EU policy towards Russia is based on the premise that President Putin is squarely to blame for Russia’s aggressive and confrontational course of action, and hence for the potential destabilization of Europe. Some modest soul-searching has gone on in the classical debate on ‘what to do’ with today’s Russia. For example, Stephen Sestanovich asks ‘Could It Have Been Otherwise?’, concluding that apart from the mistake of assigning Russia a lower priority on the West’s foreign policy agenda (mainly because of the crises in the Middle East), no strategic errors were made; Carl Bildt (and many others) concur. Richard Sakwa is among the few critical voices, claiming that the EU itself is the ‘source of the conflict’ and that the ‘EU’s ill-prepared advance into what was always recognized to be a contested neighbourhood [that is, Ukraine], provoked the gravest international crisis of our era’. Sakwa’s view is shared by Anton Bebler, who argues that ‘[h]igh representatives of the US and EU did a great disservice to Ukraine’s integrity when they openly and uncritically supported […] one side in the internal conflict which included also armed Ukrainian ultranationalists and neo-fascists’. This debate is highly relevant, since it draws attention to the active role of the EU in the Ukraine crisis and the lapses of judgement that have been made over the years. The criticism aired by scholars like Sakwa and Bebler is important to ensure that the EU remains critical of its own policies, thus avoiding a ‘closing of the EU mind’.
As usual, Hanlon’s razor applies to the EU, and one should ‘never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity’. The EU’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards Moscow, as well as its patronizing call for Russia to follow Europe’s post-modern norms and values, should therefore benevolently be ascribed to Brussels’ ‘slightly Utopian’ view of international affairs, ‘full of wishy-washy good intentions’, rather than to concerted efforts to derail autocratic regimes through so-called ‘colour revolutions’. Lack of strategic thinking and analytical capability adequately explain how the EU has been ‘sleepwalking’ into a situation where a ‘wider war in Europe suddenly seems possible’.
Still, mistakes have been made by the EU, most notably during the crucial four months preceding Ukraine’s Maidan revolution (in early 2014). Only when the final text of the EU’s Association Agreement (AA) with Ukraine was published (in summer 2013) did Russia realize that this would shatter its dream to recreate a new ‘post-Soviet economic space’. Although the Deep and Comprehensive Free-Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU might still be compatible with the free-trade area between Russia and Ukraine, it would prohibit Kiev from joining a future Russian-dominated Eurasian Union Customs Union. As (former) European Commissioner Stefan Füle put it (in September 2013): ‘You cannot at the same time lower your customs tariffs as per the DCFTA and increase them as a result of the Customs Union membership’. During the crucial period from September–December 2013, Moscow proposed trilateral meetings of the EU, Ukraine and Russia to discuss the impact of the planned Association Agreement.
President Putin clearly laboured on this point in a speech in October 2014:
[I]n implementing Ukraine’s association project, our partners would come to us with their goods and services through the back gate, so to speak, and we did not agree to this, nobody asked us about this. We had discussions on all topics related to Ukraine’s association with the EU, persistent discussions, but I want to stress that this was done in an entirely civilized manner, indicating possible problems, showing the obvious reasoning and arguments. Nobody wanted to listen to us and nobody wanted to talk. They simply told us: this is none of your business, point, end of discussion. Instead of a comprehensive but – I stress – civilized dialogue, it all came down to a government overthrow; they plunged the country into chaos, into economic and social collapse, into a civil war with enormous casualties.
Russia’s request for such a ‘civilized dialogue’ was therefore brushed aside by Brussels, in the mistaken understanding that Russia was not a legitimate stakeholder in Ukraine’s talks with the EU. After the crisis escalated and most of the damage had been done, the EU backtracked and a process of trilateral talks (including Russia) is now under way (see below). German Chancellor Angela Merkel even suggested that Kiev could find a working relationship with the Eurasian Union, since Russia remains by far Ukraine’s largest trading partner. However, the compatibility of Ukraine’s AA/DCFTA and (free) trade with Russia remains an unresolved, highly relevant and sensitive issue (see below).