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Opinion: Putin’s actions in Ukraine threaten to alter the entire security architecture of Europe

The reluctance of the United States to intervene means the EU must radically rethink how it confronts Russian military power.

A pro-Russian rebel watches as Ukrainian troops evacuated from the rebel-held town of Starobesheve, eastern Ukraine.
A pro-Russian rebel watches as Ukrainian troops evacuated from the rebel-held town of Starobesheve, eastern Ukraine.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

VLADIMIR PUTIN’S PROTRACTED campaign to de-stabilise Ukraine has moved up a gear. After the dramatic incursion into Crimea earlier this year, Russia has been actively supporting the ‘rebel’ elements in east Ukraine and moved troops into the area to support what was beginning, in recent weeks, to look like a failing insurrectionary effort.

In seeking talks on ‘statehood’ for east Ukraine, Putin continues to hold to the lie that there are no Russian military forces fighting in Ukraine and that his country’s only interest is in stabilising the region. EU leaders at the weekend agreed that a further round of sanctions could be introduced as early as next weekend.

Vladimir Putin believes that Russia – as a great power – has a natural right to dominate its neighbourhood (the ‘near abroad’ as it is referred to in Russia). This is especially the case for eastern Ukraine, where Russian speakers predominate and the historic relationship with Moscow has been close. This is a Monroe Doctrine for our time, one that asserts a special position within geopolitics and thus the right to ignore mere trivialities like the sovereignty of a neighbouring state.

Ukraine remains the most important country in the region for Russia

Putin’s imperialist philosophy is readily recognisable from the diplomatic repertoire of classical European statecraft. It is a kind of ‘realism’ that is rooted in thinking about the balance of power (between great powers), permanent suspicion of one’s rivals’ motives and intentions and a tendency toward employing war as a more or less normal Clausewitzian tool of diplomacy. Putin’s existential thinking, rooted in Russia’s tragic experiences of invasion (by Napoleon and Hitler) categorises central and eastern Europe as a buffer zone between Russia and its enemies to the west.

He has never accepted the European Union’s enlargement to the east and has done everything he could to prevent the so-called Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine) from moving closer to the EU. But Ukraine remains by far the most important country in the region for Russia and Putin is determined that it will remain firmly within the Russian sphere of influence.

The security architecture of Europe is under threat

For the European Union the situation in Ukraine is now becoming acute. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its subterfuge over its military role presents the EU with the greatest security challenge it has ever faced.

During the Cold War, European integration was effectively secured by the American military presence in Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the only significant conflict to emerge was that in the Balkans – and although that conflagration was bloody and protracted, it never constituted a threat to the wider European security framework. Now Putin’s actions threaten to recalibrate the entire security architecture of Europe in a context where President Obama has made it clear that the United States will not put troops on the ground.

Washington’s reluctance to intervene (a mark of its wider indifference to Europe under Obama’s presidency) has thrown the spotlight on the enduring inadequacies of the EU’s security and defence capacities.

Divided opinion within Europe 

The EU is contorted for two reasons. First, there is a divide amongst the member states about how to handle the crisis and how to manage Russia. Some states, such as Germany and Italy, have been supportive of a close relationship with Russia – and both are important trade partners of Moscow. Other states, such as Poland and the Baltic states, have been much more suspicious of Russia and urged the EU to be much more robust in its handling of relations with Putin.

Energy dependence on Russia also constitutes a serious weakness for the EU despite serious efforts in recent years to diversify supply away from Russian oil and gas. The delicate balancing act between these two positions was evident over the weekend in the selection of Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, as President of the European Council and Italy’s Foreign Minister, Federica Mogherini, as the EU’s new foreign policy chief.

Second, the EU is a very different kind of actor in world politics from Russia. It is constituted as a ‘normative power’ rather than a ‘great power’, as a collective of states committed to overcoming the hugely damaging impulses toward conflict which constituted the default condition of European diplomacy for centuries prior to the final defeat of Nazism in 1945.

The EU’s favoured mode of action is through ‘soft power’, largely economic in nature but including commitments to human rights, democratic consolidation and the real and substantive rooting of the rule of law in domestic politics. The EU has thus been moving progressively away from military power as a post-historical collective whilst Putin remains resolutely attached to the idea of physical force as the defining instrument for resolving problems within modern politics.

Rule-based international relations

The EU is firmly committed to embedding the rule of law in inter-state relations. Indeed, the entire history of enlargement of the Union, from the Irish application for membership (the very first, in 1961) through to the accession of Croatia last year, is a history of progressive evolution of rule-based international relations. States commit to handle their disputes through dialogue and negotiation rather than conflict and the use of force. And there lies the rub. Russia stands outside that framework of law and nothing the EU has done over the past two decades could persuade Russian elites of the value of embracing this model of state behaviour.

There is a realisation that, after years of mutual resentment and tension, there is now such a sharp divergence that the damage may be irreversible. The EU sees Russia as unilateralist, mendacious and belligerent while Russia sees the EU as a weak proxy of the United States. Now the stage is set for a deepening of hostilities. The reluctance of the Obama administration to intervene means that the new EU office-holders are going to have to find their feet very quickly, and the Union itself will have to radically rethink how it confronts Russian military power in the eastern part of the continent.

Dr John O’Brennan Lectures in European Politics in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University. He is one of 450 delegates participating in the 44th annual UACES conference at University College Cork this week (

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