After months of sabre-rattling from Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, Russian officials have been on a diplomatic tour of Europe this week, meeting the US in Geneva and Nato in Brussels. Amid this diplomatic whirl, Europe’s biggest diplomatic club has been absent. The EU has no formal role in the talks, although its officials are drawing up possible sanctions to levy against Russia if the Kremlin decides to invade Ukraine.
The EU’s exclusion from talks on war and peace in its own backyard hurts. “Between Putin and Biden, Europe is sidelined,” ran a Le Monde headline last week. The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell struck an insouciant note. “I don’t care,” he said when the BBC asked whether the US should have gone ahead with the Geneva talks. The Russians, he said, had “deliberately excluded the EU from any participation” but he had been assured by the US that “nothing will be agreed without our strong co-operation, coordination and participation”.
Officials have downplayed the exclusion of the EU. “European allies are at the table, because European allies are in Nato,” said Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. After Nato-Russia talks, Stoltenberg plans to brief EU defence ministers meeting in the port city of Brest in north-western France on Wednesday evening. The two organisations have 21 member countries in common and pages of pledges to improve cooperation.
Not everyone buys this reassuring story about Europe’s absence from the top table. “It gives me huge concern,” Radosław Sikorski, a Polish former foreign minister, who now sits in the European parliament, told the Guardian. “The EU is a neighbour of both Ukraine and Russia, these are countries with whom we have intense relationships. And what happens between them affects several member states. Of course we should be there and I am astonished that we are not.”
The EU’s foreign policy chief, then Catherine Ashton, was at the table with the US, Russia and Ukraine in 2014 in Geneva, following the invasion of Crimea. France and Germany later switched to the narrower Normandy format, talking to Kiev and Moscow, in an attempt to end the conflict in Ukraine. “It was the actions of some member states, Germany and France, and a diplomatic mistake by Ukraine to accept the Normandy formula, and then the Minsk formula, that has got us nowhere,” argues Sikorski. “Through a series of missteps we have ended up with the EU excluded from an issue of vital importance for us.”
In an uncomfortable irony the crisis is unfolding as EU defence and foreign ministers gather this week in Brest to discuss how the EU can be a more powerful player in a global order challenged by authoritarian powers and rogue actors. The search for the EU’s “strategic autonomy” is championed by France, which took charge of the EU rotating presidency this month. Europe, a senior French government official said, must be “fully sovereign, free in its choices and master of its own destiny”.
Another Russian invasion of Ukraine is an obvious big test for “sovereign” Europe. More than 100,000 Russian troops are stationed around Ukraine’s borders and US intelligence has reported that 175,000 could be deployed by the end of January.
EU leaders have warned of “massive consequences” in response to any further military aggression against Ukraine. The precise consequences are a closely-guarded secret, as officials believe telegraphing the details would advantage Putin by allowing him to calibrate his response. Even senior diplomats say they are in the dark about exactly what the European Commission has prepared. Nonetheless, a broad list of options has emerged, covering finance, technology and individuals.
In the event of a fully-fledged invasion, Russia could be cut off from Swift, the bank-messaging system that connects 11,000 corporations in more than 200 countries. Oligarchs close to the Kremlin could see their assets in western jurisdictions frozen. The EU would also be under pressure not to approve the controversial NordSteam II pipeline, which is complete, but must clear regulatory hurdles before Russia can start pumping has to Germany.
“The Swift option is an option being looked at closely,” said veteran French diplomat Pierre Vimont, who was the top civil servant at the EU’s foreign service between 2010-15. “It has to be looked at closely, and maybe more tailor-made financial sanctions, and also individual sanctions.” The final outcome would depend on the nature of the Russian aggression he said. “If the Russians go ahead with a large-scale direct military invasion, one could expect that the EU would respond in equal strength.”
Diplomatic sources suggested a full-scale invasion would unify the EU to act, whereas a continuing campaign of Russian hybrid attacks, disinformation and support for proxy forces in the Donbass makes the decision more difficult. European countries trade more with Russia and have more to lose than the US, making the sanctions calculus more complex.
“If on the contrary there is still pressure from Russia, but we remain with the same level of tension it will be more difficult,” Vimont said, referring to Nordstream in particular. “It seems this will very much depend on the circumstances.”
Meanwhile, member states remain divided over whether to set up an EU military mission to train the Ukrainian army, adding to an EU civilian mission that has been on the ground since 2014 to help Kiev improve police, courts and border forces.
Poland, the Nordic and Baltic states would like to see a fully-fledged army-training mission with EU boots on the ground, whereas other countries wonder whether the same outcome could be achieved by increasing financial aid to Ukraine. The question has gone to and fro, since Ukraine’s government requested a military training programme last July.
Sikorski argues Ukraine has much bigger needs from European countries. “What Ukraine really needs is a batch of anti-ship, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, but these would be national decisions. I hope the member states are preparing contingency plans to do that if Putin fulfils his threats.”
Tomás Valášek, a member of Slovakia’s parliament and former ambassador to Nato, argued against assuming the EU would be divided, pointing to the bloc’s decision to levy wide-ranging economic sanctions against Russia in 2014 – measures that remain in place. “Historically the track record suggests that when Russia crosses red lines we do the right thing, rather than the opposite.”
“What [Putin] has done more recently, with the massing of 100,000 plus troops in Ukraine, and now with the unprecedented demands of a security architecture, that has actually had a unifying effect. We have crossed from a situation of a merely normal level of subterfuge and provocation to something new, something that is already unifying Europe.”