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Will Distrust Among EU Leaders Fail Ukraine?

EU member states have no shared vision of how to deal with Russia as it continues its attack on Ukraine. Rushing to end the war at all costs could have devastating consequences for Kyiv and Europe

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, June 16, 2022

"EU leaders exaggerated their unity at the start of this crisis".
"EU leaders exaggerated their unity at the start of this crisis".

by Judy Dempsey*

IAN BOND/ DIRECTOR OF FOREIGN POLICY AT THE CENTRE FOR EUROPEAN REFORM

EU leaders exaggerated their unity at the start of this crisis. They should not now overstate their differences or suspect each other’s motives. Wanting the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine to stop now—when even Ukrainian officials admit that they are suffering almost 1,000 casualties (killed or wounded) every day—is a respectable, if unrealistic, aspiration.

But before they promote a policy that will almost certainly involve Ukraine giving up territory, EU leaders should ask themselves two questions. The first is what the Ukrainians themselves want. If they believe that they have no choice but to fight to save their state from a brutal occupier, then the EU should continue to support them with military supplies and sanctions designed to weaken Russia’s ability to wage war.

The second question is whether an early ceasefire is achievable at an acceptable cost and sustainable over a reasonable period, given what European leaders know about Vladimir Putin’s ultimate war aims. Since the Russian president has made clear that he wants nothing less than the elimination of Ukraine’s statehood, the answer is clear: no. Were Putin to offer a ceasefire (which he shows no signs of doing), European leaders would be well-advised to distrust him, rather than each other.

MARTA DASSU/ SENIOR DIRECTOR OF EUROPEAN AFFAIRS AT THE ASPEN INSTITUTE

In reality, how to deal with Russia has always been a divisive issue in Europe. If anything, the reaction to the war in Ukraine has bridged the gaps rather than widen them—and Hungary is just a marginal exception. Both NATO and the EU are demonstrating that they are able to accommodate some differences of opinion in the context of a general consensus on strategic decisions.

The problem is not mistrust among the European countries, but domestic consensus down the road. France, Germany, and Italy stand by Ukraine with no ambiguity, but governments know that voters are worried and nervous, especially in the current economic predicament.

However, the way out of this dilemma is economic policies much more than negotiations with Russia. As Ivan Krastev says, the party of peace may be stronger than the party of justice—but economics will be key. A cap on energy prices is more consequential than another phone call with Vladimir Putin, at this stage.

If the war drags on, the existing consensus will be more severely tested: but the conditions for a truce are not in Europe’s hands. “Peace plans” reflect more a concern for a political backlash in our societies than real persuasion in Europe’s role as a credible negotiating actor. A big question mark concerns the more distant future: once the war is over—or frozen—two camps on how to deal with Russia could very well reemerge.

FEDERICO FABBRINI/ PROFESSOR OF EUROPEAN LAW AT DUBLIN CITY UNIVERSITY

This is not just about personalities. It has to do with the way the EU works. And the problem is that the EU’s current system of governance is not up to the challenges the war in Ukraine is posing.

In the last decade, also as a result of a never-ending stream of crises, the bloc has increasingly moved in an intergovernmental direction, with the European Council becoming the EU’s leading decisionmaking institution. Nevertheless, the European Council is composed of heads of state and government who pursue and defend their nations’ interests. Those interest are often conflicting, and the rule of consensus (read unanimity) that underpins the European Council’s work has meant either paralysis or the imposition of the strongest states’ will.

Given this state of affairs, it is not surprising that disagreements among member states’ leaders on the correct EU foreign policy stance vis-a-vis Russia and Ukraine have prominently come to the surface, fueling distrust and recriminations. Yet, the only way to overcome this is to profoundly revise the EU governance system, removing unanimity and reforming the EU executive power—as it has been clearly recommended by the final outcome of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Ironically, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron have openly called to amend the EU treaties—a position which is politically shared also by Olaf Scholz’s Germany. Will leaders of Central and Eastern EU member states—which have mostly signed up to a May 2022 non-paper opposing treaty revisions—reconsider their stance and allow for a much-needed reform of the EU institutional architecture that would make the EU more capable of acting effectively and legitimately in foreign affairs and security?

