Written by Simon Eckert

Russian Invasion of Ukraine and the announcement of the Russian government’s ‘special operation’ on the 24th of February 2022  (Osborn, A., & Nikolskaya, 2022) put EU institutions in general and individual member states in particular in a very challenging situation. At the end of 2019 newly-elected President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced that she would lead a “geopolitical commission” creating a new “External Coordination” body to bridge external and internal policy work ” (Bayer, 2019). Later developments in the heart of Europe highlighted the importance of prioritising security policy in the European policy-making agenda. This article attempts to draw the reader‘s attention to the first lessons for European policy-making from Russia’s war in Ukraine. The focus of the article will not be mainly on the military aspects of security policy, but rather on the interdependence between it and other policy fields.

Lesson 1: Ideology matters 

Ideology shall be regarded as beliefs and convictions that are utilised by individuals and groups to make sense of the realities they are confronted with. The evolution of the dominant state-led discourse about foreign policy in Russia can be used as one examples when defining the Russian ideology. This discourse has been dominated by the idea of the so-called  ‘Russian World’ over the past years. Proponents of this idea argue that there is a right to a sphere of Russian influence in the countries neighbouring Russia. Many observers have pointed out that this exact concept was used for justifying the occupation of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine (Suslov, 2018). 

By acknowledging the importance of this narrative the confrontation between Ukraine’s democratisation path and Russia’s dominant ideology becomes obvious. Timothy Snyder points out in his book ‘The Road to Unfreedom’  that Ukraine’s aspiration towards becoming one of the modern democratic western countries constituted a threat to Russia that already motivated her to invade Crimea. Notably, for Snyder, the most important factor that led to Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine is ideology (Snyder, 2018.).

Part of the motivation is likely to have been ruling out the democratisation process for Russia itself.  According to this interpretation, one of the motives for starting the war in Ukraine was the fear that democracy will move from the neighbouring country into Russia (Allison, 2017). However, the motives for this war seem to be deeply rooted in the beliefs held by Vladimir Putin himself since it is very difficult to explain the invasion of Ukraine based on factors like economic reasoning or military strategy.  It is, therefore, crucial to understand the categories that matter for Russian decision-making. As various scholars have pointed out, this war is largely motivated by a clash between what people in Ukraine want their country to be and how the country should develop according to the Russian state doctrine (see e.g. Headley, 2022 and Blum, 2022). The conflict is rooted in the Russian government’s perception that every development towards democratisation or Europeanisation in the Russian sphere of influence poses an existential threat to Russia itself (Blum, 2022). This is of course only true if the existence of Russia is equated with the continued existence of an autocratic regime close to Putinism in Russia, as Timothy Snyder has pointed out (Snyder, 2018, especially Chapter 4). It seems that the motives for this war were publicly announced in the now notorious publication of the article “On the historical Unity of Russia and the Ukraine” published in Summer 2021 authored by Vladimir Putin himself (Putin, 2021) and a speech held by Vladimir Putin on 24 February 2022 (The Spectator, 2022). In both these testimonies, Vladimir Putin is pointing out based on a questionable historical analysis that Ukraine has always been an integral part of Russia. According to Putin, therefore Ukraine has no right of existence in its own right but is instead a part of Russia that has been taken by the west. This way of thinking of Ukraine as an entity the west has taken from Russia and that must be taken back by Russia to ensure Russian existence clearly shows why other motives like the socio-economic well-being of Russian citizens are not the most important considerations from the perspective of the Russian government at the moment. 

The lesson that should be drawn from this is not only for policy-making toward Russia but even more so for policy-making toward China – as China is another country example having ‘ideology’ aspirations. The tendency of emerging ideologies could be monitored by establishing institutions capable of making policy-makers aware of developments in the field. In practice, this could be done by a European Centre of Competence where Member States, as well as  various actors across Europe, will be connected, by sharing their best practices for effective foreign policy making. 

