EU must get real on Russia

By Ariana Gic, Hanna Hopko, and Roman Sohn, for EUobserver

Since February 2014, Russia has been waging an undeclared and unprovoked war on its peaceful neighbour Ukraine.

After establishing control of Crimea through its subversive operation and covert military invasion, on 16 March that year, Russia staged a show of “local support” for its land grab by conducting a fake secessionist “referendum” on Ukraine’s territory.

The illegal “referendum” was just one of Russia’s many tricks to mask its aggression against Ukraine.

Moscow’s camouflage also included “little green men,” “local self-defence groups”, and “people’s mayors”.

Kremlin-manufactured propaganda narratives of “persecution of Russian speakers”, “a Nazi coup d’etat in Kiev”, the “right of Crimean people to self-determination”, “declaration of independence”, “holy place for Russian Orthodox Christians”, “reunification”, and many others were promulgated worldwide to mask and simultaneously justify Russia’s invasion.

While Ukrainian voices trying to communicate the truth about Russia’s war were largely dismissed, Moscow’s lies successfully polluted Western mainstream media and expert opinion, influencing political decisions.

Russia’s denials were afforded more credibility than observable facts.

Western journalists reporting on Ukraine largely failed to inform the world about the truth, many themselves falling for Kremlin-crafted unreality.

A global network of influencers came online to validate Russia’s talking points and to advance its nefarious interests.

The world’s response to Russia’s aggression has been largely inadequate.

After half a decade of interstate war, Kremlin lies on Ukraine continue to prevail, and the effectiveness and integrity of many international institutions and political actors have been called into question.

Even though the United Nations General Assembly and other international bodies declared the occupation and annexation of Crimea to be “illegal”, Moscow’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine’s Donbas region has not been recognised as part of the same war effort.

To this day, there has been no official recognition that Crimea and Donbas are part of a unitary, multi-vectored Russian war with the single objective of destroying Ukraine’s nationhood and submitting the Ukrainian people to Moscow’s dictate.

Many lies, one objective

Over the last five years, Russia has pursued a massive, concerted war strategy against the entirety of Ukraine.

It has employed the widest imaginable array of both conventional and hybrid tools.

The list includes: covert and overt military aggression; diversionary operations in areas outside the zone of military conflict; terrorist attacks; economic pressure; cyber attacks (including on critical infrastructure); hate propaganda; disinformation campaigns; political subversion and assassinations; interference in electoral processes; and diplomatic pressure in international fora.

To avoid moral, political, and legal responsibility for its aggression on Ukraine, Moscow has invested unprecedented resources into pursuing a “plausible deniability” strategy, which denies its role as aggressor.

The Kremlin has forged the appearance of an anti-government rebellion in Ukraine which Russia merely supports, allowing Moscow to exploit the weaknesses of international law governing the use of force against another nation.

Its “plausible deniability” strategy relies on the narrative of a “anti-government” “separatist” conflict in Ukraine.

According to Moscow, its role is limited to “protecting the Russian speaking population in Crimea from Ukrainian ‘Nazi’ extremists” and “supporting rebels in Donbas, who oppose the Western sponsored coup d’etat in Kiev”.

But in fact, the “separatist rebellion” is a Kremlin-engineered subversion tactic and tool of Russian warfare. Local collaborators are pawns, not autonomous players.

Moscow’s cover of “local separatism” in Donbas is no different from the smoke screen of “little green men” in Crimea – both were designed to mask Russian invasion by providing a fig leaf of plausible deniability.

The outcome is that Russia continues its war in the comfortable shadows of distorted reality without incurring an appropriate cost.

No peace without truth

It is impossible to achieve a just peace in Ukraine without first acknowledging the truth of Moscow’s interstate war.

Recognition of Russia’s direct responsibility is key to empowering the international community with the right toolset to repress Moscow’s aggression.

Ukraine rightfully recognised Russia as an aggressor-state responsible for the occupation and annexation of Crimea and the equally illegal occupation of Donbas.

Kiev has appealed to the UN, other nations, and international organisations to do the same on numerous occasions.

Ukraine’s parliament adopted a resolution in early 2015 calling on other nations for such an act of solidarity, but its plea has gone unanswered.

The European Union’s official position fails to recognise Russia’s interstate war, instead differentiating “occupation and annexation of Crimea” from Russia’s “actions destabilising the situation in eastern Ukraine”.

This indefensible position facilitates the false narrative of a “Russia-backed separatist conflict” in Donbas allowing Russia to evade full responsibility.

As a result, the EU’s Russia policy framework is inherently flawed, and fails to pursue the right objectives – namely, to repress, reverse, and repair Moscow’s violations of international law in Ukraine.

Ukraine has provided a mountain of evidence in international courts proving beyond doubt Russia’s role of aggressor.

As far back as 2016, the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court acknowledged that information available about Russia’s hostilities in Donbas indicated the existence of an international armed conflict.

Since then, the volume of evidence has grown larger still.

The deafness of the EU and of its member states makes it fair to question Europe’s commitment to international law.

