21 Apr 2021

With Russia threatening Ukraine with war, what should the EU do?

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Russia’s threat of war with Ukraine, whether for real, for show, or for some undetermined mix of the two, demands a powerful response. While the military-strategic aspect has to be left to the US/NATO, the EU can respond on the basis of its own capabilities in three ways. First, it can invest urgently in phasing out its reliance on Russian gas by diversifying supplies and increasing its strategic reserves, with Germany to make a first contribution by stopping Nord Stream 2. Second, the EU can demonstrably support Ukraine by advancing its integration with the EU in ways that can be readily identified. Third, it can supply Ukraine with large amounts of Covid-19 vaccines, which are desperately needed to boost recovery from the pandemic – as a humanitarian and geopolitical imperative for both parties.

Russia has let it be known that it is currently preparing for war with Ukraine, given four basic facts and realities:

  1. Around 80,000 troops and military hardware are being assembled on Ukraine’s eastern borders, including in Crimea.
  2. Russian public opinion is being warmed up to the ‘inevitability of war’. Anyone in touch with people in Russia will be aware that the Kremlin propaganda machine is functioning at full blast with this message. Even people with little interest in politics are now aghast at the prospect of war that is being broadcast by the Kremlin. Both Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov speak of ‘destroying’ Ukraine if it attacked Russia, which obviously it will not, so this is a linguistic pretext to further raise the stakes rhetorically.
  3. The Kremlin has experience of several military stratagems used ‘successfully’ in recent years in its neighbourhood: outright annexation (Crimea), hybrid war and occupation (Donbas) and, maybe the most relevant today, the Georgia 2008 model. The latter unfolds as follows: pre-position the military to enable a lightning strike; sustain continuous provocations until the other side finds it impossible not to act (precisely what Saakashvili did, so catastrophically); when the other side makes the first move, invade fast.
  4. All this is against the background of the Duma elections in September, for which the Kremlin wants patriotic support to protect Russia from its external enemies (the US and NATO, in the first instance), given the government’s dismal record on domestic policies.

 Some Russian think tank commentators are suggesting that Russia has no intention of assaulting Ukraine militarily,[1] but has other objectives, such as moving the spotlight away from Navalny. Its threats and the pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy could be a pretence to destabilise Ukraine politically. Alternatively, it is testing the reactions of the new Biden administration, which today is focused on justifying its military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Another reading of the Kremlin’s possible tactics is that they are essentially opportunistic. Russia’s strategic objectives are evident: to counter the Western and European orientations of former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia by whatever means seem feasible, in a way that would incur only limited costs. The war with Georgia in 2008 succeeded in converting two regions into Russian protectorates. The annexation of Crimea and separation of the Donbas in 2014 was achieved at amazingly low cost to Russia.

At this point, one may assume that Kremlin strategists are waiting for the opportunities that their current threats may create, keeping all options open. For sure, they would prefer to achieve their objective of a compliant regime in Kyiv without military action. But nobody knows what opportunities may arise – not excluding further territorial gains for Russia, if achievable at low cost.

The next question is what Russia’s practical objectives might be. It already occupies the Donbas and Crimea, so where to go from there? A simple scenario advocated by Margarita Simonyan, Chief Editor of Russia Today (and therefore a Kremlin mouthpiece), would be for Russia to upgrade its current hybrid occupation of the Donbas regions through outright annexation, under the slogan ‘Mother Russia, take Donbas back home’, which is what the separatist leaders ask for – i.e. the Crimea model.[2]

A more ambitious scenario militarily would be a pincer movement: move south down the Azov Sea coastline from the Donbas, taking the major Ukrainian port of Mariupol and charging on as fast as possible to join up with another incursion from Crimea. The forces ready in Crimea would have two objectives: first, to move north up the Azov Sea coastline to join up with the forces coming down from the Donbas, and so complete Russian control over the coastline of the Azov Sea; and second, to seize control of the North Crimea Canal, which is currently blocked by Ukraine from supplying water to Crimea. This North Crimea Canal draws its water about 100 km north of Crimea from the Dniepr River, crossing the Kherson oblast. The water shortage in Crimea is severe, and as a casus belli would look good for Russian public opinion. One glance at the map also suggests that the left bank of Dniepr River in the Kherson oblast would make an easily defendable, new de facto border.

But while such operations are presumably among the options being prepared by Russian military planners, maybe the Kremlin is indeed just trying to use its threats to deliver other objectives, preferably without war. If so, what would these objectives be? One might suppose: i) to get the water to flow back into Crimea, and ii) have special status agreed for the occupied Donbas regions.

Stories currently in circulation in the most independent Russian media[3] forecast that the Kremlin will soon present Zelensky with a list of formal demands, including both of the above. This would require capitulation by Zelensky to Russian pressure, which in turn would mean an end to his administration in conditions of political chaos in Kyiv, to be replaced, hopefully for the Kremlin, by a more Russia-compliant one.

