EU-US summit: Will the West show unity over Russia?

Summit EU-US is taking place tomorrow. It is easier for America to react relatively promptly, less easy for 28-EU. So what you expect from the West regarding Russia? Unity? Not so much of the unity? Read few comments.

Nicholas WrightSenior Research Associate, School of Political, Social and International Studies, University of East Anglia

Unity is, of course, what everyone will be looking for, both inside the meeting room and beyond. It was also be extremely difficult to achieve. In part this reflects the inherent difficulty in getting consensus in an EU of 28 states, particularly where foreign and security policy are concerned. That Russia’s actions in the Crimea and its military build-up on the eastern border of Ukraine represent a huge challenge to Europe – be that the EU or NATO etc – is not in doubt. The difficulty comes not only in how you respond, but in how to make your response meaningful. This, in turn, is affected by how you view Russia’s actions: challenge? threat? if a threat, what kind of threat? Depending on which capital you sit in, you will hear some very different responses. In Vilnius or Warsaw, for example, Russia’s actions will – unsurprisingly given the history – be viewed with considerable alarm. In Sofia or Bucharest, meanwhile, there are different views of Russia and what its actions in Crimea represent.

Whilst often in the past the US has found division between its European allies useful, when it comes to the business of security and defence division and foot-dragging will be a source of huge frustration. It will be especially concerned about the stance taken by Chancellor Merkel of Germany. She will be central to the effectiveness of any response, and how far Germany is willing to go in terms of ratcheting up the pressure on Russia and particularly President Putin and his entourage will be an important signal to the smaller EU states which will be looking to the bigger ones to a certain extent for leadership and guidance.

Unity matters as well because Mr Putin will be watching closely. He has set Russia on this path and it remains to be seen whether he will stop at the re-integration of Crimea into the Russia Federation or whether further moves into eastern Ukraine will follow. A weak and ineffectual European response now may well be interpreted as an unwillingness or inability to act. Either way, it could result in the swift creation of more ‘facts on the ground’ as has happened in Crimea. Whatever western states may say about Crimea, it is a done deal. What European leaders will now want to avoid, therefore, is any further action just beyond their eastern frontiers. The EU and NATO represent the only meaningful frameworks through which they can make this clear. Russia, though, will look to exploit any divisions among the European states, and between Europe and the US. With its ability to turn the gas tap on and off, it enjoys considerable leverage. The question is whether the EU states are willing to use their own leverage to push back, for example by freezing Russian assets held in European states, sanctioning Russian companies etc. Certainly this is likely to entail short-term pain when Russia responds. The point, though, is that unless the EU and US send a clear and unambiguous message that its actions are unacceptable, it will see no reason to listen seriously to any of the threats.

Whatever Mr Putin’s motives, he has changed the nature of the game in Europe. It’s perhaps too much to talk of a new Cold War – but it was telling that the NATO Supreme Commander, General Breedlove, talked the other day of Russia behaving more like an adversary than a partner. We need to accept that for the next few years, at least, Russia will seek increasingly to exploit opportunities to increase its power abroad, in part so Mr Putin can shore up his position domestically. There is nothing new in this – the identification of foreign ‘enemies’ has historcially been a means of encouraging unity domestically in Russia (or at least, reducing domestic opposition). For us in Europe, though, it means the idea of international relations conducted purely through consensus-building and partnership is over. These will remain important tools – but we will need to learn to be robust again. We’ll see over the next few days whether we are starting to do so.

John DuffieldProfessor, Department of Political Science, Georgia State University 

On the one hand, as you suggest, the very nature of the EU makes it relatively difficult to develop a common position. In addition, many European countries have important economic relationships with Russia, but the nature of the relationship varies widely from state to state, making agreement on, for example, sanctions more difficult. On the other hand, the EU members as a whole are much close to the situation and thus, presumably, more threatened by a disruption of the European territorial and legal status quo, not to mention a more assertive Russian foreign policy that seems less bound by the rules and expectations of the post-cold war European order.

A lot depends, too, on the (different) views that US and EU leaders may hold on the nature of the challenge they face. Is Putin responding to legitimate grievances and taking advantage of the chaos and ambiguity offered by the unique situation in Ukraine and Crimea? Or is this just the first (or second, after Georgia) move in a process intended eventually to bring the Russian diaspora and non-Russian elements of the former Soviet umpire more firmly under Russia’s control? In other words, is Putin more of an opportunist who is nursing a grudge, or does he have a master plan that would, if executed, overthrow much of the post-cold war European order?

Thomas Scotto, Professor of Government, University of Essex

The United States is in a position to act quite quickly because there is broad support for sanctions in the US Congress, and this support transcends party lines. The main debate in the United States is over the loan package the US may guarantee to Kiev. Republicans are sceptical—this might slow things down a bit, but Congress is in a mood to act on sanctions. The political debate concerning sanctions is likely to be one of “who can look the toughest”

The United States is not as dependent on Russian trade (and Russian gas) as is Europe. This might give the EU pause and make the sanctions regime more symbolic than substantive.

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