Conflict in Ukraine from the European Point of View

Conflict in Ukraine from the European Point of View: A Policy Perspective and Recommendations

By Katarzyna A, Przybyla

February, 2015

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame

The aim of this paper is to present the impact of the crisis in Ukraine on the European Union’s foreign and domestic policies, especially the underlying consequences for Central and Eastern Europe, from a strategic policy point of view. The author – who for the past few years has worked as an analyst on Russia and Central Asia in the National Security Bureau of Poland[1] – will then try to identify missing points in the EU’s approach and give recommendations.


Russian intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea have changed the security environment in Europe. Not only did these events show that the European Union’s policy towards Eastern Europe had to be redesigned, but they also proved that many years of mutual efforts to build trust, transparency and peaceful space between Russia and the EU had failed. Although it is difficult for some politicians to admit, the European security system, which was seen as one of the most stable ones, has crashed.

The events, which took place just beyond the Eastern border of the EU, were unexpected. However, there should have been no shock. The European Union had ignored some important actions made by the Russian government before the Russian-Ukrainian crisis emerged.

The first signal came in 2008 with the war between Russia and Georgia. The end of the direct conflict has not brought peace to the region, and the international community has been continuously experiencing the effects of these events. Two new actors with undefined status appeared – Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia - and only a few countries, including Russia, recognized them after their declaration of independence. This signaled much less stability in the region, and this instability has lasted to date.

A new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, published in the beginning of 2013, should have been interpreted as a second wake-up call for the Western countries. Although it was announced as a continuation of current policy, it also emphasized the geopolitical changes which had occurred in the world, and signaled Russian readiness to play a special role as a superpower: “Russia is fully aware of its special responsibility for maintaining security in the world both on the global and regional levels and is determined to act jointly with all the interested states to address common challenges. Russia will work to anticipate and forestall events and remain prepared for any scenario in global affairs.”[2] It was an announcement of increased activity on international stage, not only with the principle “nothing about us, without us[3], but rather “nothing without us[4].

The tendency of ignoring the signals – unfortunately very common in Europe – has led to the destruction of the European security system. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is not only a threat to the region; it should be seen as a challenge for the whole Euro-Atlantic community, and also a global problem. The consequences for Europe, and especially its response to the new threat, may be crucial for the shape of the security environment in this part of the world for the next decades. Europe’s future, whether one of peace or war, is being created right now.

Consequences for European foreign policy

Starting from a broad perspective, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has an important impact on the relations between the European Union and the United States. The American “strategic pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, announced by Barack Obama’s administration in 2011, was seen by many analysts as a proof of Europe’s decline. Although the European Union was America’s first partner – both strategically and morally – new challenges and chances in geopolitics caused a shift in US foreign policy. This was a dangerous message for the European partners who were facing the loss of interest from their main ally. However, current events may change this path. The war in Ukraine forced the US to pay more attention to both European affairs and the relations with their European partners. And instead of decreased US presence in Europe, as expected before the crisis emerged, we are witnessing American politicians making declarations of increased US engagement in Europe.

It was a good sign for the old continent, especially for smaller European countries, mainly in the Central and Eastern part of continent. After the Russian invasion in Ukraine, their fears and skepticism, sometimes seen as paranoid, have found justification. The outcome has bolstered their requests to increase the protection of the Eastern flank of EU and, most importantly, NATO presence has significantly increased. Although the Ukrainian crisis was seen by Poland and the Baltic states as a serious threat also for their security, the timing for such behavior from Russia was in some ways perfect for them.

This all took place just before the United States’ President’s visit to Poland and just before the NATO summit in Wales. Both were very successful from a Central-Eastern European point of view. During his speech in Warsaw, B. Obama said: “I know that throughout history, the Polish people were abandoned by friends when you needed them most.  So I’ve come to Warsaw today - on behalf of the United States, on behalf of the NATO Alliance - to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to Poland’s security.  Article 5 is clear - an attack on one is an attack on all.”[5] He also mentioned the steps which will be taken to increase security in Poland, the Baltic States, and in the Black Sea region: “You see our commitment today. In NATO. In aircraft in the skies of the Baltics. In allied ships patrolling the Black Sea. In the stepped-up exercises where our forces train together. And in our increased and enduring American presence here on Polish soil.”[6] His remarks – even if they remain just words – met the expectations.

