1st Mar 2024


Four fallacies of EU foreign policy

  • Mogherini chairs EU foreign ministers' meeting (Photo:

Any reader of EU foreign policy statements will be familiar with four maxims: the EU doesn’t recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea; there’s no military solution to the Ukraine conflict; Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad must go; and the EU supports a two-state solution on Israel and Palestine.

All of them are false.

Crimea non-recognition

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  • Mogherini's predecessor, Catherine Ashton: the US is the dominant partner in the trans-Atlantic family (Photo:

The EU cemented its Crimea non-recognition policy in December with a ban on most forms of commercial activity in the peninsula.

But its de facto recognition of Russia’s new map of Europe became clear in the so-called Minsk 2 ceasefire accord of 12 February, endorsed by France and Germany. The 13-point agreement, which now forms the basis of future EU decisions on Russia sanctions, doesn’t mention Crimea.

If Russia fulfills Minsk 2, Russia-friendly EU countries, which include Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Spain, will say time has come to relax economic sanctions.

They’re already saying so on the basis of Russia’s partial compliance. Germany says No. But if Minsk 2 becomes reality, Berlin and even Washington have promised to say Yes.

Once the first step back is taken, others will follow, and, before long, the EU and Russia will return to business as usual.

The EU still won’t “recognise” the annexation or lift its Crimea business ban. But then, it doesn’t recognise Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights, Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands, or China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands, and so what?

Russia’s compliance with Minsk 2 is a big if.

The prevailing expectation is that things will get worse before they get better. That Russia will shortly launch an assault on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, at the least to seize its airport, or to also seize adjacent territory to create a land bridge to Crimea.

But if the conflict has shown one thing, it’s that European powers want to avoid military escalation at all costs. What EU policy amounts to is rewarding Russian leader Vladimir Putin for taking two steps forward and one step back.

If he seizes Mariupol, more EU economic sanctions follow. France and Germany will have to negotiate a Minsk 3, taking into account the new facts on the ground. If Putin observes Minsk 3 - and this is a more likely if - the EU will settle for a frozen conflict in Ukraine. Italy, Spain, et al, will say now, finally, is the time to roll back sanctions: Peace at any price, especially if Ukraine pays the price.

Putin will have achieved his first strategic objective: to hamstring Ukraine on its long walk toward transatlantic integration.

His interests will be best served by rebuilding EU ties and the Russian economy, while using soft power instruments - corruption, economic pressure, political subversion, propaganda - to make the Ukrainian rump a failed state.

The Crimea question will be left to historians.

In any case, the success of Russia’s propaganda on the quintessential Russian-ess of Crimea, and the EU voting public's apathy on the factuality of its claim, means no EU leader will pay an immediate political price.

“The West’s mistake, despite its statements to the contrary, is to think that Putin has some kind of right to rebuild Russia’s influence in the former Soviet sphere”, one EU diplomat said.

No military solution

EU countries and the US have made clear they won’t send soldiers to fight for Ukraine.

The primary reason is fear of escalation. But another reason is lack of public appetite for “our” men or women to die in what is broadly seen as someone else’s war, some kind of local correction in post-Soviet affairs.

There is a realistic prospect the US will arm Ukraine, with likely items including anti-tank missiles and artillery-location systems.

It’s too late for Ukraine to reconquer lost territory. But the weapons could deter further Russian escalation, such as an attack on Kharkiv, in north-east Ukraine, or even Odessa, in the south-west.

The reason why the EU’s “no military solution” line is false is not US weapons, however. It’s because the conflict is not just about Ukraine.

The growing recognition is that Putin’s main objective is to rebuild Russian hegemony in central and eastern Europe.

The Soviet Union didn’t really collapse in 1991. There was no popular revolution, or a German-type catharsis of past sins, let alone a lustration of the nomenklatura. There was a messy transition of power to Putin. Communist ideology did die some time ago. But Soviet imperialism is alive and well.

This is why Putin’s approval rating is more than 80 percent and why the Ukrainian revolution must fail. As the Ukrainian film maker Sergei Loznitsa recently said: “The Maidan [the name of the Ukrainian uprising] was the first real anti-Soviet revolution in history”.

