NATO and the EU: there is a difference in the context of Russian security concerns
When I recently attended a university event on the unfolding situation in Ukraine, I found myself mesmerised by the lack of clarity that was being displayed in the discussion. A professor provided us with a short talk, his point being how he wanted to convince us that this is essentially a crisis of the European Union’s doing. While clarifying that Russia’s actions were clearly deplorable, he made an effort to make us see both sides. So far, nothing wrong with that, I thought. After all, the EU is no saint itself when it comes to foreign policy, so we should keep an open mind.
However, I soon began to realise that the professor seemed to be getting confused. He made the correct observation that Russia has been facing increasing encroachment by the West. With several Eastern European countries now NATO members and the discussions surrounding a missile defence scheme to be set up in Poland, Russia is understandably worried about its security. Yet, what he was essentially suggesting was that it had been the EU’s encroachment on Eastern Europe which precipitated this crisis. By expanding towards the East, the European Union had allegedly put Russia in a situation where it had to act. Within this scheme, Ukraine was apparently the last piece of the puzzle which pressured Russia to draw a red line. In essence, Russia was acting to protect itself from European Union aggression, or so the narrative goes.
Yet, this is simply equating NATO with the European Union. While NATO has, against earlier promises expanded towards Eastern Europe, this does not necessarily have any bearing on the EU’s strategy. The EU pursues its own strategy independent of NATO’s own interests. By contrast to NATO, the EU has a legitimate interest in associating with Ukraine, which is after all on the periphery of Europe. Ukraine is not a clear cut case like Poland, Hungary or even the Baltics were in 2004. It is a country right on what we assume to be the border of Europe.
And yet to assume that the EU should not be conducting partnership talks because it might hurt Russian feelings is ludicrous. To criticise the way these talks went down and the pressure that was put on Ukraine is an entirely different and legitimate matter. However, to maintain that by virtue of EU enlargement, Russia would have any kind of excuse to act the way it did is nonsense. The EU is not NATO, and it is also different from what we refer to as ‘the West’. Therefore, we should be clear what we are talking about when we discuss such a protracted issue.