The EU Holds the Power to Foil Putin’s Ambitions — But Will It?

“The hour of Europe has dawned.” That 1991 quotation from the former Luxembourg foreign minister and European Union Council President Jacques Poos, was one of the great acid epitaphs on that decade’s wars in Yugoslavia. In fact, Europe was paralyzed during the continent’s worst warfare since World War II, and it took strong American leadership and NATO to end the bloodshed.

Today, though, when Russia’s seizure of Crimea represents the most flagrant offense against the international order in more than two decades, it’s worth recalling that remark, because now it is Europe’s moment — whether it likes it or not. American leadership may be vital for preventing further aggression by Vladimir Putin, but without decisive, sustained European action, there is no way to impose the costs that President Obama and other leaders rightly believe are essential for curbing Russian misbehavior.

Why is this round different? To begin with the obvious, there is no military option. Aircraft and other NATO forces are prudently being moved to reassure the Alliance’s eastern members. Europe has spurned decades of calls from Washington to stem the slide in its defense spending, and to demonstrate minimal seriousness over its own security, that trend must be reversed. But even if it had kept spending at Cold War levels, no one would suggest that a hot conflict with nuclear-armed Russia is conceivable.

Yes, there are symbolic gestures of disdain, such as the effective ejection of Russia from the G-8 and the blocking of its accession to other multilateral bodies, but there is no lasting bite in that.

Ukraine, now on the precipice of financial default, will need bolstering, too. But British Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion that the best counter to Russia is building a prosperous, “strong and democratic” Ukraine — and that this will be possible in the foreseeable future — is illusory. After years of foreign assistance and deep engagement, it is hard to see how a country that is so profoundly divided, hopelessly mismanaged, and rotten with corruption can be turned around in a reasonable timeframe.

Instead, the tools that matter here are economic, and only Europeans can make sanctions and the curtailment of trade work. A look at the numbers makes this clear: US trade with Russia amounts to less than $40 billion — not nothing, but not much either. The EU, however, is Russia’s largest trading partner, representing close to $400 billion, or half of all Russian trade. That, in a word, is leverage.

Neither Europeans nor Russians can afford sweeping cuts in trade, but the EU can apply pressure selectively, reduce foreign investment in Russia, and make Putin’s oligarchs feel real pain. Over time — and that means five, 10, 15 years — that is the only viable strategy.

Is the EU up to this task? With decisionmaking in the hands of 27 veto-wielding members, the union is hardly suited for this kind of hard-edged action.

On the plus side of the equation, however, is the increasingly tough position taken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose vote counts more than anyone’s because of the strength of the German economy. With 300,000 German jobs dependent on trade with Russia, her stance means something. Another positive sign is the surprising unity the Europeans have shown in maintaining sanctions on Iran — even if that has been a much easier case, with a longer buildup.

On the other side of the ledger, the annexation of Crimea comes at a time when the EU’s southern members remain mired in deep unemployment and debt from the euro crisis. Willingness to take on new costs associated with sanctions and aid to Ukraine or to antagonize Moscow when it supplies much of the oil and gas to those countries — and many other EU members — will be limited at best. The fact that the EU is signaling that the trigger for moving beyond the current sanctions on 33 Putin supporters and oligarchs to “sectoral” sanctions against industries is only if Russia moves militarily into the rest of Ukraine does not indicate great resolve.

Robert Kagan famously wrote that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” and part of the Venusian approach to foreign policy is to deepen interdependence between nations so that they cooperate and observe the rules of the road.

But that interdependence also creates levers for inflicting pain on those who are integrated — and therefore dependent — but heedless of the rules. If ever there was a time for the Europeans to show the virtues of their approach, the Crimean crisis is it — and their willingness to do so will have a lasting impact on stability far beyond the Black Sea.

This piece was originally published by
The Boston Globe