It has been one year since the tragic downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine – which, in part, plunged Ukraine deeper into crisis with the following deterioration of the ‘War in Donbass‘ – and 20 months since the ostensible start of the Ukraine crisis. In an article I wrote in European Security earlier this year I made an argument that the Ukraine crisis was partially caused by the mutually exclusive regime preferences the EU and Russia had for Kiev which resulted in the geopoliticisation of the triangular relationship. Consequently, my position was that the EU (and more broadly the West) was partly to blame, along with a clearly more belligerent Russia, in the deterioration of the situation in Ukraine.
In an article recently published with International Relations I endeavoured to analyse the EU’s foreign policy decisions leading up to and during the Ukraine crisis in order offer policy critiques, reflections and recommendations. The research was guided by a neoclassical realist framework which delineated three important domestic-level variables crucial to the EU’s foreign policy outcome: role identity; decision-makers’ perceptions; and the domestic foreign policy-making process. Given that neoclassical realism has been referred to by Randall L. Schweller as a ‘theory of mistakes’, it is a useful tool for scrutinising foreign policy decisions as it looks to identify, at the domestic level, how systemic pressures have been ineffectively translated into final decisions.
First, in relation to role identity, the EU’s clear normative power role conceptualisation – that is, an international power which attempts to promote its core normative values: democracy, human rights, rule of law and market economy principles – inhibited its ability to pursue a more geopolitically aware policy. The EU’s lack of malleability regarding its normative demands, despite pleas from key Ukrainian officials, was arguably exploited by Russia which utilised an array of short-term zero-sum coercions (threat of gas price hikes) and incentives (cheaper gas rates and US$15 billion loan) that initially succeeded in assuaging Yanukovych into realigning towards Russia. Even after Yanukovych fled from power, which provoked Russia into more aggressive action, including the annexation of Crimea and the covert destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine, the EU has maintained its strict normative demands for Ukraine.
Second, regarding decision-makers’ perceptions, while the EU rightfully had a self-perception as the dominant economic power in the European regional setting, its perceptions of both Ukraine and Russia were flawed. In the case of Ukraine, the EU clearly underestimated the initial prospect of Viktor Yanukovych rebuffing the Association Agreement offer in favour of rebalancing towards Moscow, despite his penchant for flip-flopping between the two. Regarding Russia, the EU did not perceive Russia initial threats towards Ukraine as credible. Furthermore, in the aftermath of Crimean annexation and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the EU’s retaliatory sanctions against Russia did not hurt Putin’s regime as hoped, showing a further misperception of Putin’s grip on power. Therefore, the EU’s miscalculation of both Ukraine and Russia’s response to its Association Agreement policy resulted in a foreign policy decision which lacked any contingency plan for a worst-case scenario.
Finally, the domestic foreign policy-making process was institutionally weighted in favour of Member States which severely watered-down its Ukraine policy. Initially, a major hamstring in the EU’s Ukraine strategy was the absence of a clear ‘membership perspective’ for Ukraine which, after Russia imposed its more aggressive policies leading up to the Vilnius Summit, negatively skewed Ukraine’s cost-benefit analysis towards favouring Russia’s zero-sum counter proposals. Furthermore, internal member state disagreement affected the EU’s responses to the worsening Ukraine crisis, particularly in responding to Russia’s escalating action. In the various Foreign Affairs Council meetings which followed the major flashpoints of the Ukraine crisis, the EU has generally been unable to consensus-build a strong response, with the imposition of stronger sanctions only occurring after the MH17 tragedy.
Arguably, since the crisis erupted, the EU has failed to rectify its failings in the three areas examined above, illustrating a worrying lack of a functioning feedback loop in its overall foreign policy-making process. Regarding the constricting nature of the EU’s normative power role identity, the EU should drop the political component of the Association Agreement while simultaneously embracing trilateral trade initiatives, which would suit both Ukraine and Russia and allow the triangle relationship to be reconciled through positive-sum games. Regarding the decision-makers’ perceptions, the EU needs to understand that Russia has legitimate fears about the EU’s Ukraine policy but also that Ukraine’s future is untenable without it having some sort of progressive relationship with Russia (as part of its multi-vector foreign policy logic). Lastly, the reliance on consensus politics in the EU’s foreign policy-making process is its ultimate ‘Achilles’ heel’ in Ukraine and cannot be fixed without further institutional evolution, of which there appears to severely lacking political will at the current time – leaving the EU seemingly to remain the ‘hobbled giant’ of international relations.
Therefore, an appraisal of the EU’s foreign policies leading up to and during the Ukraine crisis illustrates that its narrowing role identification, its (mis)perceptions of Ukraine and Russia and its institutional hamstrings all contributed to produce a largely ineffective and detrimental foreign policy towards Ukraine.
Nicholas Ross Smith is a PhD candidate in Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research concerns evaluating the competitiveness of the EU-Russia-Ukraine triangle. This blog piece stems from a recent journal article by the author: The EU under a realist scope: Employing a neoclassical realist framework for the analysis of the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement offer to Ukraine.
Image: Alexandra Gnatoush