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  • Writer's pictureGrimshaw Club

The Ukraine-Russia Crisis: How should the EU respond to Russian aggression?

Updated: Feb 22

This voices piece explores the live wire that is the Ukraine-Russia crisis, especially focusing on possible European responses. Our student contributors have written on topics like energy independence, military centralisation and diplomatic strategy.


The future of EU-Russia relations is currently in turmoil. In recent days and weeks the Russian military has been mobilising on the Russia-Ukraine border, preparing for what is widely expected to be either an attempted coup or even a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. US intelligence suggests that we will see an attempted attack within weeks, with Russia seeking to justify conflict by presenting to American diplomats unprecedented and arguably deeply unrealistic demands to permanently deny Ukraine membership of NATO, recognise expanded Russian borders (including Crimea) and to reduce American support in other areas.

The US and EU response so far has been fairly weak. This is partly because many European states rely on Russian resources to sustain themselves. This includes Germany, who are currently in the final stages of completing NordStream-2, a natural gas pipeline from Russia through the Baltic Sea to Germany. NordStream-2’s start-up has however been temporarily suspended by the German energy regulator. This is one reason why European energy prices have currently shot up. Several countries have received US support to ‘go green’ and gain energy autonomy from Russia, but the pace of this is slow and needs more time. Biden himself has now explicitly stated that he believes Russia is preparing to invade or perform a coup in Ukraine.

This article discusses what the EU and NATO should do in response to this crisis. Firstly, Milla discusses in more detail the need for an independent European energy strategy in the long-term. She argues this will lead to greater political autonomy from Russia, as well as keeping up with international climate commitments. Chloe focuses more on the West’s present military failures, especially their half-hearted assistance to the Ukrainian regime. She argues that sanctions and military equipment haven’t stopped Russian aggression in the past, and they shouldn’t be expected to do so now. Finally, KH outlines a diplomatic strategy for the future relationship between the EU and Russia. He argues that the EU must seek not only greater military autonomy on the whole but also that they need to set clear ‘red lines’ with Russia about what is and what isn’t acceptable in the international community.

1. The West's Half-Interventions

By: Chloe Mossberg, 1st year, BSc International Relations and Chinese.

Today’s Russia cares much more about territorial control over Ukraine than NATO or the EU does; playing a game of chicken with Moscow is thus a losing strategy and most harmful to the Ukrainians.

The Russian position over the current crisis, voiced by Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, is that the EU and NATO are crossing a "red line" by supplying military infrastructure to Kyiv. Russia's current military build-up on the Ukrainian border signals a will to act coercively; the degree to which it is a genuine threat is debatable, but Russia certainly has previously set a precedent of aggressive reactions to NATO or the EU crossing 'red lines' — for example, the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the 2014 Crimean Annexation and the ongoing military support to Eastern Ukraine's conflict.

The issue is that, in contrast to Russia’s view of the situation, the West only intervenes half-way: it takes steps to integrate Ukraine, but when Russia reacts with coercive measures, it fails to help Kyiv resist the aggression. As a result, the Ukrainian population suffers because narrow EU/NATO strategic aims do not allow for necessary flexibility. This is partially due to structural differences — while Russia can act unilaterally, NATO and the EU require international consensus. In addition, military action against a major actor like Russia is not a commitment the West is willing to make. The West certainly has interests in Ukraine — limiting Russian presence on EU borders, maintaining regional stability and promoting Ukrainian democracy - but these are not as internally crucial as Russia's strategic interests and do not justify Western military action.

This half-way intervention was exemplified in the response to Russia's Crimean annexation and activity in east Ukraine: the West condemned Moscow, expelled diplomats, imposed sanctions but provided little long-term and direct support such as military aid. The same pattern appears today: NATO's Secretary General recently specified that Ukraine, as a non-NATO member, does not benefit from the collective security guarantee; instead, he suggested Russian aggression would be met by economic and political sanctions. Notably, seven years of such sanctions have not returned de facto ownership of Crimea, nor removed Russian 'volunteers' from the fighting in Donbass.

