Qioptiq logo Raytheon Global MilSatCom

Why the EU got the Ukrainian crisis wrong By Sam Robertshaw, Taylor and Francis Global Affairs



EU policy has achieved minimal gains during the Ukrainian crisis. Whilst economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts exerted pressure on the Kremlin, they also reinforced Moscow’s security narrative and perception that the EU is anti-Russian. The EU failed to seriously engage with Russia’s initial concerns and formulate an appropriately robust policy response. This underscores the EU’s limitations as a soft power actor when facing a security challenge. In contrast, Russia has capitalized on the antagonistic relationship with the EU. Control of the media and the inherent appeal of the project to build a strong Russia helps support Moscow’s position in its relations with the EU and its ongoing drive to modernize the military and strengthen non‐Western institutions. Faced with this challenge, the EU must develop a coherent set of policies for its relations with Russia and the states within the post‐Soviet space. Moreover, the crisis has demonstrated the need for the EU to re‐examine its security priorities and capacity.


EU policy has achieved minimal gains during the Ukrainian crisis. Whilst economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts exerted pressure on the Kremlin, they also reinforced Moscow’s security narrative and perception that the EU is anti-Russian. The EU failed to seriously engage with Russia’s initial concerns and formulate an appropriately robust policy response. This underscores the EU’s limitations as a soft power actor when facing a security challenge. In contrast, Russia has capitalized on the antagonistic relationship with the EU. Control of the media and the inherent appeal of the project to build a strong Russia helps support Moscow’s position in its relations with the EU and its ongoing drive to modernize the military and strengthen non‐Western institutions. Faced with this challenge, the EU must develop a coherent set of policies for its relations with Russia and the states within the post‐Soviet space. Moreover, the crisis has demonstrated the need for the EU to re‐examine its security priorities and capacity.


“Fuck the EU”. This statement, attributed to Victoria Nuland (US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs), was made during a leaked1 conversation with Geoffrey Pyatt (US Ambassador to Ukraine). It serves as a candid and concise comment on the role of the EU, as a partner, in trying to tackle the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. However, as the crisis developed the EU has taken action. In addition to brokering talks and exerting diplomatic pressure, it has applied sanctions against Russia to try and force a timely political settlement. EU sanctions have had some impact but Russian economic weakness is primarily due to wider issues, such as falling oil revenue, weakening of the rouble, inflation and a lack of structural economic reform. The crisis has shown the limits of EU power.

This article takes the view that the EU misread the Russian perception of the crisis and its subsequent policy responses. Whilst the EU saw the crisis in terms of democratization and economics, Russia framed it in terms of security. Under these conditions, EU sanctions and attempts to exert political pressure serve to reinforce the Kremlin’s position. This allows western actors, institutions and domestic opposition to be conflated into a monolithic anti-Russian bloc (comprised of “the USA and its allies”, NATO, EU and opposition figures) working to undermine Russian sovereignty, identity and interests. More than the Soviet “ideal”, the flux of post-Soviet transition and loss of foreign policy agency is a powerful mobilizing element for political support. This crisis has refocused attention on Russia’s role in Europe and the need for the EU to develop its ability to effectively deal with the exercise of hard power.

European crisis in Ukraine

The crisis can be divided into several stages: Euromaidan protests following the rejection of the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area; AA/DCFTA); constitutional crisis; annexation of Crimea; shooting down of flight MH17; military action in Eastern Ukraine; the negotiation and failure of the Minsk Agreement (5 September 2014); and escalation of the conflict and negotiation of a second Minsk Agreement (12 February 2015). European narratives have developed themes of Ukrainian self-determination, democratic process and European identity, in addition to the illegitimacy of separatist action and Russia’s military role. In contrast, the Russian narratives develop themes of the protection of ethnic Russians, a coup (carried out against Yanukovych), legitimate action of rebels in Eastern Ukraine and the West’s anti-Russian posture.

It could be argued that NATO should be the central focus of analysis as the core European security actor (despite Ukraine not being a member). The EU operates at a disadvantage as a security actor, due to the challenges of multi-level governance, and therefore individual NATO states and EU member states should be the focus of analysis. However, there are three reasons why the EU is of primary interest. Firstly, the trigger for the crisis was the ratification of an EU deal to remove barriers to a free market and increase trade. Secondly, the EU has interpreted the subsequent political crisis as an issue of Ukrainian integration within Europe and of the sovereignty of a democratic state. Thirdly, the EU has made a role for itself, in negotiating, providing financial guarantees, making public statements, issuing travel bans and instituting sanctions.

