager to re-launch close cooperation with NATO. The North Atlantic Alliance’s internal differences (mirroring those within the EU) and the regional imbalance of power, however, constrain NATO’s decisions in this regard.
Yet, the EU’s paralysis on Ukraine since 2014 was not pre-determined. The EU was officially pursuing a political and economic association with Ukraine by treaty. A Ukrainian president and government proposed to bring Russia into that process as a third party, but they were removed cataclysmically by Kyiv’s Maidan. The European Commission was driving the association policy, generally tolerated by Western European countries, but without political or fiscal commitments on their part. The EU and Ukraine signed the political and economic parts of the association agreement in March and June 2014, respectively. That Commission’s term of office, however, expired in October 2014; a distinctly less strategically minded Commission replaced it; Berlin moved de facto into the driver’s seat of the EU-Ukraine association process; and Russia coerced Ukraine into the Minsk One and Minsk Two “armistice” agreements.
Each Minsk agreement coincided with a reformatting of the EU-Ukraine association process, turning this from a bilateral process into a trilateral EU-Ukraine-Russia process. Germany was the main broker in both cases. The first change envisaged a trilateral framework for explanatory work and consultation with Russia (initially supposed to function at the expert level, then raised to the ministerial level) on the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement.
The change accompanying Minsk Two goes farther, giving Russia a vote in what had been an EU-Ukraine negotiation. The “Normandy Group’s” February 12 declaration (supplement to the Minsk Two agreement) envisages “trilateral negotiations between the EU, Ukraine, and Russia, aiming to draw up practical solutions to issues of concern to Russia” (EurActiv, February 12, 13). Thus, trilateralization would advance from explanations to negotiations (i.e., re-negotiating the EU-Ukraine free-trade agreements already signed); while the aim of consulting grows into the aim of devising solutions (i.e., decisions with Russia’s involvement).
To be sure, the “Normandy Group’s” declaration is nonbinding. It does, however, reflect the views of its German and French co-authors, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande, who worked out the document personally with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The German and French governments can now be expected to seek EU approval for inserting Russia with a vote into the EU-Ukraine association process.
This development is unprecedented in terms of procedure, substance, and context. Procedurally, Germany and France pre-judge EU policy outside of an EU forum by a separate agreement with Russia. Substantively, Russia’s declared economic interests in Ukraine are being weighed against Ukraine’s own interests in an economic association with the EU. In terms of context, this Franco-German-Russian understanding forms a part of the February 12 declaration that deals mostly with implementing the Minsk Two agreement, thus connecting the two processes. This strange linkage remains unexplained at the official level. It seems designed, at least in part, as an economic “incentive” to Russia to respect the ceasefire, again at Ukraine’s expense.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had no choice in Minsk but to add his name to the declaration. Moldova and Georgia find themselves in broadly similar circumstances: protracted conflicts with Russia (albeit “frozen,” no longer fluid as in Ukraine), and association agreements signed and nationally ratified with the EU in 2014. Chisinau and Tbilisi might now ponder whether they might also be asked to negotiate their own agreements with the EU anew, this time with Russia’s participation.
Ukraine’s EuroMaidan movement triggered two conflicting processes: Ukraine’s resolute, unambiguous course toward Europe (reinforced by subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections) and Russia’s response through a multidimensional war against Ukraine and seizure of Ukrainian territories.
Thanks to Ukraine’s national choice, the most momentous geopolitical gift since 1991 landed in Europe’s lap, along with the chance for the European Union to substantiate the normative aspects of its external policy.
The EU’s western countries had, as early as April 2014, signaled that they would rather consign Ukraine back to that same “gray zone” from which the country was hoping to escape. At that juncture, when Russia was only putting a first, tentative toehold in Ukraine’s east, the European Union considered undertaking an EU monitoring mission there, but decided instead at Germany’s insistence to entrust the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with that mission.
That decision placed Ukraine on the same level as Moldova and Georgia, casualties of failed experiments in “cooperative security” by Russia-West consensus through the OSCE. According to Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, Ukraine appealed to the EU to initiate a mission in Ukraine’s east under the EU’s common security and defense policy (CSDP), first in spring 2014, then after the Minsk armistice, but the EU failed to respond (EurActiv, March 10).
Minsk Two gives Russia, via the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR), a vote, and potentially a veto, on Ukraine’s constitutional reforms. Constitutional reforms acceptable to Moscow and DPR-LPR are, in turn, the pre-conditions to Ukraine’s regaining, not control of the border with Russia, but joint control with the DPR-LPR of that border, subject to further negotiations with them. The withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s east is also pre-conditioned on constitutional reforms acceptable to the DPR-LPR (and to Russia behind them). But this might be immaterial, since the Minsk agreement’s troop-withdrawal clause is so formulated in the text as to be inapplicable ab initio. Minsk Two, furthermore, instructs the OSCE’s elections-observation office, ODIHR, to prepare local elections in the DPR-LPR with a view to assessing those elections as valid.
Holding OSCE-blessed elections would mark a further step toward legitimizing the DPR-LPR. This would strengthen their hand in negotiations with Kyiv on border control, on DPR-LPR’s “right” to conduct direct relations with Russia, and, potentially, on “federalizing” Ukraine’s state structure. Their “duly elected” representatives would take up seats and form a bloc in the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv.
Those political clauses (if implemented as written) could hobble Ukraine’s European course. Russia would (alongside Germany and France in the “Normandy” group) sit in judgment over Ukraine’s constitutional reforms. Russia via the DPR-LPR will seek blocking powers over the Ukrainian government’s decisions on European integration. Were Kyiv to rule out such powers, the Russian side would undoubtedly refuse to discuss the follow-up steps in the Minsk sequence—particularly, border control. Were Kyiv (hypothetically, and highly unlikely) to accept those blocking powers, then arduous negotiations would only start regarding border control.
Without reliable border control, Ukraine’s efforts to qualify for visa-free travel agreements with the European Union would be set back. The uncontrolled border would even raise question marks over Ukraine’s free trade agreement with the EU. Meanwhile, Germany and France have agreed (again in the “Normandy” group) to include Russia in re-negotiating the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement.
Russia precipitated this cave-in through a well-planned sequence of military and diplomatic moves. In the third week of January, breaching the Minsk One “armistice,” Russian and proxy forces went on the offensive, seizing additional chunks of Ukrainian territory and threatening to grind down the Ukrainian forces. At the end of January, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to Germany and France (bypassing the EU) terms that became the basis for the Minsk Two armistice. The German chancellor and the French president, negotiating on that basis, brokered the new armistice between Kyiv and Moscow in early February. On February 12, Minsk Two not only ratified Russia’s (DPR-LPR’s) breaches of Minsk One, but introduced for the first time those political clauses designed to impede Ukraine’s European course. On February 18, Russian and proxy forces captured Debaltseve in flagrant breach of the Minsk Two armistice. This was passively accepted by Germany and France (the presumed guarantors of this armistice) and by the EU (which was never involved in negotiating this armistice).
The Debaltseve fiasco confirmed that the EU was exhausting its capacity to respond with meaningful economic sanctions to Russia’s breaches of the armistice. Russia had taken notice of that loss of political will already in November at the G-20 summit in Brisbane. There, all Western leaders failed to respond to the “DPR-LPR parliamentary elections,” which had been held two weeks earlier in breach of the Minsk One agreement. That apparently emboldened Russia to launch the January offensive and, after Minsk Two, to cross the next “red line” in Debaltseve. The West’s the repeat non-reaction places the credibility of the next “red line” under question.