But there is no sign that Zelensky is inclined to commit political suicide in this way. On the contrary, he gains the opportunity to get Biden more firmly on his side than would have been the case in a quiet and unthreatening situation. So if the Kremlin were putting on a show in the hope that Zelensky would lose his nerve and be unseated at home, this does not seem to be working. It may even prove counterproductive, by motivating President Biden to become more involved and committed.

If all this is a serious threat, what should the EU and US do? I leave aside the US and military aspects, only to note that Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin were both in Brussels at NATO on 13-15 April for a second time, for no obvious reason other than the present one. This could open up the longstanding but dormant question of NATO-EU military collaboration, to be explored.

As for the EU, what could it do, beyond reaffirming its ‘five guiding principles’ for relations with Russia[4]? It should play to its strengths, and avoid pin-prick sanctions that have no (or a counter-productive) effect on Russia. It should act on the basis of today’s realities, and avoid speculation about what to do under hypothetical circumstances. This can justify significant action under three headings, where the EU has powerful capabilities:

  • On the energy front. As recently argued by Daniel Gros,[5] with a serious effort of diversification the EU could do without Russian gas, which would damage Russia’s finances. LNG reception and distribution capacities have been built up, and further steps could be taken to reduce energy security risks, such as creating a European Supplementary Strategic Gas Reserve (ESSGR). Also among the opportunities to diversify gas supplies are the new discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, for example, as well as increasing LNG supply chain capacities. On the well-known Nord Stream 2 issue, the legal competence to stop it or not is in the hands of Berlin. However, the extent of Russia’s aggressive threats towards Ukraine now reaches the tipping point for a decision to stop. The EU institutions and other member states should be urging Germany to take this step, and so already impose costs on Russia for its belligerent behaviour.
  • Support for Ukraine’s European integration. Zelensky asks for the ultimate – i.e. NATO and EU membership. Both are out of reach, but the EU for its part could still set out important steps to further Ukraine’s European integration, and strengthen its resilience in the face of Russian threats. Ukraine wants stronger political and economic support for its European integration. Given the depth and extent of Ukraine’s Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU, there are many ways in which this could be done, building on the existing institutional and regulatory infrastructures. The EU institutions are currently inclined towards only incremental advances in the relationship, conditional on Ukraine doing more and better for the rule of law and anti-corruption efforts. Yet there are ideas in circulation that could be taken up for setting out a more ambitious – while still conditional – agenda for economic and progressive institutional integration with the EU.[6] Rather than see the EU sticking to the negative position of refusing ‘membership perspectives’, these are positive ideas for progressive step-by-step integration that would still avoid the risks for the EU of premature enlargement following the present model.
  • Vaccines for Ukraine. A more immediate action, in response to Ukraine’s other urgent priority, would be to arrange sufficient vaccine supplies to stop the pandemic and help the Ukrainian economy to recover fast. Ukraine has been able to secure only small supplies of vaccines, rejecting recourse to Russia’s Sputnik V, and has so far vaccinated only 1% of the population with first jabs, compared to 17% so far in the EU, where mass vaccination is now progressing steadily.[7] The EU says it is on track to reach its 70% target by the summer. Part of the reason for the very limited supplies reaching Ukraine is that the EU has been procuring massive supplies of vaccines in excess of its own needs (4.6 billion doses).[8] With the US and UK doing the same, this puts supply capacities out of reach for more weakly placed buyers. Given its huge contracted orders, the EU could now pledge to supply 100 million doses (i.e. under 2% of its total) to its close European neighbours in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership states, where the territorial connections make for a special category of infection risk. This could begin already in small quantities using AstraZeneca stocks, and build up fast as soon as supply deliveries come fully on stream.[9] Ukraine could expect to receive almost half of this total, permitting effective vaccination of around half its population.

Michael Emerson is a CEPS Associate Research Fellow, and former EU Ambassador to the USSR and Russia (1991-96). 

[1] D. Trenin, “Russia-Ukraine War Alert: What’s Behind It and What Lies Ahead?”, Carnegie Moscow Center, 13 April 2021. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/84308
[2] See https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/kremlin-tv-chief-russia-must-annex-east-ukraine/
[3] For example, Valery_Solovei, on Echo Moskvy.
[4] Z. Paikin, “It’s time to rethink the EU’s Russia Strategy”, CEPS Commentary, March 2021.  https://www.ceps.eu/its-time-to-rethink-the-eus-russia-strategy/).
[5] D. Gros., “Nord Stream 2 – a red herring at the bottom of the sea”, CEPS, March 2021.   https://www.ceps.eu/nord-stream-2-a-red-herring-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea/
[6] M. Emerson, S. Blockmans, et al., “Balkan and Eastern European Comparisons – Building a New Momentum for the European Integration of the Balkan and Eastern European associated states”, CEPS, February 2021.
[7] See https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations
[8] The EU announced initially contracted of 2.6 billion doses, and on 14 April President von der Leyen announced another 1.8 billion.
[9] A proposal along these lines has been addressed by civil society representative of the six Eastern Partnership states to the leadership of the EU, see https://3dcftas.eu/publications/join-letter-of-civil-society-representatives-to-the-leaders-of-the-eu-on-the-vaccination-in-eastern-europe