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Ukraine: The Price of Stability

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The first question in the ongoing crisis about Ukraine is not “What will Putin do?”, but “What do we want?”. We, that is the European Union and its Member States. That is strategy: knowing one’s own interests and objectives, and choosing on that basis where and how to react, and when to intervene proactively oneself.


This Commentry was published in Dutch in De Morgen.


Ukraine: The Price of Stability 


The first question in the ongoing crisis about Ukraine is not “What will Putin do?”, but “What do we want?”. We, that is the European Union and its Member States. That is strategy: knowing one’s own interests and objectives, and choosing on that basis where and how to react, and when to intervene proactively oneself.

Our vital interest is clear: to safeguard our territory and way of life. Defending Ukraine’s territory and way of life is not a vital interest: our survival does not depend on it. But the continued existence of a democratic Ukraine as a buffer state between ourselves and Russia does help us to defend our vital interest – it is an instrumental interest. Ukraine is part of the neighbourhood that has to be stable for the EU itself to remain stable.

Moreover, we have encouraged Ukraine and offered it a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement  (DCFTA) when the country, of its own volition, set out on a western path. We do have a moral obligation towards it, therefore. One cannot offer support yet withdraw it just when it is most necessary. Nevertheless, one does not go as far for an instrumental interest as for a vital interest – in this case, we will not go to war for it.

What do we want from Russia? Good-neighbourly relations. That is only possible on the basis of a compromise, but that demands mutual concessions. One party imposing its views does not generate stability, but lasting tensions. For the party that was forced into unilateral concessions will forever attempt to undo those.


A Compromise?

What could be a possible compromise? Certainly not the proposals that Putin just made to the US and NATO. These are so unrealistic that they are clearly not intended as a basis for real negotiations, but as a means of putting pressure on us, and of presenting Putin to the Russian public as one who does everything to maintain both peace and Russian prestige.

Putin’s proposals are unrealistic because they entail not a single compensation on his part. Russia cannot concentrate troops, set out its demands, and as its only concession send the troops back to the barracks. For a month later Putin can just assemble his forces again, and pose new demands. A stable compromise demands durable Russian concessions. Russia too must pay a price to achieve its objectives.

Putin demands guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO. That is a price we can easily afford, for it is not our intention anyway. At its 2008 Bucharest Summit, Allies did agree that Ukraine (and Georgia) would become members of NATO – but not right away, which the US had pushed for. Key European Allies were opposed, and they still are. That is not the same as allocating Russia a veto over further NATO expansion. But enlargement is not decided upon in a vacuum. It requires a cost-benefit analysis: What can a new ally bring? Which new risks does it entail? If we are not willing to go to war to defend Ukraine, we cannot offer it NATO membership, for that is exactly what the Alliance is about.

Does Putin want Ukraine to be a neutral state? That would imply formally reversing the Bucharest decision (but not the DCFTA with the EU, of course). Neutrality is not shameful. My country, Belgium, was neutral for nearly half of its existence as an independent kingdom, and escaped all conflicts until 1914. Neutrality can be the basis of an honourable compromise, therefore – if there is a durable Russian concession in return. That can only be one thing: Putin must end all support for armed separatism in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, so that the government in Kiev controls the full continental territory of Ukraine again.

That, indeed, says nothing about the Crimea, annexed illegally by Russia. Probably that is the price Ukraine may have to pay for stability. Just like Belgium in 1831, a year after independence, lost a large swath of territory following a Dutch invasion. In due course, however, the Belgian elite began to appreciate the advantages of the neutrality that the great powers imposed upon it.

In a next step, Russians, Americans, and Europeans can then certainly negotiate about which weapon systems and troop numbers can be reduced in which areas. A prestigious format can easily be imagined for such negotiation. But this too must obviously be mutual. If Putin seeks a reduction of certain NATO deployments on our own territory, then the enormous Russian arsenal in Kaliningrad must be on the table too, to name but one example. The irony is that in 2015 Russia withdrew from the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe which regulated precisely that.


