The Ukraine Crisis and EU Foreign Policy

by Tor Froeytvedt Dahl and Nikki Schroeder

On February 19th, the IES welcomed Marianne Riddervold, an IES senior fellow who is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences and a researcher at Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs (NUPI). Riddervold presented research on EU foreign policy and transatlantic relations surrounding the Ukraine crisis that started with the Euromaidan movement of 2013, and culminated in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

As Riddervold outlined, the Ukraine crisis is currently the most severe ongoing military conflict on the European continent -- more than 13,000 soldiers and civilians have been killed and 30,000 have been wounded. EU and US responses differed significantly at the onset of the crisis. Whereas the US was quick to denounce Russian interference and military engagement, EU member-states were reluctant to follow up on the US call to introduce sanctions against Russia. However, this changed dramatically from July 2014 and onwards, when member-states joined US sanctions and concerted a strong, common response targeting diplomatic cooperation, individuals, and entire sectors of Russian industry.

Riddervold’s research sought to explain the shift in responses by the EU, pointing to three key reasons why the EU went from disagreement to agreement. First, she argued, the invasion of Crimea and the downing of the MH17 passenger flight in Donbas represented a “critical juncture” in which the path-dependent behavioral patterns were torn up. Second, as the EU qua international organization rests upon principles of international law, the EU’s norms of appropriate foreign policy behavior rests upon denouncing its breaches. The EU’s response was thus normative at its core. Third, US leadership pressed EU countries into formulating a concerted response.

As US foreign policy increasingly shifts to Asia, so do the dynamics of transatlantic relations. Riddervold argued that this phenomenon can be observed in today’s transatlantic cooperation over the Ukraine crisis as well. Under the Trump administration, EU and US positions on Ukraine have diverged. For example, the continuing peace talks over the fighting in Eastern Ukraine involves Russian and European leaders without the direct involvement of the US. Without US leadership, Riddervold claimed, it will be increasingly difficult for the EU to uphold international order and norm; thus, EU foreign policy in the future will be less ‘normative’.

During the Q&A with the 20 guests in attendance, Riddervold touched on how the lack of military enforcement capabilities in the EU affected the negotiations. She also noted that the loss of the United Kingdom may actually increase cohesiveness of EU foreign policy, with an emphasis on the idea that something must be done and that countries must come together.