Faced with such an imbalance of will, one questions the EU and NATO's continued support for Ukrainian NATO integration and supply of military infrastructure. Seeing Russia's disposition towards military force, and their own lack thereof, the West should seriously reconsider their caution around Russia's "red lines" and commit to a consistent policy.

2. Developing a New European Energy Strategy

By: Milla Gajdos, 2nd year, BSc International Relations and Chinese.

As regional tensions escalate, a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine no longer seems far-fetched given that the US and other credible international actors have warned of potential hostile action after a Russian military build-up. At the same time, hopes that the EU will intervene against Russian aggression are still running low. As EU states try to balance new lockdowns due to the omicron variant-stricken economies and internal divisions within the Union, the Ukraine issue probably isn’t a priority for most states. As this conflict is playing out right at the EU border, imminent action is more than necessary. Given the already existing tensions between member states (with some of them increasingly leaning towards Russia and China), the EU cannot afford to lose Ukraine, the buffer zone between Europe and an increasingly confident Russia.

Part of the problem is the EU’s dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies. Europe relies on Russia for approximately 35% of its natural gas. This dependency puts the EU in a difficult position. When it comes to sanctions against Russia or even a limited military intervention the EU is held to ransom by European populations who – understandably - won’t tolerate shortages or disruption to their everyday life. Finding alternative energy sources from the Middle East or domestically at home as well as blocking Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline have been already recommended as possible courses of action for Europe in order to circumvent Russian influence. However, deteriorating relations could also serve as a fresh push for alternative energy sources as well as a motivation to keep up with COP26 commitments.

This would not only make European states independent of Russia, but it would also serve a devastating blow to the Russian economy, which is greatly dependent on oil and gas exports. Self-evidently, the move away from fossil fuels is not expected to be either a smooth or a short-term process, however it is highly necessary as Russian control over a big portion of the EU’s resources - as we have seen from the current conflict - indicates a threat with regards to security, power as well as environmental protection.

Drawing Stronger ‘Red Lines’

By: KH, BSc Politics and International Relations.

In the past, conflict over Ukraine was conducted primarily between the European great powers and Russia who have constantly competed for control of central and eastern Europe. The Russian state led by President Putin now similarly faces down US forces commanded by the US’s Biden administration, who are allegedly committed to reviving democracies globally and saving them from authoritarianism. As it has historically, Russia continues to see Ukraine as a necessary buffer between the political entity of ‘Russians’ and the political entity of ‘Europeans’, the latter now led by the Americans through the EU and NATO respectively. For the Europeans (and the Americans), these states also serve as a buffer, but one to hold back the Russians who - while part of the broader ‘West’ - have traditionally had different political priorities.

In this context, the political agency of Eastern European citizens has rarely been taken into account, with national groups regularly being trodden over in favour of great power interests. International organisations have drastically changed this, today eastern European states are free to hold elections and harbour extensive national identities. Now the question for the EU and NATO is precisely where their ‘red line’ is. Having already invaded Crimea, and aided the Donbass rebels, one must ask whether a full invasion of Ukraine would be a ‘red line’ for EU states. The primary consequence of such an event is that more EU member states would share borders with Russia (presuming annexation) or a Russian puppet state. Neither prospect would be ideal for those states who have lived memory of effective Russian rule under the Soviet Union and who have enjoyed the benefits of independence since.

Much of the media focus has been on how President Biden can persuade Putin to stand down, yet talks have repeatedly failed to make any progress due to the absurdity of Russian demands. The Europeans must instead respond by clearly drawing a ‘red line’ in Europe where the Americans have failed to do so. Strategic ambiguity over action on Ukraine is not good enough and endangers European security integrity. Using regular diplomatic channels, they must be clear to Russia about the detail of their ‘red line’ and be specific about any consequences they may face should they breach it. Contrary to appearances, a clear decision to not set a ‘red line’ on Ukrainian sovereignty would be better than the current strategic ambiguity because Russia has already communicated their desire and intention to invade - continued ambiguity simply facilitates an appearance of European weakness. By placing their red line at EU borders, Europe projects strength and clarity, something that has sorely been missing from the American response thus far.

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