What We Must Do Anyhow

It is very possible that Putin is unwilling to concede anything real. Because he regards it as a loss of face, or because he effectively wants to increase Russian territory. Or because he actually prefers permanent instability rather than a stable arrangement, and wants to continue to use the Russian presence in the Donbas as a way of putting pressure on us. Furthermore, Russia has already violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which with the US and the UK it had committed to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine. In return the latter renounced all nuclear weapons that had remained on its territory following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Certain steps we must undertake anyhow, therefore, whatever Putin does.

First of all, we must continue to reinforce our own defences, through NATO. Putin has one great advantage: the power to decide and to assemble large troop numbers fast, which neither NATO nor the EU can do. Linking up European armed forces in order to create a coherent force package would greatly strengthen our deterrence. At the same time, there is no need to panic: Russia does not have the means to start a great power war. Deterrence remains necessary, but direct military action against a NATO or EU country is unlikely.

Russia is constantly undertaking “hybrid” actions on our territory and in cyber space, though, from fake news and corruption to blackmail and sabotage. Our reaction remains far too mitigated. We must deter such “hybrid” actions too, and even dare to retaliate, including with offensive cyber operations of our own. The EU possesses many instruments already, but must specifically organise itself to this end, and create new cyber capabilities.

Deterring a new attack on Ukraine is more difficult, since we are not willing to go to war. The most important deterrent is Ukraine’s own resolve to fight – any Russian attack will not be a Blitzkrieg.

If deterrence fails, we must strengthen Ukraine’s resilience, with weapons, equipment, and munitions and other stocks – of which European allies are short themselves, however. The EU can support Ukraine financially and economically, though, for war is an expensive business. In addition, further sanctions against Russia are then inevitable, to undermine the Russian war effort and to create a climate for negotiations. Expelling Russia from the international payments system SWIFT must be put on the table already now. Nordstream 2, the new gas pipe between Russia and Germany, which has become a symbolic dossier, will probably not survive a renewed Russian attack.

Europe needs Russian energy, however, just like Moscow needs that revenue. Over time that balance will shift, as the EU transitions to renewable energy. But for now the energy relationship will of necessity be more or less isolated from any further sanctions. The EU must make it clear, though, that Russia cannot threaten us either. If Moscow once closes the gas tap, it will never be reopened again: that must be our message. That will hurt, but we will find a solution, and at that point Russia will have destroyed its own power base.


What We Must Not Do

Whatever choices Putin makes, we must certainly not make ours dependent on the perception of China. Some argue that forging a compromise with Russia over Ukraine following the former’s show of force, will encourage China to act equally forcefully against Taiwan. But why would it, if the result of that compromise were the continued existence of an independent Ukraine, i.e. the opposite of what China seeks in Taiwan? Moreover, a compromise with Russia would free the US to focus on China, whereas getting embroiled in a long-lasting crisis would reduce the bandwidth available to deal with the Taiwan issue. One should not overestimate the degree to which Moscow and Beijing coordinate, furthermore. They certainly see each other as partners, and ratcheting up tensions over Ukraine and Taiwan simultaneously does stretch our systems. But that does not mean that Russia and China act as a bloc; treating them as such anyway reduces our strategic options, and might even become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More generally, the idea that compromising is a sign of weakness and constitutes a loss of face, is a dangerous one. So is linking everything to everything. It only leads to a hardening of positions and, in the end, makes diplomacy impossible.



Putin’s logic is alien to us. What good would an extra slice of Ukrainian territory, or even all of Ukraine, bring Russia? We Europeans no longer think in such terms. But Russia has a different understanding of the world order, its role as a great power, and the threat presented by the other powers. In that logic renewed military action does fit, to give more depth to Russia’s own defences, and to regain great power status. We must not accept Russian strategy, but we must understand the logic behind it, in order to get our own strategy right, but also to create at least the chance to elaborate a stable modus vivendi.



Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop heads the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, and lectures at Ghent University. He is the author of Grand Strategy in 10 Words – A Guide to Great Power Politics in the 21st Century (Bristol University Press, 2021).

This paper was shaped through lively discussions with Bruno Angelet, Alexander Mattelaer, Bernard Siman, and Joris Van Bladel. The author warmly thanks them, even, or perhaps especially, when they disagreed with him.



(Photo credit: Wikipedia )