Resurgent Russia: Soviet strength and post-Soviet weakness

The Ukrainian crisis represents a central challenge for the EU: the inability to come to terms with a resurgent Russia. The EU could be considered to operate at a disadvantage in a military crisis (such as in Ukraine) with security actors such as Russia (highly centralized political decision-making, militarily developed, opaque policymaking and close proximity). The multi-level governance literature can provide an insight into the EU’s role as a security actor (Kantner & Liberatore, 2006, p. 372). However, the legacy of the Cold War period (particularly for Eastern Europe) and contrasting experiences of democratization and economic development make for a diverse set of priorities within the EU. Moreover, in terms of its institutional capacity developed in the post-Soviet period (such as: European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP); Eastern Partnership (EaP); Common Space on External Security; Common Defence and Security Policy; Common Foreign and Security Policy), the EU is ill-suited for dealing with Russia. Russia prefers to operate bilaterally with individual states, undermining the EU’s advantage in acting collectively. The opportunity to shape EU–Russia relations was missed during the 1990s and now Russian interests and agency will play a more significant role in Europe.

Russia faces its own challenges as it navigates its course as a post-Soviet actor. The current economic crisis refocuses attention on economic reform and diversification away from raw materials and energy production. Political challenges are also notable: the issue of domestic political reform; effective foreign policy; developing collective institutions; and questions of elite continuity. There are also issues of identity and ideology, emerging during the Soviet collapse and democratic transition, which continue to evolve. Putin’s drive to create a “strong” Russia is supported within the elite and wider society, particularly within the context of security, which demands hard power solutions. Military power, exercised directly or by proxy (by rebel groups and Russian “volunteers”), challenges the utility of soft power responses.

The EU adopts two frameworks for understanding Russia – one Soviet and one of democratic transition – which undermine analysis of Russia as a contemporary actor. The Soviet image signifies the post-WWII, Cold War, bipolar international system. The USSR presented an alternative ideology to the West, forming the basis of direct and indirect expansion in Europe, driven by an authoritarian Russia at its core. The second framework is the post-Soviet transition period (under President Yeltsin). The challenges of simultaneous transition to a market economy, democratic political institutions and tumultuous social change were marked by a stark loss of foreign policy agency. The 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, over strong Russian objection, provides the clearest example of this loss of international influence. As a result, EU policymaking is oriented around Russian identities of strength (Soviet) and weakness (1990s transition). Although the Soviet past is a mobilizing element (often couched in terms of military power, superpower status and agency), sensitivity to the weaknesses of the 1990s is a strong motivating factor in building a “strong” Russia. The development of a Cold War narrative is problematic because it obscures analysis of Russian threat perception and limits the range of EU policy responses.

From the Russian perspective, western institutions are skewed in favour of Europe and the USA. The current economic sanctions are taken as further evidence of this, and an attempt to isolate Russia. The sanctions may prove decisive in ending the current crisis but, in any case, the development of “Eurasian” institutional capacity (e.g. Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Union), a future challenge for the EU, becomes more pressing. The potential for NATO and EU expansion or integration, within the post-Soviet space, is interpreted as a highly provocative issue. For the EU, the Russian conflation of the threat from USA, NATO, EU, “Europe” or “the West”, is problematic because the position is founded on the belief that these actors are fundamentally anti-Russian. Following this line of argument, the EU is provoking Russia and reinforcing the sense of European institutions being anti-Russian. Russia has consistently framed the issue in zero-sum security terms. Moreover, the linking of external and internal threat discourses is a core characteristic of Russian security politics and is outlined in policy documents such as the National Security Strategy (2009) and Military Doctrine (2014).

The expansion of influence into the post-Soviet space and attempts to stifle Russia’s status as a great power are perceived to be existential threats. This, to a certain extent, explains Russia’s motivation to destabilize Ukraine and derail the AA/DCFTA. The same dynamic was seen during the prelude to conflict with Georgia (2008). Current Military Doctrine (enacted during the crisis) explicitly cites threats that are relevant in the current crisis, including: NATO expansion; military build-up on Russian borders; destabilization of states and internal threats caused by external actors (Military Doctrine, 2014). For the EU, NATO, in addition to providing the ultimate guarantee of collective security if a member is attacked, has provided a security response (creation of a rapid reaction force and holding military exercises). However, the Kremlin views NATO as a fundamentally anti-Russian, hostile alliance working to undermine Russian national interest; reinforcing discourses of external threat allows the state to employ the politics of securitization. Destabilization at home is a threat that the Kremlin takes seriously, particularly after the Ukrainian Orange Revolution (2004). The removal of Yanukovych and support for Kiev feed Russia’s fear of foreign intervention (particularly from the US and NATO allies) in the post-Soviet space.

