Christopher Howarth is a senior Political Analyst at the think tank Open Europe. Prior to Open Europe he worked as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.

Firstly, a disclaimer: Russia is 100 per cent responsible for its invasion of the Crimea, just as Germany a hundred years ago was for responsible for invading Belgium. Nothing dilutes these facts. However, just as historians disagree as to whether the First World War could have been avoided, it is legitimate to look at whether a better handling of the Ukraine crisis by the “West” generally – and the EU specifically – could have led to a different conclusion.

We need to understand what Russia wants. It has two aims – safeguarding its Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol (for emotional as well as strategic reasons) and maintaining a friendly compliant government in Ukraine willing to keep the border open to Russian trade and people. Under both Timoshenko and Yanukovych, this is exactly what Russia had.

So what has caused the current crisis? Russia’s naval base is on a lease, so for now it is protected, but Russia fears that a pro-western Ukrainian Government, joining NATO and the EU, could jeopardise its operation. These fears maybe overdone, but a more potentially serious threat comes to Russia’s trade in the form of Ukraine’s potential EU membership.

The EU is a customs union, which means that its external trade is decided collectively around an external customs wall – the crucial difference between it and a Free Trade area. But as well as being a customs union, the EU has become a political construction with a defence element including a mutual defence guarantee mirroring that of NATO – inserted via the Lisbon Treaty. So from a Russian point of view the EU no longer an economic club, but more a political and defence power block synonymous with NATO.  Indeed, Russia is so impressed by the EU as a power block it has sought to imitate it in its own Eurasian Customs Union – which it had hoped Ukraine would join.


Open Europe Map

EU and candidates and Eurasia and its candidates

Looked at from the inside, the EU eliminates borders, creating an area free of customs, visas and – within Schengen – all border controls. This however comes at a price, and the price is often paid by the EU’s neighbours. We have seen this before in Moldova. Prior to Romanian EU accession, Moldovans could freely travel to Romania but after Romania joined this came to an end – Moldova was on the wrong side of the EU’s external frontier. Unsurprisingly, Russia would not wish for the same on its border with Ukraine.

Ukraine is therefore caught between two opposing power blocks. For many years, Ukraine managed to balance the competing interests and different aspirations of both its Russian and Ukrainian speakers. From Moscow’s point of view, it was working: Ukraine had leaders who accepted Russian largess in exchange for influence, renewed their lease on Sevastopol, kept trade moving and allowed Russians and Ukrainians to travel visa free – something that Ukrainian EU membership could put in danger.

It should therefore have been possible to predict that Russia would react badly to further moves by Ukraine towards the EU. Despite this, no effort seems to have been made either to dampen Russian influence by shoring up Ukraine’s finances, thus enabling them to make the jump, or alternatively to mollify and reassure Russia. We were left to watch as an EU deal with no immediate cash offering was outbid by hard Russian cash with a bankrupt Ukrainian President taking his country swerving to the east. The reaction in western Ukraine was predictable, as was the Russian reaction when protesters hostile to the Russia seemed to take control.

Even at that point, not all was lost for Russia. Ruslan Pukov, a graduate of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, points out in the New York Times that Tymoshenko was originally Russia’s favoured candidate, that her re-election in an early poll would for Russia have been a reasonable outcome – and for that pro-Russian electors from Crimea within a united Ukraine would help. Speeding up the signing of the EU’s Ukrainian Association Agreement and the pronouncements of some EU foreign ministers about Ukraine’s EU membership potential (however genuine or not) have, however, fanned the fears of those in Russia who feel that Ukraine is on route to being “lost” into an opposing and not necessarily friendly power block. Russia’s preferred option would be a pro-Russian Ukraine. If Russia annexes Crimea, it may look like a Russian victory but in reality would be an admittance of a wider failure.

It is for Ukraine to decide whether it should join the EU. If that is their settled wish, we should not shut the door just to appease Russian sensibilities. Nor should we confuse justifiable anger at corruption (often linked to Russia) with a genuine love of EU integration shared by all Ukrainians. For now, we should help Ukraine improve its standard of government, help it strengthen its economic independence (one way could be through shale gas development) and do what we can, through sanctions, to dissuade Russian aggression. But we should be aware that the makeup of the EU, the nature of its integration and enlargement, combined with ‘all or nothing’ decisions being forced on the Ukraine by both the EU and Russia, have polarised Ukrainian politics and are having consequences.

In the longer term, it is time for the EU to rethink how it deals with its neighbouring states.  Those that have chosen not to join the EU or border the EU but will never join deserve better than the imposition of a hard frontier dividing them from historic partners. If the price of EU integration within is division without, someone will pay the price. If the EU was not so rigid, did not require conformity with everything and offered a genuine partnership status that could work for Ukraine without antagonising its other neighbours, it might be a form of membership that others could take up – including, someday, even Russia.