Europe’s Groundhog Day
BUCHAREST—There seems to have been a sigh of relief on both shores of the Atlantic following Putin’s press conference on March 4, and his statement that, for now, there is no need to use force and to advance further in Ukraine. Diplomats continue their efforts with a renewed belief that a solution to the crisis can be achieved, and it may even occur without guns being fired in Crimea. The stock markets reflected the relative calm of the situation, rebounding after a day of sharp fell. The crisis may indeed be solved, although probably not as quickly and as easily as Putin’s words would lead us to believe, yet the problem will still remain. Since the end of the Cold War, this is not the first, but the third time Russia violated the integrity of a neighboring state in the European neighborhood. The first two times, it got away with it, and then the next time, it surprised everyone all over again.
In 1992, Russia directly supported elements in Transnistria to break away from the Republic of Moldova, with elements of Russian 14th Guard Army fighting alongside Transnistrian forces. After the separation, Russian troops refused to withdraw, in defiance of international treaties. Meanwhile to justify their presence, their name was changed to peacekeeping forces. Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria to this day. Since 1992, Russia has used Transnistria to twist the arm of Moldovan government, and control the country’s geopolitical alignment. In a world of realpolitik, Transnistria was too insignificant to affect how the West related to Russia. In 2008, again in defiance of international laws, and to everyone’s shock, Russia invaded Abkhazia and South Ossetia, effectively separating them from Georgia. The move created a roar of indignation within Europe and the United States, and many stated at the time that Russia had crossed a red line.
A year later, the United States reset its relations with Russia and business with Europe went on as usual. Now comes Crimea, merely six years later. Again, Russia has crossed a redline. The United States described the region, which is in both Russia’s and the European Union’s neighborhood, as being of strategic interest at the beginning of the 21st century, only to lose their enthusiasm after the Russian-Georgian war. The reset with Russia became the U.S. policy, dictated by reasons that trumped European neighborhood in importance. Logically, the United States thought the region should have been the Europeans’ to worry about anyway. After the failure to sign an Association Agreement with Ukraine in Vilnius last November, Europeans started looking at their Neighborhood Policy with a more critical eye, identifying mistakes and misfortunes in its design and implementation.
Yet, even under the current circumstances, there is still little talk about the biggest failure — to treat Russia as an unreliable neighbor. Instead of a clear, coherent and adequate policy toward Russia, Europeans got lost in numerous and various interpretations of Putin’s intentions, motives, drives, aspirations, and challenges, ranging from friendly to inimical, depending on each country’s depth of bilateral economic relations with and geographical proximity to Russia. Economic interests have prevailed time and again, giving us a Groundhog Day scenario three times so far. After 2008, events in Russia revealed a country where citizens enjoy almost no rights and liberties, where media is under strict governmental control, where opposition is allowed no room to breathe, and where archaic patriarchic mentalities are still encouraged. The same country that blackmails Europe with its energy sources pushes its neighbors into alliances of which it has sole control and rarely fulfills its international promises (never without backstage surprises).
There have been times when both Europeans and Americans seem exasperated by all these controls, only to cave to either economic interests or numerous other crises, and return, albeit increasingly sickened, to business as usual. The Ukrainian crisis has cast light on Putin’s behavior and intentions, and on Russia’s foreign policy priorities. This crisis has also brought a new sense of unity to the continent, and reiterated the need for a transatlantic involvement in the region. If the crisis is solved, European leaders and their U.S. counterparts will have to think hard before reverting to the easy way out and business as usual with Russia. It will take courage and vision to get Europe out of the corner where its relationship with Russia has put it. Either that, or we risk waking up to yet another Groundhog Day in the future.
Alina Inayeh is the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Bucharest office. Author's views are not necessarily the views of The German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.