NICHOLAS KARIDES/ DIRECTOR OF THE INSTITUTE FOR MASS MEDIA AT THE UNIVERSITAS FOUNDATION, CYPRUS

In 1974, the year in which Turkey invaded Cyprus, the European Political Cooperation mechanism had only just been set up by the then nine members of the European Community. It issued, all in all, two brief statements expressing grave concern and support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Cyprus. Turkey still occupies 37 percent of the island.

Half a century later, any distrust among EU leaders over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not hindering the union’s robust, unequivocal, and practical support to Kyiv. A lot has changed since 1974, both on the ground and in the mindset of the now widened but tighter circle of European leaders. Indeed—and this is important—a lot has changed since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

There will always be diverging views and, often, even distrust between EU leaders on how to deal with key issues; we can expect much more on the question of Ukraine’s EU membership process. Yet today, we not only have the moral clarity and the political foundations to respond to such acts of aggression but also the institutional structures and mechanisms with which we are able, despite the inevitable grumbling, to act collectively, swiftly, and decisively.

LINAS KOJALA/ DIRECTOR OF THE EASTERN EUROPE STUDIES CENTRE, VILNIUS

The Kremlin seems to be betting the success of its aggression on the sanctions fatigue and political divisions among Western countries. It may expect to succeed, as there is no consensus on what the victory of Ukraine might look like in the West.

However, I believe the principle of path dependence is helpful. Even if political debates get trickier, certain principles may hold nevertheless. First, it will be politically toxic to even consider reversing the current sanctions regime until Ukraine clearly states it is victorious. Second, Europe is becoming less dependent on Russian energy. For instance, Germany’s intention to become virtually independent from Russia’s oil this year and largely do without its natural gas by mid-2024 will have a long-term impact. Third, businesses will never see Russia as a reliable partner. Thus, the links are being cut naturally.

Yet democracies are not only about reluctance and divisions; they are sometimes capable of political leadership. A time of war demands steps from European leaders that the electorate might not enthusiastically support. Sanctions fatigue sounds like a feeble excuse in the face of Ukrainian suffering. Hopefully, the visit of Macron, Draghi, and Scholz will be a step in the right direction.

AGNIESZKA LEGUCKA/ SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW AT THE POLISH INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS

The arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, and Italy’s Mario Draghi in Kyiv is confirmation of what we in Central Europe have known: that the Ukrainians can defeat the Russians on the battlefield—all they need are weapons.

But despite many assurances from Germany, its heavy weapons do not reach the front line. The gap between declarations and reality is becoming difficult to endure. Russia has captured the south and east of Ukraine, but Vladimir Putin fears a Ukrainian counter-offensive. That is why he counts on a diplomatic solution and Western self-limiting fear of Russian power, along the lines of what Macron is arguing—not to humiliate Putin.

Meanwhile, when Ukrainians stop fighting, Ukraine will disappear, and with it, the world order we live in. Russia must be contained and deterred for European security’s sake. Self-constraint will buy Western Europe some time. But it will also give Russia the opportunity to claim these territories as its own, to regroup, and to strike again. A ceasefire will not mean peace; it will mean the extermination of civilians, deportations, and mass murder in Ukraine.

We should learn from the Ukrainians that Russia can be defeated in battle, because that is the only way of containing the latter and inducing it to engage in much-desired diplomacy.

STEFAN MEISTER/ HEAD OF THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER AND DEMOCRACY PROGRAM AT THE GERMAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS (DGAP)

I don’t think it is distrust among EU leaders that will weaken Ukraine. Rather, it is division among EU member states on how to deal with Russia and how far military support for Ukraine should go.

While the Baltic states and Poland see in Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an existential threat which only a victory of Ukraine can stop, Germany, France, and Italy already think about how to manage a Russia with Putin after the war enters its next stage. For these three big member states, it is about not believing in a Ukrainian victory against Russia. It is about a new line of contact and a possible Minsk III.

Between the EU member states, one can now see that the peak of sanctions is reached, and comprehensive oil and gas sanctions will not come soon. It is too damaging for the economies of several member states and leaders are afraid of declining support in their societies.

What Europe really misses is leadership on this war by Germany. We observe a deep distrust by the big members states with regard to Berlin’s willingness to support Ukraine to the extent necessary. This weakens the EU’s ability to act and could fundamentally divide the bloc.

