Over the past half year, the Ukraine crisis has evolved from a struggle for power between the pro-EU and pro-Russian camps within Ukraine to a game between the United States and Russia. The EU’s central role in the event has been marginalized, reflecting the deficiency of its foreign policies. As the crisis continues to develop amid complex foreign policies and the interests of various countries, China will need to decide where it stands and how it might assume a role as an influential world power.

The Development of the Ukraine Crisis

In November 2013, the Ukraine government, suffering from economic and financial plight, announced it would suspend plans to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, causing strong discontent among citizens who were pro-EU and pro-Western. The opposition party and EU supporters launched a series of protests known as Euromaidan. The protests soon became a clash between the pro-EU and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.

Shi Zhiqin
An expert on European issues, Shi Zhiqin runs a program on China-EU Relations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
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On February 21, 2014, the then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and representatives of the opposition party, with the EU’s mediation, signed a “reconciliation agreement,” but the overthrow of Yanukovych the next day brought the crisis to a turning point, prompting Russia to intervene. Since then, the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly involved. By March, the antigovernment activities had developed into a zero-sum battle between the EU and Russia. The Putin administration supported Crimea’s referendum on March 16, which resulted in voters choosing to unite Crimea with Russia (a vote that has since been disputed).

In contrast, the EU and Ukraine’s interim government signed political agreements, but that has had little effect. The EU and the United States have also taken action to counteract the efforts of the Putin administration—for example, the cancellation of an EU-Russia summit; the boycott of the G8 meeting in Sochi, Russia; and the suspension of the negotiation of Russia’s accession to the OECD—but these moves had little impact. By May, Donetsk and Luhansk, another two states in the eastern part of Ukraine, also voted to break away through referendum.

Ideologies and Interests at Play

The games between Russia and the West have come to distinctly reflect a continuation of Cold War attitudes. Ideologically, the EU and the United States both hoped that Ukraine would move in the direction of democratic politics and a liberal economy. They saw Russia’s actions as in opposition to those goals. Meanwhile, Putin has accused Europe and the United States of having double standards in their treatment of the Ukraine crisis in comparison with the incidents in Crimea, Kosovo, and Syria. These double standards are indeed nothing new. After the Cold War, when Europe and the United States wooed the former Soviet Union member countries (including Ukraine) with promises of liberty and democracy, they maintained the perception of a binary world of the Cold War period while dealing with Russia.

Nevertheless, the EU and the United States have been very different in terms of interest and geopolitics. Ukraine is sandwiched between the EU and Russia (the distance between Kiev and Berlin is only about 1,200 kilometers, shorter than that between Beijing and Chengdu). The close proximity means that instability in Ukraine will have a direct impact on many EU countries, particularly the Central and Eastern European states. Moreover, in terms of trade and finance, the relationship between the EU countries and Russia is closer than that between the United States and Russia.

In addition, since the Iraq War, EU countries such as France and Germany (called “Old Europe” by former U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld) have publicly opposed U.S. policies, and the EU has often attempted to demonstrate that it is not a follower of the United States. The recent revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) spied on European leaders and civilians caused great controversy, pushing the EU leaders to reiterate their independence from the United States in foreign affairs.

At the same time, the major EU countries are unwilling to get into difficulties with Russia or to return to the hostile mode of the Cold War. Such unwillingness to go back to military hostility is indeed shared by the government of U.S. President Barack Obama. Particularly following the laurel of Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. administration has been reluctant to directly confront Russia. Under its pivot toward the Asia-Pacific, the United States would like to avoid spreading its energy and time too thin, which could allow China to profit at its expense.

Although the EU and the United States are temporarily consistent in their reactions to Russia, their concerns and interests are quite different. They are no longer as closely aligned as they were during the Cold War. In fact, the lingering ideology of the Cold War has meant that Europe, the United States, and Russia—and even China, India, and other forces—have not established real trust. Each power has a set of core interests. However, the EU should understand that if it continues to hold onto such Cold War ideology, it would eventually return to its Cold War position as subordinate to the United States.

The Relationships Between EU Member States and Russia

Apart from the differences with the United States, the EU also lacks internal solidarity. The Ukraine crisis serves as a perfect test of the EU’s post–Lisbon Treaty Common Security and Foreign Policy (CSFP), in which the union attempts to strengthen its unity in external relations and its international influence. Unfortunately, the result of the test has again reflected the fatal weakness of the EU’s foreign policy—the national interests of each member state are prioritized over the interests of the EU as a whole. Major countries, namely Germany, the UK, France, and Italy, all refuse to sacrifice their bilateral relationships with Russia. In external relations, the EU has not yet reached a united stand, particularly among the large member states.

The current German-Russian relationship is a result of efforts from both sides for many years. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spent much energy and time establishing a sound personal relationship with Putin, a relationship better than that with President François Hollande of France. However, the energy and time Merkel and her predecessor Gerhard Schröder have devoted to foster the relationship with Putin has not given Germany a better understanding of Putin’s thoughts or actions.

More practically, Germany and Russia have very close economic ties. Statistics from the German government indicate that, in 2013, exports from Germany to Russia reached €36 billion ($49 billion), and imports from Russia were as high as €40 billion ($54 billion). Russia is an important market for Germany’s machinery, automobiles, auto parts, chemical products, and agricultural products. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan, the German government chose to abolish nuclear power. Thereafter, the role of Russia as energy supplier to help maintain Germany’s energy demand was further strengthened—more than two-fifths of natural gas and one-third of oil in Germany comes from Russia.