The NATO summit in Wales was as successful as the US President’s visit to Poland in terms of PR and image-building actions. The crisis just next to the North-Atlantic Alliance’s borders moved NATO back to its core goals of collective security. Furthermore, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new multi-national rapid reaction force, headquartered in Poland, with capacity for deployment anywhere in two to five days as a response to the events in Ukraine and Middle East: “To the east, Russia is ripping up the rulebook with its annexation of Crimea and its troops on the sovereign soil of Ukraine. To the south, an arc of instability bends from North Africa to the Middle East (…) We must be able to act more swiftly.”[7] That represented what Poland sought. The Russian invasion in Ukraine and NATO’s response proved that the advocates of NATO strengthening its presence in Central-Eastern Europe were not Russophobes, but just pragmatists.

However, the Ukrainian crisis has not only permitted Central and Eastern European concerns to be taken more seriously, but has brought also new challenges and dilemmas. One of the most important of these was the future of the EU’s flag project: the Eastern Partnership. The fact that Ukraine was counting on the EU was obvious. But not only this country was carefully observing the European Union’s actions. The EU response to the crisis, and its behavior towards Russia, were extremely important for other countries engaged in the Eastern Partnership project. Some of them seek an alternative to the strong cooperation with and even dependence on Russia. But the decision about their future depends on the strength of the EU. It is easy to make promises when there are no problems, but the real test for the EU came with instability and war. For instance, Georgia and Moldova were seen by many analysts as next steps in Vladimir Putin’s campaign. For this reason, the EU’s commitment to helping Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova was crucial in slowing the potential of even wider Russian advances. They knew that the same could happen to them[8].

he Russian-Ukrainian war helped to make political decisions in both the EU and in some countries of the Eastern Partnership. First, Ukraine made its first step to European integration. The decision about the resignation of signing the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine, made by the former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, was seen as a victory of Russia, and led to Euromaidan (the Ukrainian demonstrations against the movement toward Russia that started in Nov. 2013, and culminated in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution). For a new Ukrainian government, the agreement was a priority. Its political part was signed in March as a sign of solidarity from Europe in the time of tensions between Ukraine and Russia, Its economic part was signed in June during the European Union summit. The association agreements were signed also by Georgia and Moldova.

Consequences for internal policy

The implications of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict for foreign relations were significant, but most importantly the conflict brought huge challenges for the European Union’s internal policy and raised questions about the unity inside the organization. The common foreign policy of the EU remains in development. The particular interests of its members play a crucial role in external affairs, and the opinions about the steps which should be taken as a response to Russian intervention differ from one country to another.

The beginning of the crisis showed the lack of common understanding of the situation. The European Union was paralyzed, and was unable to take any important steps. An expressed deep concern about the situation in Ukraine, instead of concrete actions, proved that little unity existed in the West, mainly in the European Union, but also in the North-Atlantic area.

The Central and Eastern European countries, which were concerned about the situation and directly exposed to the consequences of Russian politics, stood almost alone. The position of France and Germany remained unclear. Especially dangerous was Germany’s answer to the conflict. Just after Russia broke international law, Germany argued with the U.S. and called for closer cooperation with the aggressor. Strong connections between German and Russian businesses had a substantial role in forming Germany’s position. All this lead to questions about the future of the EU’s common foreign policy. This is also a challenge for the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, especially in the context of the need for a new concept of the EU-Russia relations. The EU has to be firm: “no business as usual” when Russia is breaking the international law. And the answer has to be adequate to the revisionist policy which Russia is applying, trying to maintain or restore their influence in the neighborhood. However, policy-makers in Brussels should think not only about a short-term response, but also about a long-term strategy towards Eastern Partnership and Russia. “What will happen after the conflict?” has to be one of the most often asked questions.

Although the political aspects are very important in this particular situation and diplomacy may play a key role in the negotiation process, geopolitically, the European Union is not among the strongest powers in the world. It may be in the future, but right now it is not.

The EU’s strength is its economy, particularly its economic integration. This is why the consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian tensions have an impact on the EU’s economy as well. The conflict brought up the topic of diversification of energy resources again. Europe depends on Russia for gas supplies, and Ukraine is the transit country. A threat that Russia will stop the supplies coming through Ukraine because of the problems between them creates threats for European consumers. In the coming years, the European countries will probably be forced to find other suppliers, build a system which will help them to transfer gas among them, and rethink their national policies in terms of different power resources, like solar and wind systems, and nuclear power. They should definitely consider including Ukraine in their emergency plans.