MIKHAIL MINAKOV/ SENIOR ADVISOR AT THE WILSON CENTER’S KENNAN INSTITUTE

The initial stage of any war is a period of emotional decisions by all involved parties. Accordingly, it is the will, not rational thought, that plays the major role in choices made by political and military leaders. And in these choices, people show who they genuinely are.

The Western leaders’ unity around Ukraine was a product of such emotionality. Unprecedented sanctions against Russian and extraordinary military and financial support for Ukraine were the results of a political goodwill establishing the pro-Ukrainian alliance.

Now, more than one hundred days after the start of the Russian invasion, European governments are analyzing their choices made after February 24, 2022. European political rationality demands clear answers: Were the decisions correct? Did they harm the common enemy more than their own societies? Did we not go too far? And this is exactly when distrust—among the European leaders and between the EU and Ukraine—can emerge.

If this distrust will not be addressed promptly, it may significantly harm the Western alliance for Ukraine. Militarily and financially, Ukraine needs the EU’s, the UK’s, and the United States’ support. Every hesitation may have a disastrous effect on the resistance and resilience of Ukraine.

POL MORILLAS/ DIRECTOR OF THE BARCELONA CENTRE FOR INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS (CIDOB)

Whereas the Kremlin sticks to its grandiloquent and belligerent narrative, for Ukraine, the war is still a matter of survival. Russian President Vladimir Putin likens himself to Peter the Great and revives historic quests to reconquer Russia’s historic lands. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky insists on the need to secure sufficient weaponry to defend the country and, when the time comes, secure a more prominent position at the negotiating table. Under these circumstances, the June 16 visit of Scholz, Macron, and Draghi to Kyiv is seen with suspicion if their objective is to fast-forward to peace talks.

A war on narrative, on the side of Russia, versus a war for survival, on the side of Ukraine, is inherently unequal. This is why, despite the emerging divergences, Europeans should not lose sight of the primary objective of Western foreign policy today: not allowing the global order to succumb to conflicting spheres of influence. The use of force and occupation cannot determine the fate of borders. And the world cannot pay the price of geopolitical confrontation, neither in the form of a food nor a refugee crisis.

In addition to clear signs of de-escalation on the ground, Western leaders should look for a change of narrative on the side of Putin before talks ultimately start. Reviving Peter the Great is at odds with building the parameters of a new European security architecture once the worst phase of the war is behind us.

JOHN O’BRENNAN/ JEAN MONNET CHAIR OF EUROPEAN INTEGRATION AT MAYNOOTH UNIVERSITY, IRELAND

The EU’s response to events in Ukraine has evolved in several phases. The first phase prior to February 24 was characterized by disunity and wrangling among the member states. After the Russian assault on Ukraine began, the bloc’s response was much more coherent, even impressive.

But in recent weeks much of the previous lack of harmony has returned. Hungary’s veto-wielding threats constitute just one example, and the way the EU gave in to Viktor Orban in rescinding the sanctions against Patriarch Kiril, for example, was unseemly. It also emphasized once again the need to move away from the paralyzing unanimity rule which acts as a stultifying brake on EU foreign and security issues.

Just as significantly, the divide between Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the old “core Europe” has reemerged. Many in CEE simply do not trust Chancellor Scholz and President Macron to honor the rhetorical commitments of support made to Ukraine. Scholz has been all over the place on Ukraine, dithering on the issue of sending weapons in particular. The German Greens look like a much more reliable security partner than the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Scholz’s comments trying to rationalize a philosophy of violence (while Ukraine was actually experiencing overwhelming Russian violence) were embarrassing and very untimely. President Macron’s insistence on not humiliating Russia was similarly ill-thought-out and created further suspicion in CEE, after his protracted and pointless telephone diplomacy with Putin.

The attritional nature of the new phase of conflict in the Donbas leaves the possibility of a sense of further drift in the EU’s response. However, the impending decision of the European Commission, widely expected to support Ukraine’s candidacy for membership of the EU, is a positive step. It should be supported by leaders in the European Council at the summit on June 23-24. But there remains the suspicion that Macron and Scholz will try to force Ukraine into accepting a peace settlement that will prove chimeric.

