EU’s diplomacy-first foreign policy fades in response to Ukraine war
As Ukrainian and Russian Foreign Ministers met in Turkey for talks last week, the absence of European Union leaders from these diplomatic efforts to end the devastating war is startling. In the meantime, the EU is riding a celebratory wave of success after reaching unanimous consensus on a sanctions regime against Moscow — something it rarely gets in other contexts.
The unprecedented package of financial sanctions adopted by the EU alongside the United States and other Western allies — such as exclusion of seven Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system and a ban on transactions with the Russian Central Bank — was agreed with a speedy approval of the EU’s 27 governments, including Hungary’s Kremlin-friendly government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU has put on the back burner its self-promotion as a global actor prioritizing diplomatic action and a values-based foreign policy as approaches to peace. Instead, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire boasted about unleashing an economic and financial war on Russia aiming for the collapse of the Russian economy.
While the EU together with the United States are entangled in the clash for spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space with Russia, it is the people that bear the costs of the ensuing wars — against the backdrop of unimpeded political interests of elites in power. Inevitably, this is a global step backwards in people-centered politics and a boost for illiberal regional alliances free to disregard international law.
This is not surprising. The restrictive measures imposed on Russia are appealing as they are a relatively easy crisis management approach (especially considering the EU’s weak foreign policy architecture) and an obvious choice given the desire to avoid Western boots on the ground, particularly in a context of emerging nuclear tensions.
But instead of putting any collective political weight into supporting a ceasefire and negotiations to accompany these sanctions — like the French-led effort in 2008 after Russia’s invasion of Georgia — the EU has exchanged diplomacy for militarization. On the day Ukraine and Russia agreed to hold talks in Belarus after the invasion, the EU announced it would send €450 million worth of lethal weapons to Ukraine — the first time the bloc has supplied arms to a country at war. A day earlier, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany will also be sending weapons to Ukraine, marking a historic departure from its long-standing policy banning lethal weapons shipments to conflict zones.
The situation is undoubtedly difficult with no clear way out, and pressure is mounting with the numbers of refugees fleeing Ukraine while the country’s civilians turn into an army to defend their families from the horrors of Putin’s “special operation.” But in choosing a panic-and-do-something approach, the EU is legitimizing selective economic warfare with little appreciation for skilled diplomacy, while blatantly ignoring any useful lessons from the past as to the success of sanctions.
Coupled with double standards in choosing targets for restrictive measures based on political interests, what emerges is another blow to an already struggling multilateral system, where both international law and responses for its violations become an acceptable a la carte menu for those who can afford it.
The winners of such pathways will likely be illiberal alliances drafting their own rules if there is no equal global playing field. Regional cooperation is a favorable choice for governments who can be the next target of restrictive measures by Western allies. It is not surprising that India and China have been looking at alternative financial systems to work around them. The sanctions package that reproduces historically familiar patterns of attempted regime change through economic warfare is only likely to make things worse.
Going forward, to think more seriously about diplomacy, the EU could consider that some of Putin’s aims in Ukraine could have been to a large degree achieved already — creating a protracted conflict and destabilization to close off a path for Ukraine to NATO membership. Because all efforts at stopping the war and its atrocities through sanctions must include a sound assessment of the other party’s aims coupled with a comprehensive analysis of desired and achievable impacts. Simply consolidating the acceptance of selective use of sanctions while dismissing serious diplomacy is going to have grave consequences for peoples’ lives, and, more broadly, for multilateralism.