James Sherr
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
EU President Herman Van Rompuy (L) greets Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) during the Russia-EU Summit on 28 January, 2014 in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.EU President Herman Van Rompuy (L) greets Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) during the Russia-EU Summit on 28 January, 2014 in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.

In the lead-up to Monday's EU-Russia summit, Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador, warned the EU not to 'test Putin’s patience'. In recent years, patience has been tested on both sides: by energy policies, human rights and, not least, the question of relations with the common neighbourhood between the EU and Russia.

But the issue of Ukraine overshadows them all. What began as a protest has become a national uprising. President Viktor Yanukovich is not only losing legitimacy, but control of the country. The opposition’s ostensible leaders are led from below. Sanctions are unlikely to have much effect. Negotiations over an electoral process to replace the current regime look increasingly quixotic.

A sense of alarm over these developments is all that Brussels and Moscow now share. The elixir of trust is nowhere to be found. In December Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, described the protests as a 'long-prepared script' motivated by the EU’s desire for a 'free addition to their profits'. Since then charges of interference by the West have multiplied. When Mr Lavrov states that Russia 'will do everything to stabilize the situation', the EU wonders what Russia has in mind.

Yet the alarm only underscores differences of principle and purpose. For the EU, the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbours is a foundation of the post-Cold War order. This means they have freedom to choose their goals and partners. It also means freedom from economic coercion, a principle enshrined in the 1994 Budapest document, which Russia signed. The EU is convinced that Russia broke this rule on the eve of the November Vilnius summit. By doing so, it unleashed the protests that, in Mr Lavrov’s words, are now 'spinning out of control'.

The document also insists that the post-Cold War order is based upon 'respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law'. Yet as Moscow sees it, a sovereign state can interpret these principles however it sees fit. It regards the dispatch of EU emissaries to Ukraine as rude interference, irrespective of what is taking place there. For 20 years Kyiv has been asking the EU for advice on everything from legal codes to security sector reform. But this cuts no ice in the Kremlin.

As the rivalry between Brussels and Moscow has intensified, the Kremlin has set itself against what it calls 'Western messianism'. It not only seeks to entrench the principle of a multipolar order, but one in which different value systems are equally legitimate. Over the past 10 years Vladimir Putin has wrapped Russia’s neo-feudal and increasingly predatory system in the mantle of Slavic and Orthodox values. This 'civilizational project' has loose bounds. It encompasses compatriots wherever they might live. It applies to all those 'whom Russia has influenced'. And it applies most emphatically to Russia’s self-designated sphere of privileged interests. The success of this project abroad is increasingly linked to the legitimacy of the system of governance at home.

Ukraine is both the pivot and Achilles heel of this entire construct. If Poles and Balts adopt EU norms and standards, that is their choice. But if Ukraine does so, it raises the possibility that Russia might one day do the same. The logic is not new. Many of Russia’s greatest reformers, from Alexander II to Mikhail Gorbachev, believed Russia would be imperilled if Ukrainians developed a political identity of their own. Mr Putin, so wrongly seen as Soviet by his western critics, has rejuvenated an older imperial mentality. The title of a recent article in Russkoye Obozreniye, a Russian periodical, caught the mood: 'Without Ukraine, Russia can remain an empire, but it cannot remain Russia.'

The difficulties for the EU are more profound than many realize. No solution to the current impasse can satisfy both the Ukrainian protesters, who are demonstrating for democratic principles, and a Russian state that aspires to re-establish its regional hegemony.

In fighting for Ukraine, after all, Mr Putin is fighting for himself. No one knows how far he will go. In recent days Mr Putin is rumoured to have warned Mr Yanukovich that the promised aid will be in jeopardy unless the Ukrainian opposition is crushed. Those reports deserve to be taken seriously. For now more drastic action – including military intervention – is the stuff of speculation rather than fact. When the stakes are high, Russia’s leadership has demonstrated a willingness to take risks. But it has never been reckless. Much depends on whether this truth holds in today’s conditions.

Yet Ukrainians will not settle lightly. The protest movement there is a reproach to anyone who believes that principles do not matter in international politics. The EU must ensure that it does not also become a monument to Europe’s impotence.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Financial Times.

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