Searching for a Strategy in the Ukraine Crisis

The Ukraine crisis has become a major geopolitical crisis, posing a severe threat to stability in Europe and bringing East-West relations back to a modus operandi from the Cold War, with the United States and the EU responding to the crisis with sanctions on Russia. During the seminar “Searching for Strategy in the Ukraine Crisis,” DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow Dr. Thomas Mehlhausen reviewed the current Western policy approach toward Russia and asked what strategic plan of action the West should adopt to find a way out of the Ukraine crisis.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the West has had difficulties defining a coherent and coordinated strategy. There are three principles that would allow the West to build up a coherent strategy: (1) de-escalation, (2) widening the cost-benefit gap for Russia, and (3) enhancing EU resilience. For each of these three principles, Dr. Mehlhausen made a number of recommendations:

1. De-escalation:

The U.S. House of Representatives recently urged President Obama to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons. At the same time, Germany has been pressuring the White House to not provide these weapons. The argument is that a delivery of lethal arms would not stop Russia, but would rather propel an uncontrollable escalation with a nuclear power. Moreover, efforts toward Ukrainian membership in the Atlantic alliance or the EU could pose a danger to European security. Ukrainians are very polarized on the topic of EU and NATO membership, and more generally on the prospect of Westernization. A premature membership offer is likely to drive a wedge into Ukrainian society.

It is also crucial to depoliticize the Eastern Partnership, which is an initiative of the European Union to foster dialogue in various strategic economic areas with the post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Rather than insisting on Western values for these countries, the EU should turn geopolitics into a positive-sum game by improving economic cooperation with these countries.

2. Widening the cost-benefit gap for Russia:

The West should try to reach a compromise with Russia by offering a win-win deal where each party can present a “victory” to its citizens. One option could be a free trade agreement. The German chancellor Angela Merkel took up Vladimir Putin’s idea of a free trade agreement with Russia “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” in exchange for a peace deal in Ukraine at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015. Imposing further economic sanctions might become necessary, but it is crucial to not only focus on the cost of non-cooperation, but also on the benefit of cooperation for Russia.

3. Enhancing EU resilience:

One good initiative would be to further supra-nationalize energy policies within the EU. The energy union as advocated by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is a first step in the right direction, but falls short of the more ambitious proposal by former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to harmonize gas prices. The more unified the EU is in the energy sector, the less Russia may use energy as a weapon. Another way of enhancing EU resilience could be to create a solidarity fund to compensate for trade losses caused by economic sanctions in order to preserve unity among EU member states. This way, countries that face trade losses would not be incentivized to ally with Russia as they would be less dependent on external help.

Dr. Thomas Mehlhausen is a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in February and March 2015 and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Potsdam. Dr. Mehlhausen’s recent publications include:

  • European Union enlargement. Material Interests, Community Norms and Anomie, Routledge 2015 (Forthcoming).
  • “The Anomie of EU Eastern Enlargement. Rhetorical Action in Diffuse Decision Contexts.” In: Wilga, Maciej; Karolewski, Ireneusz P. (eds., 2014), New approaches to EU Foreign Policy, London: Routledge, 178-197.
  • Poland’s EU-Council Presidency under Evaluation. Navigating Europe through Stormy Waters, Nomos 2014 (ed. with P. Karolewski and M. Sus).
  • “Unstrittig und doch umstritten. Europäische Solidarität in der Eurokrise”, Politische Vierteljahresschrift 54:1, 2013, 50-74 (with Heinz Kleger).

Please contact Ms. Kimberly Frank with any questions at kfrank@aicgs.org.