Russia’s war on Ukraine forces Europe to weaponise its economic might

Ukraine experts say Kyiv’s refusal to buckle under Moscow’s war represents a transformative moment for the continent.

Ukrainian servicemen place the national flag on the coffin of their fallen fellow Vadym Popelniuk, born in 1991, during a religious service in Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian servicemen place the national flag on the coffin of their fallen fellow soldier Vadym Popelniuk, during a religious service in Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 5, 2024 [Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo]

Whatever the exact territorial outcome of the war in Ukraine, the political outcome is already clear – Russia has lost its gambit to create a vassal state and buffer zone in Eastern Europe, because Ukraine’s Westward course is now irreversible.

That was one of the key messages of an international symposium of diplomats and academics who gathered at Cambridge University under the auspices of the Centre for Geopolitics on Thursday, April 4. The focus was the Maidan Revolution of 2013, which overthrew Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych and set the country on a path towards Europe, but it also dwelled on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022.

“Putin has lost Ukraine. It has become crystal clear. He has invaded their sovereignty and they have resisted him,” said Baroness Catherine Ashton, who was the European Union’s first foreign policy chief between 2009 and 2014, and held frequent talks with Yanukovych and Putin during the turbulent months of the uprising. “All those years before he was losing them, and now he’s lost them completely.”

The Maidan protests started on the evening of November 21, 2013, when Yanukovych decided not to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which had been under negotiation for seven years, opting instead for a free trade deal with Moscow.

“I remember that evening very well,” said Argita Daudze, Latvia’s ambassador to Ukraine at the time, who was hosting a reception that day. “Ukrainian foreign ministry officials joined us late and they were in a very bad mood.”

“Ukrainian society in 2013 was living in certain hopes that closer ties with the EU would bring more order and faster economic development in Ukraine,” said Daudze. “It seemed the notion of Europe started to become an answer to many problems that Ukrainian lawmakers were facing — and became a synonym of a good life for the common people.”

As the protests against Yanukovych grew, “the atmosphere was fantastic – it was families, young people, NGO leaders, journalists, a spectrum of people from across society in Kyiv,” recalled Ashton, who visited the gathering crowds.

“And it was very, very cold, so you know people are committed … there was a clear sense this was a movement of people who were not going to go away.”

The spontaneity and length of the uprising belied the Russian argument that it had been engineered by Western officials.

But it’s not just Ukraine that is pinning its hopes on benefits from stronger ties with the EU.  Ashton believes the experience of absorbing Ukraine is transforming the European Union, too. “It’s made the EU stronger in foreign policy terms … more coherent,” she told Al Jazeera.

Foreign and defence policy remain national competences, requiring unanimity for action at the EU level, but Ashton said European willingness to work together was “absolutely extraordinary” and had increased since her tenure.

During the Maidan uprising, for example, many EU members were still deferential towards Russia. “Many people considered the Polish official reaction as too timid,” said Lukasz Kulesa, deputy head of research at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. “[Then-Foreign Minister Radoslav] Sikorsky told Ukrainians to agree to a compromise with Yanukovych.”

Even after Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula the following March, European officials advised Ukraine not to use arms against Russians, and Germany agreed with Russia to build the Nordstream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea that would circumvent Ukraine.

Poland is now one of Ukraine’s most unequivocal allies, Germany has abandoned Nordstream, and the EU has imposed a dozen sanctions packages against Russia and is this year putting in place predictable, multiyear military and financial aid to Ukraine.

“The EU has never understood how strong it is,” said Ashton. “As an economic power, it is enormous, and it doesn’t yet really get that it has the capability to use that incredible economic strength to achieve things.” It was high time, she said, for EU leaders to start forming security strategies for the next 50 years.

In December, the EU invited Ukraine and Moldova to start their membership processes, and that, too, was seen as a form of security.

Vygaudas Usackas, the EU ambassador to Moscow in 2013-17, called for “an unprecedented political decision by both Europeans and NATO to expedite negotiations of Ukraine’s membership of the EU and invite Ukraine to join NATO at the Washington summit” in July. Both processes normally take several years, but membership would strengthen Ukraine’s hand in negotiations with Russia to end the war, whenever they took place, Usackas said.

For the same reason, he called for the deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine and “immediate and urgent, massive military and financial support to Ukraine so it regains the momentum and can talk to the enemy from a position of strength”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg this week reportedly proposed a NATO aid package that would send $100bn in military assistance to Ukraine over five years.

These coordinated policies among EU and European NATO members stand in contrast to US congressional lawmakers beholden to presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who have frozen aid to Ukraine this year, throwing even more responsibility on European shoulders.

“This is the greatest success of Russia’s political warfare,” Mark Voyager, a lecturer in international relations at Kyiv American University, told Al Jazeera. “I believe Mr Trump most certainly is in some shape or form an asset for the Kremlin. Whether it was his visits in the late Soviet period or his Miss Universe affairs in Moscow or his business dealings with Trump Tower, financial personal entanglements, I believe the Russians have something quite substantial on him.”

Investigations in the US, however, have so far failed to turn up evidence that Moscow holds any compromising information about Trump that could make the former US president susceptible to political pressure from Moscow.

Whatever Trump’s reasons for seeking to cut off aid to Ukraine, Daudze called to mind the results of not standing up to Russia during and after the second world war, when Stalin’s armies swept across Eastern Europe, ending the brief interwar independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

“Politicians of Baltic states decided not to fight and to accept Soviet promises not to touch their sovereignty,” she said. “In the context of a world war, we could not expect help from other countries and we lost our freedom.”

Source: Al Jazeera