The MH-17 crash: How far is the EU prepared to go?

The downing of Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 (MH-17) undoubtedly reached a new tipping point of an unprecedented crisis unfolding in Ukraine. Even though the EU was actively involved in dealing with the crisis from its very beginning in November 2013, Brussels failed to achieve the most desired result – a lasting peaceful solution. Only half of a year later, the EU is dealing with the negative implications of its failed policy towards Ukraine.

Just immediately after the tragedy with MH17, a friend of mine reminded me of Thucydides: “The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must”. In failing to achieve a political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis peacefully, the EU demonstrates an obvious weakness that can only prove Thucydides right. The EU has to suffer what it must, as Brussel appears not strong enough to come up with one single foreign and security policy towards the Ukrainian crisis.

Meanwhile, first reports of unreleased data of the MH-17 black boxes revealed massive explosive decompression and thus confirmed that the plane was hit multiple times by shrapnel from a missile explosion. Yet several critical questions remain to be answered, namely whose missile really did hit MH-17 on July 17. Before the EU can draw final conclusions as to whether Russia or the pro-Russian separatists have downed MH-17, the following puzzle pieces are still missing. Ukraine hasn’t released the ATC recordings yet. Nor did Ukrainian officials give any information regarding the military jet that was allegedly flying near the MH-17 before the crash. At the same time, the USA still keep their EU partners in the dark about the satellite pictures from July 17.

What are the EU’s instruments to handle the Ukrainian crisis?

Over decades, the EU has neglected Ukraine due to its “Russia-first” policy and thus could not prevented it from turning into kleptocratic, defective democracy. Added to this is the fact that Ukraine had already been in a state of total economic collapse before the crisis evolved in November 2013. This was acknowledged by the head of IMF – Christine Lagarde, while negotiating the third loan with Kiev. The EU already agreed to carry a great part of the financial burden, announcing EUR 11 billion aid plan. Furthermore, the EU introduced an Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform in Ukraine. The EUAM aim at assisting Ukraine in the field of civilian security sector reform, including police and rule of law for the period of two years. As I see it now, Ukraine will eventually become the new EU’s problem childeven without being a full member state. It is becoming even more apparent that the EU will pay the bill for Ukraine’s financial, economic and political stabilisation in the long run. All together the EU will pay a very high price for its long-term reluctance to offer Ukraine a full membership perspective. Given the much greater technical, financial and sectoral assistance within the enlargement process, the EU would have had many more tools and instruments to influence the political, economic and social transformation processes of Ukraine.

To sanction Russia or not?
Based on a three-stage plan, the EU gradually imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. Starting with travel bans, visa restrictions and account freezes, the EU is now finalising sectoral sanctions. The third and final stage of EU sanctions aim at whole sectors of the Russian economy. Banking and energy sectors are expected to be most badly affected. The sectoral sanctions will likely encompass arms embargo and restrictions on exports of “dual use” goods, as the Financial Times already reported.

As a matter of fact, there are great divergences among the EU partners whether or not and to what extent Russia should be punished by the EU over the Ukrainian crisis. Currently, countries close to USA such as Great Britain, Poland, the Baltics and Sweden are among the major European supporters of economic sanctions. The Netherlands and Germany also consider joining the club as a result of the MH-17 tragedy.

Needless to say, the economic sanctions are meant to have punitive character in the long run. At the same time, there is still great uncertainty as to whether they will create a sound basis for reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia. Personally I doubt that economic sanctions will alter Russia’s behaviour in a desired way. On the contrary, they will rather push Russia towards – to put it in the words of Parag Khanna – “a rapidly integrating Eurasian super-continent that is shaping its own future independently of the Western Hemisphere and the USA”.

Every crisis has its winners and losers, and Ukraine certainly makes no exception. At the end of the day, it is extensively in relation to the Ukrainian crisis that the EU’s credibility is at stake. The EU is sending signals which do lasting damage to the EU’s credibility. Since the crisis occurred, Brussel’s acting was more similar to wandering around in the dark. While the investigation on the sniper shootings in Kiev as well as the trade union building fire in Odessa – both followed by great numbers of casualties – is still running, the EU shows rather reluctance than willingness to get actively involved in the process of finding out what exactly happened. At the same time, the opposite took place immediately after the MH-17 crash, when the EU reactions were a foregone conclusion: It was Putin’s fault, Putin’s missile, Putin’s war.

To conclude, the EU’s credibility seems to be more endangered by another would-be crisis followed by sectoral sanctions against Russia and selective “taking-sides” approach towards Ukraine than by the Russian actions in Ukraine itself.

How far is the EU prepared to go?

Recalling Franz Radermacher’s quote “Our world is in a so-called ‘tipping-point situation,’ in which a decision is being made about the direction that the ball will take”, I see two possible explanations for the EU’s approach towards Ukrainian crisis after the MH-17 crash. At first glance, the EU leaders seem to be not fully aware of the complexity as well as the aggravating implications of the Ukrainian crisis for the old continent, and thus they keep fumbling around in the dark. But then again, they keep handling the situation miserably due to the lack of strategic leadership and cohesion of national foreign and security policy interests. In both cases, the EU is about to come out of this turbulent crisis as the biggest payer and at the same time the biggest loser.

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