Revisiting the Ukrainian Crisis: The security threats it poses to Europe and why the European Union may need to change its current policy stance towards Russia

Analytics | Ali Jabbarli | 12-11-2018, 23:35

Executive Summary 

Russia’s opportunistic and illegal annexation of Crimea and support for separatism in Donbas strongly violated the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act with their core principles of territorial integrity of sovereign states, peaceful dispute resolution and respect to international borders that were deemed to be guarantees of Europe’s security order (Ivan, 2015). 

As a response to Russian actions in Ukraine and violations of international law, the European Union and the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia thus deteriorating their diplomatic relations to the lowest point since the Cold War. Nonetheless, the sanctions have failed to stop the war in Ukraine and protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In addition to the illegal annexation of Crimea and hybrid warfare in Ukraine, the weak European response has allowed Russia to intensify its hybrid threats to the Baltics. 

This policy brief therefore will discuss the importance of the Ukrainian crisis for the EU’s security and outline reasons why the EU may need to change its policy stance towards Russia and rather employ military and non-military deterrence strategies for solution. Deterrent responses to the Ukrainian crisis may cause Kremlin to refrain from its current actions and seek methods to rebuild economic and political relations with the European Union. 


Threats to the European Security 

Russia’s tactical division of former Soviet states with Ukraine being the most recent, has installed a fear that Russia may use hybrid warfare in the Baltics in order to influence the region. The Russian threat of hybrid warfare in the Baltics exists in the form of nonviolent subversion and covert violent operations. 

Nonviolent subversion could be understood in terms of using propaganda, cyber-attacks and other means that could possibly influence the governments of the Baltic states. These types of non-violent attacks have been exercised in the region for decades, according to officials in Latvia and Estonia. Considering the fact that these countries are home to a large group of ethnic Russians it seems reasonable that Russia has particular interest there. Many policy makers are concerned that Russia may be willing to take advantage of the Russian communities to influence Latvia and Estonia. This is reflected in Russia’s “Compatriots policy” that includes funding pro-Russian organisations in the Baltics, supporting educational exchanges and protecting the interests of ethnic Russians in the Baltics. Despite numerous types of propaganda employed by Russia in the Baltics, an increasing number of cyber-attacks in Estonia and Latvia is also reported by Russian hackers every year. 

Turning to covert violent actions, one scenario sketches that Russia could back separatist movements in Russian-speaking towns that will create instability in the region by covertly attacking the Baltic governments. This scenario is in line with Russian activities in Ukraine and would starkly undermine NATO’s and EU’s credibility in protecting their member states. Another scenario of covert actions sketches that Russia-backed forces could attack a Russian- speaking group, allowing Moscow to claim it was the work of Latvian or Estonian fascists. This will allow terrorist cells to undertake armed insurgencies in the large cities of Latvia and Estonia. Both scenarios would allow Russia to divide Baltic countries and deny its involvement whilst blaming the covert actions on the local population (Radin, 2017, pp. 13-30).  Another security concern that the Ukrainian crisis led to is energy security of Europe. 

Gazprom, Russia’s state gas company, supplies approximately one third of EU’s gas requirements. A substantial portion of Russian gas to the EU transits trough Ukraine, and many European policymakers were concerned that the deteriorated relations with Russia would lead the Ukrainian gas pipelines to be cut. Moreover, as much as Europe is dependent on Russian gas, Russia also heavily depends on gas revenues from Europe. The EU’s dependence on Russian gas has prevented the West from formulating a full economic response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Although, the EU is currently seeking diversification of Europe’s energy suppliers, it is difficult to imagine Russia out of picture as the EU’s energy supplier anytime soon (Balla, 2017). 


The EU response to Russia

As an immediate response to Russia, the EU member states adopted asset freeze and visa ban policies which were followed by three-tier economic sanctions that consisted of limitations on finance, military, dual-use goods and high tech energy products. Nonetheless, later disagreements on sanctions among EU member states were perceived as a weakness by Kremlin thus allowing it to cause further escalation (House of Lords, 2015, pp 67-68). There is no doubt that European sanctions policy had a disturbing effect on the Russian economy, particularly in the area of oil revenues. Russian Ruble had depreciated by over 100% by 2015, Russia’s debt had increased from 7.4% to 17% by 2017 and country lost over 100 billion USD in 2014 and 2015 (Kuepper, 2018). 

Considering the effect of current set of sanctions on Russia, it would be unfair to argue that the EU response to Russia has been completely ineffective, but it has rendered little to discourage Kremlin to suspend its military operations in the Eastern Ukraine or seek a deal for the Crimean crisis. One reason for such a failure is that sanctions are designed in a way that they disturb the Russian economy while taking the economies and energy security of the EU member states into account. As a matter of fact, there has been no sanctions imposed on Russian commodities such as oil and gas on which the Russian economy heavily depends. This thus suggests Russia’s main source of income is not fully restricted making it sufficient for Kremlin to continue its deterrent actions in Ukraine and beyond. Therefore, the EU sanctions policy aimed at economically weak Russia to refrain from supporting armed rebels in Ukraine and seek negotiations with European leaders have failed to reach its purpose (Kuncaitis, 2017). 