The way to rebuild Russian hegemony is not to invade the Baltic states or Poland. It’s to break EU and Nato solidarity, and then use soft power, in the long term, to create a network of isolated, internally divided, fearful, and economically dependent client states on Russia’s Western flank.

The way to break Nato is by sawing away with a series of increasingly provocative actions in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

If Nato doesn’t, at some stage, honour its treaty’s Article V on collective defence, the alliance will fall apart into a trunk of old members and its new, now amputated, limbs.

So what is the red line on Article V?

Russian invasion of Poland? Of course. Little green men (Russian special forces with no insignia) in Latvia? Probably. A cyber-attack on Estonia? No (it’s already happened). Cross-border kidnapping of Estonian security personnel? No (it’s already happened). Snatching a Lithuanian fishing boat in international waters? No (it’s already happened).

What comes next? Another cyber war? A bomb in a Russian-speaking enclave in Latvia, claimed by a letterbox “Latvian fascist” group?

This is why the military solution to the wider conflict is already under way.

Nato, at its last summit, agreed to create a rapid reaction force to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic region. Unlike EU talk on military co-operation, it’s actually happening: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain have pledged troops and the force is ready to be deployed at two day’s notice.

More of “old” Nato’s soldiers will soon be permanently stationed in six new “command and control” facilities in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.

They will also come and go in a series of military drills: 750 US tanks, and 3,000 soldiers from the US 3rd Infantry Division brigade arrived in Latvia this week for a 90-day exercise.

The Nato deterrent might not work and the Article V question stands.

US leader Barack Obama lost credibility when he drew a red line on use of chemical weapons by Russia’s ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad: Assad crossed it and nothing happened.

But the rhetoric that there is no military solution to Putin is scoffed at in Nato circles.

“What Putin has made clear is that there’s no diplomatic solution. The only language that he understands is force”, a US military contact told EUobserver.

“If Bush had been in the White House, Putin wouldn’t have started a war in Europe”, a second US source said, referring to Obama’s predecessor, whose Republican Party is more hawkish on US military interventions.

Assad must go

The other war on the EU doorstep is raging in Iraq and Syria.

The UN has lost count of how many Sunni Muslim men, women, and children Assad, an Alawite/Shia Muslim, has killed.

Even if the war stopped today, he’s unlikely to be ever welcome back in London or Paris.

But the EU line - that he must step down and organise a real election - exists only on paper. It’s no longer heard in press briefings unless journalists really, really insist that EU speakers repeat the old refrain.

“The EU doesn’t recognise Assad as a partner but we are aware that he's still there, that he's part of the Syrian reality”, the EU foreign relations chief, Federica Mogherini, last said.

The Syrian reality is that the war is no longer a sectarian civil war. It’s a sectarian regional war fought by proxy. The parties are the Sunni axis (the Gulf states, Turkey, the Sunni population in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and, to an extent, Isis) and the Shia axis (Iran, Assad, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and the Shia population in Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain).

It’s a conflict for regional hegemony which goes back 1,335 years and which escaped from the genie’s bottle amid the Arab upheavals of 2011.

Sunni states pay lip service to the EU and US war on Isis, while funding and facilitating the anti-Shia insurgency.

But no one is really in control. Isis is a radical cult which has attracted tens of thousands of jihadists from up to 90 foreign countries and which has its own apocalyptic agenda.

For their part, the EU and the US are trying to protect their interests - to keep oil flowing; to stop Isis attacks at home; and to stop Iran getting a nuclear bomb.

Their interests are better served if the Shia axis defeats Isis and the region returns to the status quo ante.

The EU and US have already crossed the Rubicon by (almost) concluding a nuclear deal with Iran.

The smallprint of the accord will be important in terms of non-proliferation. But the headline is also important: the West and Iran, and by extension Iran’s allies (Assad), are no longer enemies.

They may not be friends either.

But the power of the Shia axis will grow as UN sanctions are lifted and Iran’s treasury fills up.

