Chapter 5
The Elephant in the Room

In September 2015, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Koenders asked ‘[i]s Helsinki [that is, the current OSCE framework] – and with it, Europe’s security architecture – lacking something?’ His answer was (not surprisingly) a clear ‘no’: ‘All the principles of Helsinki are still relevant’, he argued, suggesting that the rules and structure of European security are fine and dandy.[43] Around the same time, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Ambassador Vladimir Chizkov, asked ‘whether Russia and the EU are genuinely able and willing to construct an indivisible pan-European security and economic architecture that would pursue cooperative “win–win” scenarios, or, instead, are we doomed to going our separate ways?’[44] Ambassador Chizkov repeated the old complaint that Russia’s legitimate interests are not taken into account by the EU (and the West in general), and that a new economic and security bargain with Russia is needed ‘to jointly deal with the manifold crises unfolding in our so-called “common neighbourhoods”‘.[45] To most Western policy-makers, the very idea of tampering with Europe’s contemporary security arrangement is anathema. The question of Russia’s long-standing qualms and demands for such a new security bargain[46] remains the infamous ‘elephant in the room’: we can all see it, and ignoring its presence is at our own peril. The question is whether the current crises (over Ukraine with Russia, and the post-Paris ‘war on terror’) necessitates such a new European security bargain, or whether it will be considered as caving in to Moscow’s demands.

When the heat is turned up, solids tend to become fluid, and Europe’s security architecture may not escape this tenet of physics and politics.

The United Kingdom’s 2015 House of Lords Report on the EU’s relationship with Russia concludes that ‘a serious dialogue on issues of shared interest, such as a common economic space and a shared security architecture, as well as cultural cooperation and educational exchanges’ could have a positive effect and alleviate the adversarial mindset on both sides.[47] This line of thought has a long pedigree. Following ideas by Russian President Medvedev (in 2008), the OSCE initiated its so-called ‘Corfu Process’ (in 2009) with a view to modifying Europe’s security arrangement. This process proved to be quicksand for diplomatic efforts, which were ultimately bogged down by Moscow’s ham-fisted demand for a droit de regard (right of inspection) on key security matters and Western distrust of Russia’s motives. Given that Western distrust seems substantiated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine, one may reasonable question whether the West should yield to Russia’s relentless bullying. Still, one could equally argue that it would be a pity to ‘waste a good crisis’. When the heat is turned up, solids tend to become fluid, and Europe’s security architecture may not escape this tenet of physics and politics. Since the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, the security ‘crisis’ has turned into a real ‘war’, where the West and Russia share similar security interests and de facto need each other. In strategic terms, the Paris attacks have changed everything.

Figure 3
A constructive approach towards Russia
building blocks

What does this mean for EU policy towards Russia? First, the EU should ensure that Ukraine’s AA/DCFTA (which is signed but not yet ratified) will be compatible with Kiev’s commitments for free trade with Russia (see figure 3).[48] Since February 2015, no fewer than five trilateral meetings have been held (the latest in November 2015), bringing together EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin and Russia’s Minister of Economic Development Alexei Ulyukayev. The main goal of these meetings has been to ‘find practical solutions to Russian concerns about the implementation of the DCFTA’.[49] Clearly, Brussels now acknowledges that Russia needs to be involved in any future EU–Ukraine trade deal. However, no practical solutions have been agreed, mainly because Russia has – despite its many vocal complaints – failed to come up with credible data that could form the basis for compromises.

