Instead of a European community acting in concert to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, there is a growing diversity of viewpoints on the Ukrainian crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at the German parliament in Berlin. Photo: AP
It is unclear why the West, and the EU in particular, imposed the latest round of sweeping sanctions against Russia on Sept. 12. This fourth round of sanctions, aimed primarily at Russia’s energy and financial sectors, comes amid a ceasefire in Ukraine and renewed hopes for a peaceful solution to the conflict. Washington also joined Brussels in this latest move, sanctioning Moscow by targeting Sberbank and Gazprom.
The timing is especially strange since Germany, the EU's largest and most powerful member, seemed to be pursuing a more pragmatic approach toward resolving the conflict. Washington likely played a key role in influencing this final decision, working to convince the Europeans that isolating or "containing" Russia is in their best interests. Regardless, Moscow expressed bewilderment, calling the new sanctions "counter-productive.”
The most likely explanation for this sudden decision on the part of the EU was some sort of package deal between the EU's hawks (primarily Poland, the Baltic states, and to a lesser degree the UK) and its pragmatists (Germany, France, Italy, and Spain) over how to respond to Russia. This likely included promises from the hawks to accept a negotiated ceasefire.
In addition, according to Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton, it also likely included less of a vocal position with regard to military aid to Kiev and a postponement of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement until 2016.
In exchange, Merkel and the pragmatists agreed to the fourth round of sanctions against Moscow. Yet while Europe may present an image of unity in this decision, behind closed doors, there is still much disagreement. This is focused not only on how to proceed regarding the Ukraine crisis, but also about the very nature of the crisis itself.
Europe’s divide: Pragmatists vs. hawks
Europe's major continental powers, primarily Germany but also France, Italy, and Spain, form a "pragmatist" group. Viewing the conflict more as the result of dueling geopolitical interests rather than as one of "Russian aggression," they recently signaled their reluctance to pursue any further sanctions against Russia.
They likewise ruled out any military action in Ukraine, including sending arms to Kiev. Of these countries, Germany is the most powerful and its Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been tasked with the tough "balancing act" of guiding Germany's relations between Washington and Moscow, while ensuring that the crisis does not get any worse.
France, the next most powerful player in this group, had initially been a more hawkish voice. Its President François Hollande fully supported Washington's position in the conflict. Now, however, as the situation wears on with an emerging humanitarian catastrophe in the Donbas, Paris has been slowly distancing itself from its earlier position.
Opposing the pragmatists are Europe's hawks, primarily Poland, but also the three ex-Soviet Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In their view, the conflict in Ukraine is a clear act of aggression by Moscow and, furthermore, that this is only "step one" of a grand Russian scheme to march into Eastern Europe.
Poland's push is impacted by its long history of oppression and division by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
However, it is also inspired by Poland's grand imperial past of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and of a dream, first articulated by Poland's interwar strongman Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, to create a "sphere of influence" in Eastern Europe, of which Ukraine would be a centerpiece.
Meanwhile, the Baltic States, which remember all too well their forced illegal annexation by Stalin in the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, fear a potential effort by Russia to overrun their small republics again.
The UK, too, has supported a tougher line on Russia in this crisis. This split between the island and the continent is likely at least partially informed by London's growing Euroscepticism. Yet, Prime Minister David Cameron will soon find that London can only go so far.
Countries straddling the ideological divide
Between these two camps are a host of other positions, articulated by varying state interests. In Scandinavia, there have also been some hawkish rumblings, stemming from concerns with security in the Baltic.
These have been primarily in Sweden and Finland, though largely within the conservative factions of their respective political elites, such as Stockholm's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. Early on, Sweden was brought in by Poland to co-sponsor its Eastern Partnership (EaP) program to take in six states of the post-Soviet Union (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and the three Caucasus republics).
This was done to make the project seem "legitimate" and not an exclusively "Eastern European" project. Carl Bildt became a co-architect of the EaP project with Poland's Radoslaw Sikorski, though it must be emphasized that Sikorski and Warsaw always played the leading role.
However, since the crisis in Ukraine began, there has been significant dissent in Sweden against Stockholm's role in this crisis. Carl Bildt's vocal support of Kiev has been widely criticized as "irresponsible" and "dangerous" for Sweden's historic neutrality. Debates in both Sweden and Finland on possible NATO membership, which arose with the onset of the crisis, have floundered.
Norway, which is not a member of the EU but a member of NATO unlike Finland and Sweden, has been another voice in Scandinavia, which initially expressed a tougher line toward Russia. However, Oslo has recently worked to veto the prospect of enhancing NATO's presence in Ukraine. In general, the populations of Scandinavia simply do not have the appetite for a conflict with Russia.
Back on the continent, the Ukrainian crisis has split the Visegrad group, or V4 (an alliance of four Central European states – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). While Poland has put itself forward as the main supporter of a hardliner position toward Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary are refusing to go along.
They have bristled at the thought of more sanctions that would almost certainly raise the ire of their respective publics. They are also opposed to sending arms to Ukraine. Reliant on Russian energy, the Czechs and the Slovaks took a more pragmatic approach to the situation and stood against escalating the situation any further.
This is significant considering the history of communism in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the memory of the crushing of the Prague Spring by the Soviet Union in 1968.
Hungary's Viktor Orbán has pursued a more cautious approach as well. The Western media was quick to blame this solely on Orbán's “illiberal” tendencies. However, it would be incorrect to say that this has driven Budapest's policy alone.
First and foremost, Budapest is concerned about the impact that further sanctions would have on the public. At the same time, Budapest is also concerned about the status of the Hungarian minority concentrated in the southern part of Ukraine's mountainous Zakarpattia oblast.
Under Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's regional language law was beneficial to the Hungarians of Zakarpattia and reassured Budapest that their linguistic and cultural rights would be respected.
However, after the Maidan revolution, the attempted abolition of this law and harassment of ethnic Hungarians by the far-right paramilitary group Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) raised eyebrows in Budapest. The concerns have led Orban's government to voice solidarity with Ukraine's mollified Magyars.
Economic concerns and nationalism are also guiding factors in Romania's response to the Ukraine crisis. Bucharest's position on Ukraine oscillates from hawkish to pragmatic. Economically, it is concerned about the impact of more sanctions. However, in the context of the ex-Soviet space, it is also concerned about Moldova (excluding Transnistria).
The Moldovan people speak the Romanian language and follow Romanian cultural norms and traditions, even though the Soviets attempted to forge a unique "Moldovan" identity. Bucharest regards them as compatriots and Romanian President Traian Băsescu has openly spoken about "reunification."
Additionally, like Hungary, Bucharest also has concerns regarding diaspora communities in Ukraine.
The reaction toward Ukraine has also been tempered by pragmatism in the former Yugoslavia – from Catholic Croatia to Russia's traditional ally, Orthodox Serbia. And nearby Orthodox Greece and Bulgaria have likewise opposed escalating the situation in Ukraine.
Observing the diversity of views of the Ukrainian conflict, it is apparent that Europe is certainly not united on this issue. Time will tell how such diverging viewpoints will ultimately impact Europe's evolving response to the ongoing crisis.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.