BARBARA VON OW-FREYTAG/ JOURNALIST AND BOARD MEMBER AT THE PRAGUE CIVIL SOCIETY CENTRE

In the EU, the biggest casualty of war is trust. Between Tallinn and Prague, suspicions surround the Kyiv visit of Olaf Scholz, Emmanuel Macron, and Mario Draghi. Rumors about a “Minsk III” or “Munich II” echo through private talks and social media. Trust in Germany is close to zero in the Baltics, Latvia’s defense minister said recently. It has since turned into open distrust throughout Central Europe.

Tragically, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has deepened East–West divisions in Europe. The fraught German–Polish relationship is at the core of the rift. Instead of rallying together against Putin, Germany and Poland are locked in growing animosity. Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has even pondered publicly whether a revamped German Bundeswehr could be used against Poland.

In the middle of a devastating war in Europe, German-Polish hostility is going from bad to worse. While Scholz’s obfuscation and offensive non-communication fuel traditional fears in Poland, the Law and Justice government’s fixation on World War Two and vicious Germany-bashing make joint policies impossible.

The German-Polish deadlock weakens Ukraine’s defense, threatens EU security, and plays into Putin’s hands. Berlin must show that Zeitenwende means a shift from “Russia first” to prioritizing its Eastern neighbors. Poland must use its new standing to build EU solidarity, not division. If governments fail, a platform of engaged thinkers and experts must take the lead to build a joint agenda.

GEORGE PAGOULATOS/ DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE HELLENIC FOUNDATION FOR EUROPEAN AND FOREIGN POLICY (ELIAMEP)

While arming Ukraine and supporting its President Zelensky, France, Germany, and Italy are also keeping diplomatic channels with Russia open. Even during the worst warfare—and we have seen great barbarity by the Russian invaders—diplomacy must continue its work.

The three leaders have made clear they would not (and could not) impose any peace agreement against Ukraine’s will.

Their approach is sensible if the objective of Russia’s military defeat is unachievable or brings about a long war that would devastate Ukraine, destabilizing Europe. A two-pronged approach—full military and economic support for Ukraine and working the diplomatic channels to facilitate peace—is in the EU’s and Ukraine’s best interest.

The invective of certain EU leaders against Draghi, Macron and Scholz undermines Europe’s unity. Beyond Ukraine, all of Europe is severely affected by this war. The EU has the right to claim a role in affecting the conditions under which this war ends.

Again, the Europeans are not so far apart: they all support Zelensky so that he can have a stronger hand at the negotiating table.

KRISTI RAIK/ DIRECTOR OF THE ESTONIAN FOREIGN POLICY INSTITUTE

Distrust among EU leaders is a consequence of deeper problems. It is not the distrust that is dangerous to Ukraine but the disagreements over European policy. While Russia’s European neighbors, including Ukraine, see a strategic defeat of Russia as the only way to achieve sustainable peace, the main concern of some Western European leaders seems to be to avoid escalation of the war and humiliation of Russia.

While Central and Northern Europeans stress the need for quick additional military aid to Ukraine so that it can push back the aggressor, France and Germany seem to be looking for a way to stop the war as soon as possible, which unavoidably means compromises over Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

For Russia’s neighbors, the main danger is that if Russia achieves even partial gains in Ukraine, it will be encouraged to move further with its revisionist, imperial ambitions. Russia’s strategic defeat would force the Kremlin to give up such goals. Moscow has been rather successful in threatening the West with an escalation of the war to a direct NATO-Russia conflict, but if Russia is defeated in Ukraine and its ability to wage war substantially weakened, it will not be able to achieve its strategic goals with regard to NATO.

We need to keep working for a unified Western approach, or else Europe is doomed.

OLGA TOKARIUK/ NONRESIDENT FELLOW AT THE CENTER FOR EUROPEAN POLICY ANALYSIS (CEPA)

A major issue here is the root cause of that distrust: the EU leaders’ different visions of their future relationship with Russia and Ukraine. While the Central Europeans and the Baltic states clearly state that they want Ukraine to win the war and there can be no return to business as usual with Russia after its brutal aggression, Western European leaders are softer in their rhetoric and deeds.

President Emmanuel Macron worries about how to avoid humiliating Russia, Chancellor Olaf Scholz delays German weapons delivery to Ukraine, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi proposes a controversial four-point peace plan which raises eyebrows in Kyiv.