Although the Donbass region is now devastated by war (with more than 1.1 million internally displaced persons) and lawlessness, Ukraine’s future without this economic powerhouse remains hard to imagine. Although the total industrial production of the Donbass region almost halved from 1988 to 2012, the region still accounts for some 22 per cent of Ukraine’s industrial output (US$ 12.5 billion in 2013); the rest of Ukraine is dominated by agriculture.[50] If the AA/DCFTA is to enter into force unchanged, Ukraine would face serious economic consequences and enter a phase of de facto economic warfare with Russia. Kiev suspended military cooperation with Russia (in March 2014), which has had a serious impact on Russia’s defence capabilities. Until 2014, Ukraine provided important raw materials for Russia’s defence and space industries, which include intercontinental missiles, along with spare parts. The Donbass region produced a special steel for Russian tanks and most of Russia’s combat helicopters fly with engines from Ukraine’s Motor Sich factories in Zaporizhia.[51] As Igor Sutyagin has argued, ‘[i]t would be extremely difficult for Motor Sich, which produces the helicopter and jet engines, to find a European market because [the market] is already dense and these engines do not perfectly fit the European and world standards, quality standards, noise standards, pollution standards’.[52]

It is clear that (in its current form) the EU–Ukraine AA/DCFTA will practically pull the plug on Ukraine’s economy, making the country fully dependent on EU (and Western) economic and financial support. The reincorporation of the Donbass region into Ukraine would become very difficult, since the region’s economic prospects would collapse, resulting in massive unemployment and hence political dissatisfaction and unrest. It should also be remembered that the Donbass region has always been referred to as a ‘no man’s land’, attracting freedom-seekers and free spirits. During the Stalinist 1930s and beyond, the Donbass region even had a reputation as a safe haven for refugees, and as a ‘free steppe’ for ‘undesirable social elements’.[53] ‘Choosing for Europe’ (as the AA/DCFTA is now framed) implies that the Donbass region has no economic prospects whatsoever, and places Ukraine’s economic (and hence political) future in the hands of an EU that is bogged down by its own serious problems. This is a risk that Ukraine should be unwilling to take and a responsibility that the EU should be unwilling to shoulder. Against this backdrop, the EU’s AA/DCFTA with Ukraine should be amended and any hints of Ukraine’s integration into the EU should be scrapped. The EU should also increase its pressure on Moscow to find practical solutions to ensure the compatibility of a future EU–Ukraine deal with Kiev’s free-trade commitments to Russia.

Western political leaders should clarify that Ukraine is unlikely to join the EU any time soon

Western political leaders should also clarify that Ukraine is unlikely to join the EU any time soon. Again, this should not be framed as a faint-hearted surrender to Russian demands, but as an expression of economic and political realities, just as EU Commission President Juncker proclaimed (in 2014) that there will be no admissions of new members during his term (that is, until 2020). This would at least offer (some) clarity that Ukraine will not join the EU for the next few decades. Just as most EU applicant countries in the Western Balkans have ruined their chances to ‘join Europe’ any time soon because of endemic corruption and crime,[54] Ukraine will not earn EU membership on merit.

A similar statement should also be made by NATO leaders. The communiqué of NATO’s Bucharest Summit (April 2008) that the Alliance ‘welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro–Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO’ has proven to be premature and over-confident. Backtracking on these political promises will be difficult, but they should not be reiterated or confirmed. Such an approach would express the reality that there is only modest (and rather fragile) political support for Ukraine to join the Alliance.[55]

Second, the EU should unambiguously disconnect Russia’s two cardinal sins: its annexation of Crimea; and its support for anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine. The EU already has two separate sanctions’ regimes in place, one for eastern Ukraine (linked to the Minsk Protocol) and one for Crimea. However, both sanctions’ policies remain tied at the hip, both in practice and in the public discourse and imagination. The EU would be well-advised to detach these sanctions’ regimes more distinctly, for obvious strategic reasons. Crimea is irrevocably lost to Ukraine and the EU should understand that this was inevitable, given the key strategic importance of the Crimean Peninsula for Russia’s military interests. We all know that the decree transferring the Crimean Oblast from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in February 1954 was a ‘brotherly’ symbolic gesture, marking the 300th anniversary of Ukraine joining the Russian Empire. What is less known is that, as Anton Bebler argues, this ‘transfer of Crimea to Ukraine was […] illegal even in Soviet terms, unconstitutional and clearly illegitimate’.[56] Since 1991, Russia has made contingency plans for the annexation of Crimea, and in 1993, the Russian State Duma even adopted a resolution declaring Sevastopol as Russian territory. Bebler argues that the Russian ‘decision to annex Crimea at an opportune moment was probably made in 2008, soon after NATO at its Bucharest summit promised Ukraine (and Georgia) future membership in the Alliance’.[57] For Russia, the rationale of annexing Crimea is geopolitical, rather than evidence of a rekindled imperialist campaign. A comparison can be made with the US naval base (of some 45 square miles) at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Cuban authorities argue that the US military base violates Cuban sovereignty and amounts to a de facto military occupation.[58]