Last but not least, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has made the European countries rethink their defense strategies and military expenditures. For a long time, NATO officials and representatives of the United Stated have been pushing Europe to increase their defense budget to at least 2 per cent of GDP. They claim that it is something necessary in the modern world, especially taking into account international engagement and new threats. Europe has not taken this recommendation seriously (only a few countries meet the expectations), although this has weakened its position in NATO. But recently a new factor has come into play, and an increase of defense expenditures may be necessary because of Russia’s new threat to the European security And this time Europe cannot just look to the United States for help. In order to get the help, Europe has to make some changes.


Although for some analysts, the current crisis in Ukraine seems to be an internal conflict or a civil war, in practical terms it represents a crisis between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the West. From the European point of view, Russian policy towards its neighboring countries, which can affect also EU’s member states, is crucial. But the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has not only created both threats and challenges for the European Union. The EU must rethink its political role in the world. The crisis can help Europe to build its credibility as a peacemaking and peacebuilding actor on the international stage with a focus on these major geopolitical issues in the wider Europe.

The conflict in Ukraine has not run its full course and the situation remains very dynamic. Short-term recommendations will need to adapt to the emerging scenarios.  However, the longer-term proposals, which this article focuses on, will likely be needed in any scenario.

Russia and Ukraine require a structural change, but this is not an easy task. Many factors are connected to these processes. While European politicians bear in mind the role of key sectors and actors – i.e. oligarchs, military and defense industries’ lobbies, special services etc. –  their strategic policies should focus on social and economic issues, and on a creation a real civil society in Eastern European countries. The change has to be made at the grassroots level, because it has been proven that in this region that a push from the bottom (social movements) can change the authority’s decisions, even in imperialist regimes like Russia. This policy should be applied not only towards Russia and Ukraine, but also towards countries in the Eastern Partnership program. Europe can close some doors for politicians, but should not lock them for the society.

In order to help societies in the former Soviet Union to transform, the European Union has to be more open to their citizens. Traveling to Europe has to be easier, and a non-visa regime should be seriously considered. Contact between the West and the Eastern part of Europe/Asia is necessary to build understanding and friendship between the societies.

Another recommendation would be the creation of a platform for young people from the West and the East to meet, talk, and share their experiences and ideas. This platform should include meetings, round tables and conferences. Separate events should be organized for students, young professionals and scholars interested in international security, foreign policy and conflict transformation. Central and Eastern Europe would be a good place for such meetings. The EU’s countries from this region may play a crucial role in connecting people from the “old” Europe and the former Soviet Union. All these activities will promote a culture of dialogue and understanding necessary for the safe future of all the European nations.

Finally, insufficient training and formal study of peace and conflict transformation must be redressed in Central and Eastern Europe. Having in memory two disastrous world wars, difficult history and current problems, especially in the former Soviet Union (vide: conflicts in North Caucasus and in Ukraine), there is a need for a place where people from this region can take part in peace and conflict transformation trainings and workshops. It would promote a culture of cooperation and dialogue instead of conflict, and peace studies would be spread to the Eastern parts of the continent. This is a huge investment, but it gives hope that in a long-term perspective we will be witnessing a “peace generation” instead of one of war. The newly created European Institute of Peace should play an active role in this project.

[1] The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the National Security Bureau of Poland.
[2] Концепция внешней политики Российской Федерации [Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation], Министерство иностранных дел Российской Федерации [The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation], February 12, 2013. English version:
[3] Political interpretation of a Latin name of Polish act adopted by parliament in 1505: Nihil novi nisi commune consensus.
[4] Author’s interpretation is shared by other analysts. See, for example: A. Monaghan, “The New Russian Foreign Policy Concept: Evolving Continuity”, Chatham House, April 2013,
[5] “Remarks by President Obama at 25th Anniversary of Freedom Day”, The White House, June 4, 2014,
[6] Ibid.
[7] “NATO summit: David Cameron pledges troops to ‘multinational’ force”, BBC, September 5, 2014,
[8] Georgia has two separatist republics – Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia; Moldova has autonomous republic which declared independency – Transnistria. In both Russian troops are present.