Lesson 2: The Information War matters

Closely connected with the topic of ideology are Russia’s increasing attempts to influence political decisions in the EU Member States. This is indeed not new but rather the continuation of a pattern well-known from the times of the Soviet Union. Among the most striking examples are the attempt to influence the Brexit Referendum (Ellehuus, 2021), the financing of far-right party candidate Marine Le Pen in the French election (Gatehouse, 2017), and the possible negative campaign targeting Annalena Baerbock (Berzina et al 2021) – Candidate of the Green Party and currently German Foreign Minister. However, democracies may be much more vulnerable than authoritarian or even absolutist states in the information war for two main reasons. First and foremost democracies reject the very idea of media regulation, while countries like  Russia censor the media and dictate media outlets refer to the war as a ‘special operation’. Any Russian media outlets refusing to comply with this regulation risk dire consequences (Deutsche Welle, 2022). This complete control of the media discourse makes it impossible for western actors like the EU to place their narratives in broadly consumed media in Russia and to influence public opinion. While Russia, on the contrary, can place some of its preferred official narratives in media outlets in democratic countries since every opinion is generally protected by freedom of speech in the EU Member States. The second reason is less structural but nonetheless important. It is the rise of social media – as social media, contrary to traditional mass media such as newspapers or television, does not have a gate-keeping function in the form of editors and journalists who are able to deny the most extreme or absurd opinions to be published (Mounk, 2018: 141ff.). However, there are already some first attempts to deal with this situation. On an institutional level, the EU has already established a task force monitoring disinformation and regularly publishing reports. Of course, this task force is grossly understaffed at the moment and this should rapidly be changed. In addition to reinforcing and improving the institutional efforts, policy-makers should establish channels through which they can improve their support for civil society initiatives fighting disinformation. Besides financing, this could be done through something like expert advice on supporting civil society ideas and initiatives. A great illustration of this was democratic country citizens’ reviews of Russian restaurants explaining the truth about the war in Ukraine (Gronholt-Pedersen, 2022). In order to achieve this goal, it might be feasible to hire individuals from civil society for a certain period of time as advisors. However, it is crucial to ensure a mechanism to avoid allegations of them being converted into European state propagandists. These steps should be taken in order to ensure that the ongoing information war will not be lost by the EU. The importance of this task should not be underestimated since public opinion is crucial for the EU Member States to ensure continued support through EU Institutions and member states for Ukraine in this war. The information war is closely connected with the role of values as both are about the perception of actors.  

Lesson 3: Values matter

Another aspect that has continuously been neglected in foreign policy-making is the role of values. The most striking example in the context of the war in Ukraine is EU-Member States’ especially Germany’s willingness to neglect common values in exchange for trade partnership. Trading with autocratic states like Russia where there is a lack of both democracy and respect for human rights was often justified by the argument that trading with such states might contribute to a democratic spill-over (Moens, 2022). It has become obvious on the 24th of February 2022, that the Russian Government does not feel bound at all by these values since a war of aggression is one of the most obvious violations of such values.  The Russian Government has nonetheless made claims that the war in Ukraine is in line with public international law. According to Russian officials, the war is justified through a supposed genocide against ethnic Russians living in Donbas and Luhansk regions, regimes that are controlled and sponsored by the government of Vladimir Putin since 2014 (BBC, 2022). In other words, the situation created in eastern Ukraine gave the Russian government the opportunity to make a plea that its war in Ukraine is in line with public international law (Bellinger, 2022). This is a strong hint that the “end of history” as imagined by Francis Fukuyama – “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy” (Fukuyama, 1989) – has at least in significant parts become a reality. The core values the EU attributes to itself often remain undisputed and are utilised by authoritarian or autocratic regimes themselves which illustrates the significant potential of the EU’s soft power. Soft power is a concept according to which an actor can influence other actors on the international stage through the attractiveness of its political and societal model (Nye, 2004). The lesson that should be taken from the EU’s soft power is twofold. The capacity of the soft power of the western model seems to be often underestimated, most actors still attempt to justify their actions with the underlying values of the western model. This means that the EU should attempt to promote the underlying values much more than it currently does. On the other hand, the nature of relations with third-state actors and within the EU should be carefully considered in foreign policy-making in order not to damage the trustworthiness of the underlying values. Long-lasting change is most likely to happen as a result of internal movements as the Central and Eastern Europe democratisation process impressively illustrated after 1989 (Huntington, 1991).