Military modernization

The EU failed to consider seriously Russia’s threat perception and security responses. However, Russian defence spending and modernization are unconvincing as evidence of a Soviet return. The post-Soviet period saw neglect of Russia’s military, severe budget cuts and sequesters. Whilst funding levels and the profile of the military improved under Putin (2000–2008), developments during the Medvedev presidency (2008–2012) provide the most pertinent insight into military strength today. Conflict with Georgia (2008) shaped restructuring and modernization plans as military weaknesses were identified. After returning to the presidency, Putin confirmed large budget outlays and further plans to modernize the military as well as the industrial base (Putin, 2012). However, military improvements made after the conflict with Georgia should not be overstated.

The effectiveness of Russian intelligence, and Special Forces capabilities, have been confirmed by conflict in Ukraine. Electronic warfare and communications, identified as weaknesses in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have been improved. However, long-term challenges remain, which may undermine Putin’s modernization project. Defence spending commitments for new defence technology have included specific drives to redevelop the defence–industrial base. Corruption, a lack of oversight and transparency are contemporary challenges but the funding cuts of the 1990s severely damaged Russia’s ability to produce innovative defence technology.

Developments in aviation suggest that limited progress has been made so far. Two major projects – PAK-DA (long range bomber project) and PAK-FA (fighter project – Sukhoi T-50) are underway. The PAK-DA will contribute to Russia’s strategic capability and ultimately replace the existing bomber fleet. The project is planned to begin state testing in 2019 but its design scope has been scaled back (Interfax, 2014). The PAK-FA is closer to completion with the Sukhoi T-50 slated for production in 2017 (although Ministry of Defence (MOD) orders are likely to be smaller than planned) (Safronov, 2015). In terms of technological development, the T-50 is notable for its manoeuvrability, sensors and stealth capability (composite materials and radar blocking) (Lenta.ru, 2015). The project has been the focus of cooperation with India (for its Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project). Although there have been disagreements on the technical side and over funding, the deal represents a different path to developing military technology without EU partners (e.g. avoiding the pitfalls that have beset the Mistralwarship deal).

The introduction of the Armata Heavy-Tracked Unified Platform will provide a useful insight into the health of the defence sector. Armata will form the basis of at least six vehicles and therefore a significant proportion of new vehicles required to meet the modernization target by 2020 (Military-Industrial Courier, 2014; Schchegolev, 2015). A consignment of T-14 tanks has been delivered to the MOD for inclusion in the Victory Day military parade (9 May 2015) and will undergo further MOD testing before full-scale production in 2017–2018 (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 2015). The T-14 will have technology such as multilayer armour, a new engine, greater information processing and a remote controlled 125 mm main weapon (Military-Industrial Courier, 2014; Schchegolev, 2015). The project will provide an insight into the attempt to improve the defence industry asUralvagonzavod, the company building the T-14. Uralvagonzavod was heavily criticized (over its fulfilment of State Defence Order contracts) by Serdyukov, with the row being cited during Putin’s 2011 “direct line” press conference.

These modernization efforts show some progress but, viewed in terms of scheduling and budgets, the 2020 target for many programmes seems unfeasible. The plans are ambitious and require progress across different branches of the military simultaneously (including submarines, Armata, aviation platforms and ballistic missiles). The fact that Russia is not focused on communications and information systems can be explained by the depth of decline during the 1990s and the need to replace 70% of its platforms. It is also notable that despite structural reforms (the “new look” introduced in 2008) and the current modernization drive, issues such as civilian control and conscription have not been tackled. Therefore, the EU should not overstate the Russian threat given the scale of the modernization challenge.

EU crisis management

The EU has applied two levers to the crisis: economic (sanctions; financial guarantees) and diplomatic (travel bans; public statements; negotiations). Economic sanctions, enacted by the EU (in conjunction with the USA), represent the strongest initiative taken to discourage Russia from further action and create pressure to negotiate a conclusion to the crisis. The sanctions have impacted the Russian economy by restricting the import of European goods and blocking access to international finance. This has in turn created instability for businesses and pressure on consumers as the supply of goods is limited, inflation has increased and unemployment may rise. However, the steep fall in global oil prices is a significant factor explaining Russia’s weak economic outlook in the short term. This contributed to the dramatic slide in the value of the rouble (approximately 50% of its value in 2014), high inflation and capital flight which prompted the central bank to respond by supporting the rouble and raising interest rates to a peak of 17%. The government still has policy flexibility; the Central Bank (Bank of Russia) maintains reserves of $356.7 billion (Central Bank of the Russian Federation, 2015).