US and EU states’ fighter jets have flown thousands of sorties in the role of Assad and Iran’s anti-Isis air force.

The US has also launched what it calls a “train and equip” programme for 5,000 anti-Isis Syrian fighters, to be drawn from the “moderate” and “secular” Sunni rebels who initially fought Assad.

It remains to be seen if the US can control them. But the Pentagon says their job is to attack Isis targets only, not Assad targets, creating a Western proxy ground force alongside the pro-Shia air force.

The two-state solution

EU policy is equally out of date on the region’s other old conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The official EU line calls for a two-state solution, based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both countries, barring “minor modification” - land swaps agreed by both sides.

The reality is that since 1967, 550,000 Jewish settlers have set up home over the green line. Two hundred thousand are in East Jerusalem and the rest are in the West Bank, some in small towns with their own hospitals and shopping malls, others in armed, razor-wire outposts.

They cover just 2 percent of Palestinian land. But more than 50 percent is covered in no-construction zones for Palestinians, Israeli military ranges, settler-only roads, and nature or archeological parks.

More importantly, Israel’s colonial infrastructure has divided Palestinian population centres into a mozaic of isolated squares which can’t link up.

Analysts, such as Daniel Seidemann, from the NGO Territorial Jerusalem, or Alon Ben-Meir, a scholar at New York University who advises the US and Israel in peace talks, say the two-state solution would need much more than “minor modification” to 1967 borders.

At least 185,000 of the East Jerusalem settlers and none of the 250,000 settlers who live in three major blocs along the green line will be moved.

That still leaves 115,000 settlers who would have to move, a number which is growing by 10,000 a year.

Israel says it can move them, just as it moved 6,000 settlers out of Gaza in 2005. But the Gaza operation required use of force by the Israeli army. Use of force to move 115,000 could amount to civil war.

The EU idea of Jerusalem as a joint capital also rings hollow.

The threat of violence is such that few Jews go into Arab districts in East Jerusalem and vice versa. “We might have, at best, a divided capital, not a shared capital, with part of the Old City shared under international supervision”, Seidemann said.

Some EU diplomats hope that Israeli elections, on 17 March, will deliver a left-wing coalition and that Obama, before stepping down in 2016, will relaunch peace talks.

Polls indicate that right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties will win a majority.

But even if the hope comes true, it looks weak.

The number of settlers in the West Bank is so big that without external pressure no government will undertake the effort to dismantle colonial Israel.

Neither the EU nor the US have, in three and half decades, exerted pressure.

Last year, the EU blocked grants for settler entities. It was a first, but it quickly blew over. The EU’s next threat is … to publish a non-binding code for EU retailers on labels for settler products.

Even this, EU sources say, requires tacit approval from the US, Israel’s superpower sponsor and the dominant partner in the transatlantic relationship.

But the US is showing no will to use its leverage. Earlier this month, amid the worst Israel-US rift in living memory, over the Iran nuclear talks, the White House still asked Congress for another $3 billion of Israeli aid.

A handful of EU states have threatened to recognise Palestinian statehood unless there is a two-state deal.

France is also angling for a US abstention on a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood if there is no deal in two years’ time.

But diplomatic recognition, as with Crimea, or the Golan Heights, doesn’t change facts on the ground. The fact is that Israel is racing toward, or has already passed, a point where permanent occupation or a one-state solution are the only options, and the EU is doing nothing to stop it.

For demographic reasons, a single state entails disenfranchising Palestinian voters in order to maintain a Jewish majority.

For left-wing Jews, such as the Washington-based J Street advocacy group, “an apartheid one-state reality … is a nightmare”.

For Seidemann, the US and EU are indulging in “pathological escapism”.

Mogherini might, from time to time, criticise this or that wave of settlement expansion. “But we don’t hear anything from Merkel, Hollande, or Cameron”, Seidemann said, referring to the German, French, and British leaders, respectively. “We should be hearing loud criticism of the occupation from friends of Israel, or we’ll be powerless to stop it from sliding into abject isolation”.


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