Solving the crisis in eastern Ukraine is the EU’s first priority and Brussels should focus all of its diplomatic energy on this issue. Just as the EU has a productive working relationship (and even a customs union) with Turkey, which is occupying the northern part of EU member state Cyprus, a modus vivendi should be sought with Russia (and Ukraine) on Crimea. As Henry Kissinger suggested in September 2014, ‘Crimea [should] be given a special status within Ukraine safeguarding Russia’s security interests’.[59] Michael O’Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro suggest that ‘Russia can make its historically based claim on Crimea but would have to accept a binding referendum under outside monitoring that would determine the region’s future, with independence as one option’.[60] However, eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region should be pacified and stabilized, preferably under a UN Interim Administration, as was recently the case in Kosovo (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), from 1999–2008) and East Timor (United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), from 1999–2002). This option was first proposed by Andrej Novak in November 2014:

A UN protectorate in the Donbass region would be costly and require a multinational force of UN blue helmets with a robust mandate. It would of course require Russian support in the UN Security Council, which many observers would consider unlikely to be forthcoming. Yet, the Kremlin might just decide that a UN protectorate bankrolled for the most part by Western countries would solve a number of primarily financial, but also political and military problems, and serve as the elusive off-ramp allowing a somewhat face-saving way of getting out of the costly mess in Ukraine.[61]

These are practical – and wise – words, which have not received the attention that they deserve. However, it is not too late to investigate whether Russia may be prepared to accept such a UN Interim Authority, particularly if this becomes part of a broader, more comprehensive, European security bargain. Until now, Ukraine has been reluctant to accept a more pronounced UN role, mainly because this would give Russia (as a permanent member of the UN Security Council) undue influence over eastern Ukraine’s destiny. Still, Kiev may ultimately acknowledge that such an option is preferable to an unwieldy, frozen conflict within its borders.

Third, the EU should initiate a high-level platform to discuss prospects to modify Europe’s security architecture. The calls for a possible new European security bargain are loudest from Russia and its cohort of so-called Putinversteher (German for ‘those who understand Putin’). Yet even reasonable voices like Henry Kissinger’s argue that ‘the West should be prepared to discuss a concept of order that takes account of Russian concerns and Ukraine’s right to independence’. Kissinger therefore suggests that the best outcome is a Ukraine that functions as ‘a bridge between east and west’, rather than a Western ‘outpost’, for ‘if Ukraine is treated by either side as an outpost, a new Cold War is inevitable’.[62] Although the EU (and the West in general) is unlikely to offer Russia a droit de regard in their ‘shared neighbourhoods’, something has to be done to overcome the current stalemate. First and foremost, both the EU (as well as Ukraine, the United States and NATO) and Russia should be offered a face-saving way out (or, in this case, process), which can be sold to their respective domestic publics as a reasonable and positive solution to the current crisis in eastern Ukraine. The EU and Ukraine have to acknowledge that Crimea may be lost to Russia, perhaps after a new referendum. Moscow should use all of its available powers to encourage stability in the Donbass region. When all of the parties involved compromise, a basis can be found to start such a much-needed debate about the precise nature of a new European security bargain. How this should look, whether it should involve agreements on basing foreign troops in certain countries, a revived Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) (which Russia abrogated in March 2015) and agreements on (theatre) missile defence in Europe should all be open. Yet what should certainly top the agenda are shared security concerns, such as fighting jihadism and the Islamic State, halting WMD proliferation and organized crime, as well as a shared vision for pan-European energy security.