Lesson 4: Military Capacity Matters again

Besides these perception-related motives, of course there are some ‘harder factors’ that matter as well. The first and most obvious is that military capacity plays a crucial role as the war rages on. In this respect, it is most noteworthy that most observers were surprised by the “poor performance of the Russian armed forces” which was often attributed to the usage of out-of-time technical equipment (Gressel, 2022a). Considering how this would appear to develop into a  long-lasting war in Ukraine, this means that the military stock of EU member states becomes more and more crucial for the capability of the EU to support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russia. (Gressel, 2022b) However, not only the stock of the military equipment is crucial for sustainable support but, in the long run, it seems inevitable that Ukrainian forces will need to be enabled to handle equipment that is not from post-soviet states as this is the only way for the EU and the West to be able to guarantee long-lasting supply to the Ukrainian forces (Gressel, 2022b). The lesson that should be learned from this is that it should always be considered to train partners in third-party states on modern western military equipment if any actor builds up a capability to invade, as Russia has done over the winter of 2021 and 2022. This is crucial because it would help to ease military support by the EU if required and desired. Last but not least, this could significantly strengthen the deterrence to attack partners of the EU as it is likely to enable the EU to better utilise its economic capacities in armed conflicts if the conflicts themselves cannot be avoided.

Lesson 5 : Economic Capacity might acquire more relevance 

The strengthening of supply lines of military equipment is strongly linked to the EU’s economic capacities. The EU is the  second largest economy in the world if measured in GDP and has of course the largest single market. This impressive economic capacity could enable the EU to ensure that its strategic partners could survive long-lasting confrontations in economic terms if necessary. Another aspect that has to be considered is the damage that economic superpowers can inflict on their counterparts via sanctions. This damage is two-fold since on the one hand, actors acting as aggressors can be sanctioned not only on a personal (like in Russia’s case Putin and Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister) and a societal level (as in Russia’s case by the cut-off from the international payment system SWIFT) but on the other hand sanctions can also contribute to shrinking the capacity of aggressors to sustain their military production lines, as in the case of Russia the trade embargo of certain goods (Lindstaedt et al., 2022). Of particular interest is the insight from the scientific literature that personalist regimes seem to be the most vulnerable to sanctions regimes (Lindstaedt et al., 2022). If this insight is combined with the theory of democratic peace according to which democracies are most likely to end up in violent conflicts with authoritarian states (Levy,1988) it underlines the importance of an improved utilisation of the economic power of the EU in geostrategic terms. Furthermore, it should be considered that economic capability is crucial to deal with various consequences of wars for societies, like the influx of migrants or the ability to cushion side effects like global hunger. However, while the EU has a significant economic potential at its disposal, it is also an actor that is heavily dependent on other players. Although this dependence varies between member states and policy fields, it is a factor that weakens the EU in potential future “connectivity wars” (Leonhard, 2016). This term is used to describe conflicts in which interdependence is increasingly utilised to harm geopolitical rivals. The most striking example that the role of this phenomenon is likely to increase in the future is the ‘energy war’ between Russia and the European Union, in which both sides have already threatened to punish the other side by cutting energy supplies or purchases. This illustrates the necessity of the EU to decrease interdependence on actors which seem likely to become geopolitical rivals or are already competing with the EU in this respect such as China in order to  “make progress on economic security “ in Europe ( Hackenbroich & Medunic 2022).

Conclusion: Urgent need for a truly integrated approach to European foreign and security policy 

The overarching lesson that should be drawn from this first assessment for future EU foreign policy-making is that more coordination is needed on a European level. This means that on the one hand, the decision making-process in foreign policy matters should be reformed to ease coordination between all EU Member States, the role of the European External Action Service (EEAS) should be further strengthened, and so should be the capacity for foreign policy-making in the European Council (Lehne, 2022). On the other hand, not only the process of the EU’s foreign policy-making should be adapted, but, perhaps even more importantly, the underlying approach should be more flexible. This flexibility is needed to ensure the EU’s capacity to react more quickly to foreign policy developments and events in other parts of the world. In addition it needs to be ensured in the future, that policy-making in other decision-making areas is always double-checked and in line with the EU’s foreign policy objectives.

Of course, this task is not an easy one, because it’s hard to foresee all the possible interdependent effects. However, this objective is worthwhile as it might not only contribute to making the world a more peaceful and secure place but also necessary since the biggest ally in terms of security policy, the United States is likely to demand more responsibility from the EU in this sphere in the longer term (Ruge & Shapiro, 2022). Therefore, this integrated foreign and security policy is in the best self-interest of the EU and its implementation should be pursued as quickly as possible to enable the EU to play a greater role in preventing and solving future geopolitical conflicts.


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