Failure to diversify the economy, particularly from reliance on energy exports, is the most significant issue, and a structural weakness that undermines Russia’s economy. EU sanctions were an attempt to create public pressure on the Kremlin (as opposed to the travel bans and measures against specific companies which pressure the elite). Inflation and a potential rise in unemployment remain a worrying spectre but Putin has maintained popular support. The sanctions are also damaging those European businesses that export to Russia. The EU decision to act as a guarantor of Ukrainian gas payments (to Russia) was a positive development, providing practical support to Ukraine and a platform to engage with Russia. Despite the fact that sanctions have been less significant, for the Russian economy, than lower oil prices and a lack of economic reform, the Kremlin has still framed them as evidence of anti-Russia policy, galvanizing domestic support.

EU figures (such as Herman Van Rompuy, José Manuel Barosso and Catherine Ashton) have made statements throughout the crisis. The EU narrative is pro-Kiev, arguing in support of the AA/DCFTA, whilst attempting to reassure Russian concerns and rebuke it over military action. This approach has been largely ineffective as comments by EU figures reinforced the Russian view that EU policy is anti-Russian. In the early stages of the crisis, the EU focus was on the merit of the agreement. A joint statement by Van Rompuy and Barosso (as President of the European Council and President of the European Commission respectively) noted that: “the Association Agreement and a DCFTA, the most ambitious agreement the European Union has ever offered, provides the best possible support for Ukraine’s economic situation, reform course and modernisation” (European Commission, 2013a). Several statements emphasize the EU’s willingness to engage with Russia: “The European Union continues to stand ready to clarify to the Russian Federation the mutual beneficial impact of increased trade and exchanges with our neighbours” (European Commission, 2013a); “There is nothing in these agreements [AA/DCFTA], nor in the European Union’s approach, that might harm Russia in any way. The European Union stands ready to engage with Russia as much as need be, to dispel misunderstandings where they may exist” (European Council, 2014). These statements did not escalate the crisis but they represent superficial attempts at engagement when the crisis was already underway.

Criticism of Russia and statements about the Euromaidan protest, although generally urging restraint and dialogue, reinforce the perception of western interference in domestic politics and anti-Russian policymaking. For example, Catherine Ashton (EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs) said: “I was among you on Maidan in the evening and was impressed by the determination of Ukrainians demonstrating for the European perspective of their country” (European Commission,2013b). Interventions were made by figures such as Carl Bildt (Swedish Foreign Minister2) and William Hague (British Foreign Minister3). Bildt posted comments such as “Eurasia versus Europe in streets of Kiev tonight. Repression versus reform. Power versus people” and “So Ukraine now has its own Quisling. Sitting on foreign soil begging a foreign army to give his country back to him” (Bildt, 2013, 2014). Hague reported to the UK parliament that “we and our allies have condemned Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and warned against any further escalation” (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2014). Hague also commented that “I don’t think denials of Russian involvement have a shred of credibility” (Channel 4, 2014). The formal conclusion adopted by the EU Foreign Affairs Council stated: “The European Union strongly condemns the clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity by acts of aggression by the Russian armed forces as well as the authorization given by the Federation Council of Russia” (Council of the European Union, 2014). The lack of serious engagement with Russian concerns before the crisis has undermined the subsequent impact of EU diplomatic effort. Furthermore, the fear of EU expansion into Russia’s sphere of influence is exacerbated by the fear of NATO encroachment and western intervention into Russia’s internal affairs.

Russia has been successful in shaping the narrative for the domestic audience. Media outlets have provided a source of legitimacy to the rebel action in Eastern Ukraine and the securing of Crimea by Russian forces. Beyond direct statements, social and cultural symbols have been effectively employed to bolster support for the Kremlin. Orange and black flags and ribbons, the pro-military, patriotic symbol commonly used for Victory Day celebrations (commemorating victory in WWII), support the narrative of protecting Russians and Russia itself. The media presents the Kremlin view that the Kiev government is an illegitimate product of a fascist coup. Support for the state is unsurprising due to the extent of state control of media organizations (television news in particular).