Also, many large German corporations have strategic investments in Russia. Germany has more than 6,000 companies operating in Russia (compared to 5,000 operating in China). German companies invest around €20 billion ($27 billion) in Russia. In addition, the publics of Germany and Russia have close ties. Around 400,000 people of German descent currently live in Russia, and an estimated 3 million Russians lived in Germany as of 2009. Putin himself had worked in Germany for five years and is fluent in German. Geographically, Germany is the closest big EU country to Ukraine and Russia. All this is to say that if the Ukraine is in trouble, Germany will be easily affected.

For Germany, the Ukraine crisis is also a test of its more proactive foreign policies in the recent years. However, the results have not been satisfactory at home or abroad. The businessmen in Germany have been unwilling to see their trade and financial interests harmed. For the EU partners, Germany did not play the leading role it should have on Ukraine, nor was Germany able to integrate the diverse views of the other EU countries into a united EU voice.

Although Germany has played a leading role in tackling the recent eurozone debt crisis, its efforts in recent years have not changed the fact that the EU does not have a unified policy, namely in the political or military fields. Of course, this is rather good news for France, the other engine of the duel-engine EU: it has demonstrated that Germany has not been able to control or represent the EU alone.

Another major EU power, the UK, cares primarily about the interest of its financial investors: Russia has a great amount of capital on the London financial market. Statistics from the BBC indicate that Russia invested £27 billion ($46 billion) in the UK while UK investment in Russia reached £46 billion ($79 billion) in 2011. Of this huge amount, the British energy giant BP has massive strategic investment in Russia.

Noteworthy, Cyprus receives one of the highest amounts of Russian investment among EU member states, and Russian holidaymakers contribute greatly to the tourism industry in Southern European countries including Cyprus, Italy, and Greece. These countries are unwilling to see their economic interests harmed by an adversarial relationship with Russia, particularly at a delicate point in their recovery from the financial and debt crises.

In today’s highly globalized world, the EU countries’ economic and energy reliance on the United States and Russia is their main weakness. In particular, after the outbreak of the eurozone debt crisis and Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power, the EU has been greatly weakened in its position vis-à-vis Russia. Although the EU and the United States began to talk about the possibility of the United States exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe at the most recent EU-U.S. summit (in Brussels on March 26, 2014), this will be difficult to implement in the short to medium term, while in the medium to long term the amount exported from the United States will be far less than that from Russia.

Implications for the Future

Some analysts believe that the Ukraine crisis will demonstrate the internal credibility and attractiveness of the EU and be helpful for reducing the momentum of the ultra-right-wing anti-EU parties and Euroskepticism. However, a series of events—namely, the EU countries’ prioritization of their own interests above the fate of Ukraine, the failure of the EU and United States to reach an agreement on sanctions against Russia, and the fact that Putin directly discussed the issue of Ukraine’s federalization with Obama without consulting the EU—demonstrate that the EU has failed this test.

The EU publicly supported Ukraine’s opposition party without knowing its composition and credibility. This has not only resulted in the EU being “kidnapped” by the Ukrainian opposition but also infuriated Russia. This indicates that the EU neither understands the situation in Ukraine nor the thoughts of the Kremlin. Consequently, the EU has missed the chance to play its unique role as lead mediator. Before the outbreak of the Euromaidan, the EU should have persuaded the opposition to cooperate with the Yanukovych government on Ukraine’s reforms. Yet, it decided to one-sidedly support the opposition. While the crisis has now turned into a game between Russia and the United States, even for Ukraine, the EU is no longer considered a party in core discussions.

Now, the role left to the EU to play is that of an intermediary, persuading the United States and Russia to compromise and to cooperate so as to allow the federalization of Ukraine. The ideology of decentralization conforms to the current trend of world politics and has some ideological consensus among the EU publics.

Of particular note, all parties should avoid the means of the Cold War, as use of such means and continuous provocations of Russia would only lead to a second Cold War. Particularly, the EU and the United States should stop wooing the member states of the former Soviet Union and should guarantee that the expansion of NATO will not be extended to those states. Fundamentally, all countries involved should give up the “friend-or-enemy” mentality. The EU should understand that a seamless coalition between the EU and the United States and a binary opposition to Russia (like the opposition to the Soviet Union) are no longer relevant.

China’s Role in the Crisis

So what is China’s role in the current crisis in Ukraine? The United States, the EU, and Russia are all major players in the Ukraine crisis, and if China avoids its responsibility, it will miss another chance to act as a responsible world power. China should take a more proactive approach by, for instance, initiating a trilateral investment by China, Russia, and the EU in Ukraine and supporting the Russian proposal for the federalization of Ukraine.

In the China-U.S.-EU relationship, the EU has long been hoping to minimize the perception of its close affiliation with the United States. China should acknowledge the EU’s shift on this issue and bring China closer to both the EU and the United States.

The Ukraine crisis is not only a test for the EU and Germany but also a significant opportunity for China to usher in a new relationship among large powers.

Lai Suetyi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of International Relations of Tsinghua University, researching China-EU relations, mutual perceptions between Asia and Europe, interregionalism, and the Asia-Europe Meeting.

This article was published as part of the Window into China series.