4 Mar 2014

How far apart are the United States and European Union over Ukraine?

Given that military options are not really on the table over Ukraine, you may wonder why there is a meeting of the military alliance, Nato, tomorrow. Well, the answer is that the US sees it as the place where it sits down with Europe, and some eastern European members desperately want something that shows muscle and solidarity.

Whether the Nato meeting will really achieve the latter is a moot point. It’s hard to see what the communique can say. To adapt Marshall McLuhan, “the meeting is the message”. This meeting happens at official level. Don’t expect anything to come of it. 

The real potential action is in Paris, where the foreign ministers of the US and Russia (us too, and others) were planning to meet anyway to discuss Lebanon and Syria. Everyone expects Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to turn up, but he’s not being too open about his travel plans. No-one really has a clue how this meeting will go.


As for the EU meeting planned for Thursday, the first point to mention is that everything depends on what circumstances the 28 meet in. If there has not been an escalation of the situation in Ukraine, if Putin is still sitting on Crimea but not moving into eastern Ukraine, the discussion will be about whether or not to warn Russia of specific punishments coming its way.

Germany is (with Italy) at the doveish end of the market on this. Chancellor Merkel believes you have to give President Putin space to de-escalate and shouldn’t corner the bear. Poland is the hawkish end of the market. UK sources talk of being “comfortably in the middle”.

The US, though, is showing signs of getting frustrated with doveish talk – you see reflected in articles like this. But in London there’s a suspicion that some of that is for show. One foreign policy expert said “the US administration is covering its right flank”; another said Secretary Kerry seems to shoot from the hip more than President Obama, the latter talking more about the need to abide by principles rather than “costs and consequences”.

If the situation has deteriorated in Ukraine by Thursday – and you see in the incident of Russian soldiers shooting above Ukrainian soldiers’ heads how quickly that could potentially happen – then the EU leaders may find themsevles, however much some regret it, having to hover their cursor over a selection of specific economic sanctions.

The other international forum in play is the United Nations. Its room for manoeuvre is pretty restricted, given that Russia is one of the permanent five on the UNSC. But the UK and others are hoping that the secretary general of the UN might call for Russia to attend talks on the future of Ukraine and that, given the authority of his office, the Russians might find that hard to turn down.

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