The OSCE may be the most appropriate institutional place to manage such a diplomatic circus, even though the Corfu Process (as mentioned above) failed miserably. Germany’s 2016 Chairmanship of the OSCE (backed by Serbia and Austria as part of the so-called ‘troika’) offers chances for strong leadership to get quick results. The European Parliament’s S&D group has already called for an OSCE Summit in 2016, which could be used to reinvigorate dialogue with Russia. Moscow has given several OSCE meetings a miss over the past year, but may be enticed to agree to an OSCE Summit (which is not organized on a regular basis) if the agenda includes an open and sincere debate on a new European security bargain. This may well be supported by the Netherlands’ EU Presidency in the first half of 2016, if policy-makers in Berlin and The Hague choose to embrace such an initiative.

Fourth, and finally, the EU should start an organized conversation with Russia about European norms and values. The EU not only prides itself as the main (and perhaps even sole) guardian of Europe’s code of ethics, but also as a mediator in the so-called ‘dialogue of civilizations’. This dialogue was initiated by the UN (in 2001), at least partly to avoid the ‘clash of civilizations’ that seemed to be in the offing after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. In March 2006, EU Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner argued that ‘[f]or me, intercultural dialogue is the defining issue of this decade, in the Euro-med region and beyond’.[63] The EU has been engaged in such a dialogue with Mediterranean countries in an effort to repair relations with the Muslim world, trying to escape unnecessary conflicts and to strengthen mutual understanding. Since 2004, the Anna Lindh Foundation (which aims ‘to bring people together from across the Mediterranean to improve mutual respect between cultures and to support civil society working for a common future for the region’)[64] has been supported financially and politically by the EU, and constitutes an integral part of the EU’s policy towards the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Clearly, such a dialogue is needed today with Russia as well, and for similar reasons: encouraging people-to-people contact and avoiding the escalation of practical misunderstandings in the realms of culture, civilization and religion. Existing institutional frameworks such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE may be used to host such a dialogue, which should also include Eastern European countries, including Ukraine.

Russia has taken up the role as a guardian of ‘traditional values’, based on national pride, religion and family. Russia’s 2008 Foreign Policy Concept states that ‘[i]t is for the first time in the contemporary history that global competition is acquiring a civilizational dimension which suggests competition between different value systems’.[65] In his famous September 2013 Valdai Speech, President Putin alleges that:

The Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. […] People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.[66]

President Putin certainly claims moral superiority to gain status, both at home and abroad, and to put Russia forward as an inter-faith mediator. At the same time, Russia has tried to reframe the Ukraine crisis as a ‘civilizational choice’ for Kiev, between its true Eurasian roots and the ‘nihilistic liberalism’ promoted by the EU and the West. The notion of a Russkiy Mir (‘Russian World’) is increasingly used by Moscow to reach out to ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, as well as communities of the Russian Orthodox faith across Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.[67] Although this is hardly different from Ankara’s notion of a ‘Turkic World’,[68] it has affected the EU’s belief that it is the sole provider of ‘European’ norms and values across the continent. Establishing a new, organized conversation with Russia about the nature and diversity of Europe’s norms and values may therefore also encourage the EU to leave the comfortable habitat of its moral high ground, and to come to terms with the complexity of today’s ethical landscape. As European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans argued in September 2015 in the context of the EU’s uncontrolled migration crisis: ‘The caricature of a xenophobic East is just as malicious and wrong as that of a culturally auto-destructive West’.[69] Creating a Russian ‘Other’ is an emotional response to a complex geostrategic problem, and should therefore be avoided.

The EU should acknowledge the urgent necessity to cooperate with Russia, politically and militarily, to fight jihadism and the Islamic State, in Syria as well as in Europe.