Another divisive issue is Ukraine’s EU candidacy: while most member states support it, a minority believes Ukraine should meet more conditions before the candidate status is granted. As Ukraine suffers heavy losses and is outgunned by Russia in the artillery battle for Donbas, these ambiguous political signals raise big concerns in Kyiv. There is a fear that the window of opportunity for Ukraine might be closing. In this sense, June could be a decisive month. If EU member states manage to overcome divisions and growing war fatigue and step up their support of Ukraine, that would have lasting positive consequences for the EU and for Ukraine.

MIRJANA TOMIC/ JOURNALIST AND PROJECT DIRECTOR AT PRESSECLUB CONCORDIA, VIENNA

The results of two important albeit unrelated international studies appeared on June 15, 2022: the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report and the European Council’s on Foreign Relations (ECFR) survey of the European public opinion about the war in Ukraine. The title of the latter is telling: “Peace versus Justice: The coming European split over the war in Ukraine.”

ECFR explores opinion splits regarding war causes and its long-term goals, underlining deep country-specific cleavages. The Reuters study indicates an increasing trend in media consumption: avoidance of depressing news, including war developments in Ukraine.

On June 15, 2022, several European papers had Kriegsmudigkeit (war fatigue) in their headlines. These titles reflected the mood in several EU countries, as news about devastation, destruction, death, and despair in Ukraine had been filling the screens and social media. At the same time, the European media warn about rising prices and poverty. In mid-June, for example, as temperatures increased above 40°C, Spaniards struggled to pay electricity bills for running their air-conditioners around the clock.

In this diversified context, to what extent do EU leaders distrust each other and to what extent do they fear short-term political consequences at home? Could their disunity fail Ukraine? If Ukraine’s success is, as President Zelensky says, the liberation of all territories, including those ceased in 2014, the answer to the latter is yes. However, if negotiated peace would be an objective, and war objectives unambiguously stated, unity could maybe be forged. So far, neither EU nor U.S. citizens fully understand the long-term strategies toward Ukraine and Russia.

ANDREAS UMLAND/ ANALYST WITH THE STOCKHOLM CENTRE FOR EASTERN EUROPEAN STUDIES AT THE SWEDISH INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS (UI)

The June 16 visit to Kyiv by the leaders of Germany, France, and Italy is an important sign in itself. Twenty years ago, these countries’ leaders—Gerhard Schroder, Jacques Chirac, and Silvio Berlusconi respectively—were among Putin’s closest allies in the West. That the highest representatives of the EU’s three largest economies are now coming together to Ukraine can thus only be welcomed.

This demonstration of support is an important message to both Ukrainians and Russians that not only the Anglo-Saxon countries of the West are firmly on Ukraine’s side. Several practical questions remain, however: What is the visit’s intended substantive result beyond the realms of symbolism, messaging, and rhetoric? Is there an unannounced or secret agenda for the visit? Will Chancellor Olaf Scholz, President Emmanuel Macron, and Prime Minister Mario Draghi, for instance, try to move Zelensky’s positions with regard to Russia? Will they ask Ukraine to make territorial and other concessions in its negotiations with Moscow? Are they coming to support and listen to, or rather to tame and push the Ukrainian leadership? This is, at least, what many East Europeans are wondering, in light of the sometimes-ambivalent signals that have come out of Berlin, Paris, and Rome, during the past one hundred days.

KATERYNA ZAREMBO/ ASSOCIATE FELLOW AT THE NEW EUROPE CENTER, KYIV

The lack of unity and the distrust between the EU leaders is not a new thing for the EU—neither in its history, nor specifically during the Russian war in Ukraine. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that we observe an East-West divide in the EU regarding the policy of sanctioning Russia and supporting Ukraine—and even the Eastern flank is not unanimous, as the example of Hungary shows.

That said, Ukraine’s distrust of some EU member states is even more worrying. The leaders of Germany, France, and Italy are visiting Kyiv today, June 16, and I cannot remember a time when such a high-level visit from the Western leaders was expected with such apprehension: many fear they will try to pressure Ukraine into unfair compromises with Russia in exchange for a candidate status.

It would have been unfathomable back in Euromaidan times that EU leaders would be suspected of standing against Ukraine that is bleeding in an uneven battle with Russia, rather than by its side. The EU’s leadership had better not make a strategic mistake of not supporting Ukraine, which would effectively be the end of the EU as a peace project, a community of values, and a normative power.

*nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe
**first published in: carnegieeurope.eu

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