After initial denials, Russian president Vladimir Putin admitted that the “little green men” in Crimea were Russian special forces.

Is the EU waiting for a similar admission about the “rebellion” in Donbas before it takes robust action?

Is Russia’s acknowledgement the precondition for recognising its crimes?

Are Kremlin lies the truth until Russia stops lying?

Flawed EU policy

The EU’s Russia policy is skewed towards appeasement and providing Putin with avenues for a “graceful exit” from the war, even at Ukraine’s expense.

He has had more than enough time to act on face-saving opportunities, but consistently chose not to pursue them because they do not let Russia achieve its goal of dominating Ukraine.

Putin is patiently waiting for Russia’s subversion efforts in the EU itself to bear fruit, as more and more Kremlin-friendly politicians ascend to power.

With leaders like Italy’s prime minister Guiseppe Conte promising to end EU sanctions against Russia, Moscow does not need to end its hostilities, it only needs to wait for the opportunity to go even further with greater impunity.

The EU’s Russia sanctions have contained Moscow’s aggression and prevented a larger military invasion that would threaten Ukraine’s capital, but they have not been enough to end the Kremlin’s multi-vectored aggression in Ukraine and further afield.

Emboldened by its almost free ride in Ukraine, Russia has pursued increasingly bigger goals, interfering in Western nations to undermine their global power.

The self-defeating Western desire to return to “business as usual” with Russia is the main motive behind its feeble response.

Business interests clearly inform the pursuit of “win-win” policies with Russia which inevitably entail grave losses – from Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, to international peace and security.

While paying lip service to EU values, countries like Germany are pursuing harmful projects with Russia which can only be explained by political corruption.

The Russia-Germany gas pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, is a prime example.

Unjustifiable as merely an “economic project” to “secure energy” for the EU, Nord Stream 2 is an especially dangerous project at a time when Russia has pulled out from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and is openly increasing its capability to target the EU with its missiles.

EU businesses and governments are enabling Russia’s militarisation by increasing the reliance on Russian energy. No economic argument can justify this.

Disturbingly, EU nationals – including politicians – are also complicit in crimes against Ukraine’s security, participating in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas.

Despite their involvement in one of the biggest violations of international law of our era, their crimes are not properly investigated and their actions are not fiercely challenged.

The most recent failure in EU policy was the woefully inadequate response to Russia’s naked act of aggression against Ukraine in the Kerch Strait and Black Sea in November 2018.

Russia’s unprovoked attack in neutral waters on the Ukrainian naval vessels peacefully exercising their lawful right to passage constituted a blatant violation of international law.

Although the Russian state is legally responsible for the attack under international law, the EU announced that it would impose personal sanctions only against the eight Russian nationals directly involved in the attack.

The choice not to sanction the Russian state carries a perilous precedent which can directly affect EU member states in the future.

Equally problematic is that no meaningful action has backed EU statements condemning Russia’s restriction of navigation through the Kerch Strait, inviting Russia’s de facto annexation of the Azov Sea.

Leadership means action

The EU must change its approach to dealing with Russia – the status quo is not working.

The EU should drop the pretence that Crimea and Donbas are separate conflicts, and formally recognise Russia’s role as aggressor for its interstate war.

Disparate policies for the two occupied regions also raises concerns of a possible “Donbas for Crimea” trade-off where Moscow would be de facto allowed to “keep” Crimea for a nominal sanctions price, as long as it abides by the inherently flawed so-called ‘Minsk accords’ – the ceasefire pact which governs the peace process.

A just peace cannot be brought to Ukraine by dealing with Russia’s aggression as if it was a local Ukrainian conflict, which is exactly what Minsk does.

The inadequacy of the Minsk process, which EU policy heavily relies on, is glaring.

Even the most recent European Parliament resolution of March 12, 2019 assessing the current state of EU-Russia political relations, which marks a growing awareness of Russia’s threat to the EU, still rests on the faulty premise that “full implementation” of Minsk would come via “closer cooperation” with Russia.

The EU should champion effective international measures – including an international embargo – commensurate with Russia’s violations of international law to force Putin to change his aggressive foreign policy.

Such measures should be tied to the full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to the cessation of all forms of Russia’s multi-vectored warfare.

Instead of friendly handshakes with Putin, the EU should lead in setting up an International Tribunal for prosecuting Russians responsible for crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

Action needs will

The EU has the tools to respond to Russia’s violations of international law and to thwart Moscow’s aggressive policies, but it lacks the political will and leadership to invoke them.

EU values should no longer take a back seat to shady political agendas – it is high time the EU practices the values it preaches.

Europe cannot afford to passively observe Russia reshaping the world in its illiberal, authoritarian image. We all stand to lose.

The history of international conflicts in the 20th century should have taught us that if we want the world to prosper, global security must take priority over limited national or commercial interests.

By helping to uphold international law in Ukraine, the EU would contribute to its own peace and prosperity instead of allowing Putin’s destructive scenario to unfold.

By Ariana Gic, Hanna Hopko, and Roman Sohn, for EUobserver