Social media provides a further insight into how the Russian narrative has developed. Users can engage with rebels groups such as the Donetsk Republic4 on Twitter (approximately 54,000 followers) and vkontakte (approximately 89,000 followers). Evidence that Russian servicemen were fighting in Ukraine was initially based on information posted on social networks which undermined the attempt to conceal military action. The presence of Russian intelligence services in Ukraine was confirmed by the identification of Igor Girkin (also known as Igor Strelkov), an ex-FSB officer working for military intelligence (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff – GRU) (Galimova, 2015). The vkontakte page in his name (strelkov_info) has approximately 421,000 followers and was the source of a post initially linking MH17 to the rebels (21 February 2015). Casualties suffered in Ukraine are a challenge, in terms of maintaining public support and balancing the advantages of plausible deniability versus commemorating victims of the conflict. It could be argued that the airing of the documentary “Crimea. Path to the Motherland” (Krym. Put’ na rodina) was the first high-profile attempt to try and “normalize” Russia’s military action. Posting of images of celebrities and users, with signs tagged #savechildrenfromfascism (#SpasemDeteiOtFashizma),5 alluding to the Russian view of the Ukrainian government in Kiev, is another example of the pro-Russian narrative developing on social media.

Physical events such as the “Anti-Maidan” and “My Vmeste – We’re Together” rallies, also help support the Kremlin. Societal mobilization in support of the Russian position is difficult for the EU to overcome. It also helps to explain how Putin has continued to maintain high personal approval (85% in November 2014) and enjoy strong public support despite uneasiness with the conflict itself and economic pressure (Levada Centre, 2014). This provides an insight into the domestic benefit of not acknowledging the full extent of Russian action in Eastern Ukraine. It would be expected that the economic downturn (in particular a further rise in inflation and rises in unemployment) would erode public support, but the Kremlin position has been framed plausibly for the Russian public at large.

“Frozen” conflict

The framework of a frozen conflict can be applied to Eastern Ukraine, with the conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia providing a contemporary comparison given that the action was an attempt to limit Georgian integration into Europe. The Kremlin justified the use of force and violation of sovereignty, in terms of protecting Russian citizens and ethnic Russians. Faux-democratic mechanisms were employed to provide legitimacy for formally recognizing the territory as independent (the same pattern used in Crimea). Although hostilities ceased, a formal, negotiated agreement, recognized by all parties and the international community, was not reached.

Russia retains the ability to destabilize and influence events in Ukraine. Firstly, following Russia’s public statements and evidence of activity in Ukraine, the deception employed has undermined trust, making agreements on borders at best provisional. Moreover, the scale of constitutional and economic reform facing Ukraine will create uncertainty which Russia can seek to exploit. In this regard, that fact that Crimea has been absorbed into Russia remains a potential flashpoint which can be manipulated as a pretext for destabilization. Russia has achieved its aims, in terms of stalling EU “expansion”, insofar as the issue has become politically toxic. This has taken the form of assurances that EU and NATO membership for Ukraine would not be pursued. The fact that Crimea is not on the negotiating table and that the implementation of the AA/DCFTA is to be delayed (31 December 2015) also supports the view that Russia is negotiating from a reasonably strong position.

The EU position could be strengthened by concentrating on two areas. Firstly, there needs to be careful consideration of the European project, in particular in terms of the EU’s internal challenges and how it engages with actors in the post-Soviet space. It has started this process with the release of a consultation document (European Commission, 2015). The new EU team (Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Federica Mogherini) and member states can provide impetus to this process (House of Lords European Union Committee, 2015). Secondly, the limitations of soft power have to be acknowledged and the development of security capacity, in terms of hard power, has to be a priority. Developing this capability outside the aegis of NATO would provide greater flexibility. The US role (in NATO) is a core element in Russia’s anti-Russian narratives, so developing “independent” security capacity, without an “EU Army”, would be a positive development.


The EU was caught out by Russian action. It did not account for the Russian security response to a closer EU relationship with Ukraine and, rather than improved capability, the EU was wrong-footed by Russian readiness to use force. In that context, the application of the EU’s soft power mechanisms had mixed results which seem more significant because of the fall in global oil prices and Russia’s lack of economic reform. Moreover, clumsy diplomatic efforts have helped to reinforce the Kremlin’s conflation of western actors and their “anti-Russia” stance. The EU has to reconsider its security capabilities and its relationship with Russia whilst avoiding Cold War frameworks and rhetoric as they only serve to further entrench Russian security narratives, making it more challenging to prevent and solve crises.

About Taylor & Francis Group

Taylor & Francis Group partners with researchers, scholarly societies, universities and libraries worldwide to bring knowledge to life.  As one of the world’s leading publishers of scholarly journals, books, ebooks and reference works our content spans all areas of Humanities, Social Sciences, Behavioural Sciences, Science, and Technology and Medicine.

From our network of offices in Oxford, New York, Philadelphia, Boca Raton, Boston, Melbourne, Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo, Stockholm, New Delhi and Johannesburg, Taylor & Francis staff provide local expertise and support to our editors, societies and authors and tailored, efficient customer service to our library colleagues.


Back to article list