These four elements could form the foundation of a new, more realistic and practical EU–Russia relationship. Russia’s Syrian gambit, combined with Kiev’s growing willingness to accept a loose, quasi-federal structure for Ukraine, opens a window of opportunity that demands Western statesmanship (including by the EU). The EU should acknowledge the urgent necessity to cooperate with Russia, politically and militarily, to fight jihadism and the Islamic State, in Syria as well as in Europe. This new reality should be appreciated as an opportunity to leave the existing impasse in EU–Russia relations. It also sends the clear message that in a greater, geostrategic framework, Russia is the EU’s partner, rather than its rival. This should also make it easier to put the ideational differences between post-modern Europe and modern Russia in context. European policy-makers should now recognize these distinctions and quarrels for what they are: minor and inconsequential. Although the political ramifications of this ‘deal’ with Russia will not be to everybody’s liking, the likely outcome will ultimately be to everyone’s benefit, including Ukraine’s. Most importantly, it ensures that the West is not sleepwalking into a ‘Cold Peace’, or even a renewed ‘hot’ conflict with Russia. The EU may even benefit from this existential crisis on its own continent to make a shift towards strategic maturity, accepting Russia – and international politics in general – as it is, and not as Brussels’ policy-makers desire it to be.

‘Toespraak Minister Koenders Tijdens een Bijeenkomst over 40 Jaar Helsinki-Akkoorden’.
‘Ambassador Vladimir Chizkov’s Address at the Alpbach Forum 2015’, Alpbach Forum (31 August 2015).
‘Ambassador Vladimir Chizkov’s Address at the Alpbach Forum 2015’.
Bobo Lo, ‘Medvedev and the New European Security Architecture’, CER Policy Brief (July 2009).
‘The EU and Russia’, UK House of Lords (2015), p. 92.
Alexander Mercouris, ‘How the EU Association Agreement Makes Existing Ukraine–Russia Trade Links Impossible’, Russia Insider (4 May 2015).
European Commission Directorate-General for Trade, ‘Outcome of the Trilateral Talks on the Implementation of the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement/Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area’, Brussels (7 September 2015).
Vlad Mykhnenko, ‘Die Ökonomische Bedeutung des Ukrainischen Donbass’, DGO Ukraine-Analysen, no. 147 (11 March 2015), p. 3.
Anna Maria Dyner, ‘What Ending Cooperation on Armaments Means for Russia and Ukraine’, PISM Bulletin, no. 50 (15 April 2014).
Charles Recknagel, ‘Complex Ties: Russia’s Armed Forces Depend on Ukraine’s Military Industry’, RFE/RL (28 March 2014).
Hiroaki Kuromiya, Ukraine, Russia and the Donbass in Historical Perspective (Washington, DC: National Research Council for Soviet and East European Studies, September 1996).
Peter van Ham, ‘Gridlock, Corruption and Crime in the Western Balkans: Why the EU Must Acknowledge Its Limits’, Clingendael Report (October 2014).
Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes and Jacob Poushter, NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukraine Crisis, But Reluctant To Provide Military Aid (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 10 June 2015).
Bebler, ‘Crimea and the Russian–Ukrainian Conflict’, p. 38.
Bebler, ‘Crimea and the Russian–Ukrainian Conflict’, p. 40.
‘US Rejects Cuba Demand to Hand Back Guantanamo Bay Base’, BBC News (30 January 2015).
Bronwen Maddox, ‘New World Disorder: An Interview with Henry Kissinger’, Prospect (18 September 2014).
Michael O’Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro, ‘Crafting a Win–Win–Win for Russia, Ukraine and the West’, The Washington Post (7 December 2014).
Andrej Novak, ‘What’s Peace in the Donbass Worth To Us?’, Bündnis90 – Die Grünen (5 November 2014).
Quoted in Maddox, ‘New World Disorder’.
Speech by EU Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner: ‘Dialogue of Cultures – Clash of Civilizations or Clash of Ignorance?’, Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly, Plenary Session, Brussels (27 March 2006).
See online at
President of Russia, The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (12 August 2008).
‘Vladimir Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai International Discussion Club’, Valdai Discussion Club (20 September 2013).
See, for example, the website of the Russkiy Mir Foundation:
Bayram Balci, Turkey’s Religious Outreach in Central Asia and the Caucasus (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment, 27 January 2014).
Frans Timmermans, ‘Une Solidarité De Fait: Speech by First Vice-President Timmermans’, Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, The Hague (18 September 2015).