Was the war in Ukraine inevitable?
Interview with Dr. Zachary Paikin – Researcher at the EU Foreign Policy unit CEPS.
Russia poses the greatest challenge to the strategic and foreign policy agenda of the EU. What kind of problems/questions does the war in Ukraine raise for EU foreign policy?
The question raised by this war for the EU is a fundamental one: what kind of actor does it want to be? As time has gone by, it has become increasingly clear that there are trade offs between being a normative actor and a geopolitical actor. The two options are not entirely mutually exclusive, but there are still choices to be made. Much like the UK during Brexit, you cannot always have your cake and eat it.
Was it possible to avoid the war in Ukraine, or in other words, was there something the EU could have done or should not have done in its policy toward Russia to help avoid this war?
It appears clear that Putin had been preparing this war for some time and that his draft treaties on "security guarantees" were designed to be rejected, given that he initially thought he could win the war in a matter of days. So on a timescale of the past year or so, the war was likely inevitable. But if we adopt a longer timescale, things look different. Had the West not repeatedly claimed since 2008 that Ukraine was going to join NATO, and had it not treated Kyiv since 2014 as a de facto ally, we could have been in a different place today. All would not be rosy in our relations with Russia, but it might have been better than what we are living through today. Putin, in many respects, has been a blank canvas throughout his tenure—there are things we could have done to blunt the emergence of a Frankenstein. In particular, the EU's repeated insistence that what happens on Russia's border is none of Moscow's business was not helpful.
Neither side is willing to compromise on what it sees as its core principles and interests. It has been the same problem since 2014, if not 1991. There are fundamentally different and incompatible visions for how to organize European security. Russia thinks it has the right to a veto over Ukraine's strategic (and even civilizational) orientation, whereas the West rejects this notion categorically.
Europe is facing huge energy crisis in these days. Should we consider it a result of failed European foreign policy?
Partly yes. There was little desire to confront the public with the reality that NATO expansion was not a risk-free strategy. We framed NATO expansion as being entirely benign and simply a matter of promoting democracy and ensuring continental security. Admitting that the strategy was not risk-free would have necessitated taking measures to mitigate risks, such as decoupling from cheap Russian energy. European politicians were often reluctant to do that. It's a classic case of placing short-term electoral advantage over strategic considerations and responsible statecraft.
Recently the European Commission President von der Leyen said that supporting Ukraine is expensive but liberty is priceless. The heavy “fees” of such a support is paid by the ordinary Europeans, who are already revolting. How do you assess this approach of Ursula von der Leyen? Why is it so important for the EU to support Ukraine?
It is important for the EU to support Ukraine because the European security order cannot condone the notion that you can achieve political ends through military means, at least within the geographic contours of Europe itself. Unfortunately, Western governments have not always respected that principle in their dealings with other parts of the world, and that may have come back to haunt them. Western societies obviously have much more pressing and practical needs and do not inherently understand how some abstract "rules-based international order" benefits them, especially since many of them are facing hardship today despite three decades of said order.
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy said that he and the Ukrainian people have understood that in the near future Ukraine will not be a member of NATO. Is NATO responsible for the war for having given false hope to Ukraine?
NATO is not responsible for the war. Vladimir Putin is the one who made the decision to invade a sovereign state in an illegal act of aggression. That said, repeatedly insisting that Ukraine was going to join NATO, even as there was little chance of this realistically happening, only served to antagonize Russia to little apparent gain. Once again, Western states have privileged the articulation of principles over the conduct of strategy. What we are learning—or what I hope we are learning—is that this does not represent a viable path to peace. If we do not learn it in this war, then we may be in serious trouble when the next security crisis comes along. And it will come along.
As a NATO member state, Turkey is also playing a more active role in pressuring Russia to stop its invasion of Ukraine and at the same time it is trying to balance this with its close relationship with Russia. Do you think Turkey could and should do more?
Turkey has already done a lot, which is great. There are increasingly few sites which represent a potential middle-ground or mediator between Russia and the West. Belarus could have been such a place but that is no longer the case. Within Europe, one can also no longer say that countries like Slovakia, Greece and Bulgaria are deeply committed to good relations with Russia. The dividing line between East and West is increasingly stark. However, it is difficult to imagine Erdogan fully assuming the role of middleman, given that many Western states remain skeptical of his intentions, whereas from Moscow's perspective Ankara is still a NATO ally irrespective of the forms of successful Russo-Turkish cooperation we have seen.
Do you think the EU is playing its role right—will this conflict result in more influence and leverage for the EU?
It is too early to tell. There is a lot of optimism about the Zeitenwende but the proof will be in the pudding. Despite important progress on some fronts, we may not get a clear picture of the emerging global picture until the end of the decade.
Where is the place of the EU between two world powers, namely the US and China?
The EU is increasingly dependent on the US as a result of this war, even as its interests vis-a-vis China do not entirely overlap with America's. There will be important opportunities for Washington and Brussels to cooperate on China-related issues, but it remains to be seen whether the EU will be able to successfully compartmentalize cooperation and rivalry with China. Nor is it necessarily clear that the EU will emerge as a global pole this century alongside the US and China—on some issues maybe, but certainly not on every front.
Are we facing a new Cold War or could or would this conflict turn into World War III?
A prolonged cold war (for all the shortcomings of that analogy) is likely to be the best-case scenario so long as Putin is in power, and perhaps for even longer. A nuclear exchange is also possible, even if it is unlikely. We need to be extremely delicate because we do not know where Putin's red lines are. Before the war, we thought that Ukraine's membership in NATO was the red line. It turns out that in Putin's mind, the red line had been crossed earlier.