Policy Recommendations 

It is a known fact that Russians tend to believe that one needs to be strong to protect their home and family. Weakness is almost unacceptable in the Russian society and such qualities as bluntness and directness enjoy high esteem. One reason for this strength-oriented character is the Russian environment which has been harsh and unforgiving for centuries. Political liberties have been also poorly known, and for the majority of the 20th century Russians lived under a totalitarian regime. Russian people attach utmost importance to their land possessions and it is very much reflected in their leader’s actions abroad. For instance, the Crimean annexation gained Vladimir Putin an over-25% boost to his approval rating, as Russians rejoiced for what they believed to be a “restoration of historic justice”, seeing Crimea as a land of Russian military glory. Moreover, Putin’s strongman personality is often compared to the weaker character of Former President Boris Yeltsin, helping to cement his approval by the clear majority of Russians and helping to govern the country for almost 19 years.  

For the reasons stated above and the fact that hard military power is inherent in Russian thinking, it is essential that Russia is responded in the language it understands: strength and deterrence. 

This is in line with Former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s statement who argued: “They understand strength, and if they feel that their opponents are weak, they will take advantage of it. He feels he's gotten away with it so far, and that all he has to do is basically play the same game” (Fitzgerald, 2015). 

Vladimir Putin believes that the EU lacks strength and capabilities to fully fight for their interests enabling him to continue his policy of deterrence and interference in Ukraine and beyond. Individual European armies are limited in size compared to that of Russia and the US political and military leadership is essential in Europe. Although the U.S. military support is present in contemporary Europe, both Obama and Trump administrations have raised concerns about the European NATO members’ insufficient defence spending and planning with President Donald Trump specifically threatening to withdraw the US from the NATO calling the alliance ‘obsolete’ (Trump, 2018). Both EU’s military weakness and threats from its closest ally have undermined its credibility as a global power. Thus, the EU should develop its military capabilities shall the U.S. lose its willingness to protect the continent.  

Germany as the largest economy in the Union plays an essential role in strengthening the its military. An outsider perspective would opt for Germany acquiring nuclear weapons. That being emphasised, a nuclear Germany is a highly unpopular opinion in the German society and would violate the provisions of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons while tempting many other non-nuclear states to develop their own warheads. 

Therefore, this policy brief argues for Eurodeterrent, which advocates for the unified European Union nuclear force to tackle Russian threats while protecting the US military presence in Europe. Proposed by prominent German politician Roderich Kiesewetter, this policy involves French and British nuclear warheads stationed throughout numerous European countries whilst the costs of the warheads are paid by Germany. As a result, the belligerent parties would not only be threatened by France and the UK but also face threat from individual EU member states that possess nuclear arsenal (Wimmer, 2018). 

Unified European deterrent is especially necessary when Russia frequently sends nuclear signals to Europe by stepping up its nuclear exercises, by investing in new nuclear weapons and flying its bombers close to the EU borders (NATO Review, n.d). 

In order to achieve European deterrent, strengthening military and political cooperation between EU member states and the UK is necessary and the EU may need to reevaluate its current punitive approach towards Brexit and propose an exit deal that is based on mutual respect and in the best interests of both parties. As such, Europe with a nuclear deterrent capacity will gain a stronger image as a global player and may eventually cause the Russians to come to a negotiating table and seek for cooperation rather than provocation. 

Moreover, non-military deterrence methods should also be employed by the EU and NATO to deter Russia’s hybrid warfare in Ukraine that has made Western decision-making very difficult. These non-military deterrence means comprise increased resilience of cyber networks, seeking other suppliers in the energy sector and strategic communications that could detect false information and alter it. Non-military deterrence methods could assist Europe to discourage Russians by proving their efforts to be futile. 



Ivan, P. (2015). The Ukraine crisis and the demise of the European Security Order. European Policy Center. Available online:

House of Lords. (2015). The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine. London: The Stationery Office Limited, pp. 67-68. Available online:

Radin, A. (2017). Hybrid Warfare in the Baltics Threats and Potential Responses. Rand Corporation, Pp. 13-30. Available online:

Balla. E. (2017). Europe’s security threats: Ukraine revisited. P. 23. Available online:

Kuepper, J. (2018). What Caused the Russian Financial Crisis of 2014 and 2015. The Balance. Available online:

Kuncaitis, M. (2017). Why do the current sanctions against Russia not stop the war in Ukraine? Delfi by The Lithuania Tribune. Available online:

Fitzgerald, S. (2015). Leon Panetta: Russia, Putin Respect Strength, Not Weakness. Newsmax. Available online:

Trump, D. (2018). President Confirms He Threatened to Withdraw from NATO Over Funding Levels. Atlantic Council. 

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Wimmer, F. (2018). European nuclear deterrence in the era of Putin and Trump. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 

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NATO Review. (n.d). Deterrence: what it can (and cannot) do. Available online:



About the author:

Ali Jabbarli is a student at Vrije Universiteit Brussels, currently majoring in International and European Law. He has previously studied Bachelor of Commerce at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has completed his high school studies in Australia as one of the most outstanding students in his state. His main interest areas include the Australian economy and the international relations in Europe after the First World War.

About the author:

Ali Jabbarli

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