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Ukraine Has Forced Russia to Regard the EU as Strategic Rival (5/2)     Print Email

By Mike Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

In the U.S. press there has been an undertone of commentary that missteps by the European Union helped provoke the Ukraine crisis that has now engulfed the trans-Atlantic alliance. The gist of the criticism is that the EU leadership, handling accession negotiations with Ukraine, failed to foresee how its accession offer would provoke an aggressive Russian response.

But if that is a historical debate without resolution, one new strategic calculus has emerged for the European Union from the Ukraine crisis, according to Dutch Foreign Minister Frans TImmermans: Russian President Vladimir Putin now sees the EU as a strategic competitor and nearly as big a threat as NATO.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barrosso had the opportunity to take on the historical issue with a Washington audience at the Atlantic Council. He asserted the outcome was unavoidable.

Ultimately, Barrosso said, Russia could not accept Ukraine's right to have an association with the EU or the concept that Ukraine had the right to determine its future.

Barrosso said he has met dozens of times with the Russian president.

"The goal of Putin is to have full control of Ukraine and if necessary occupy it. Putin has told me several times that an independent Ukraine was a creation of the West."

Timmermans, at the Atlantic Council and in a meeting with American journalists, said Europeans and the EU have neglected geo-strategic thinking since the end of the Cold War and now urgently need to convince European constituents that the issues are important.

The Russian-speaking diplomat and Labor Party politician said then Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych never expected the EU to go ahead with an association offer without the release of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. When the offer came, Yanukovych panicked, and then the Russians stepped in.

"Until very recently, Russia never saw the EU as a threat. It only recently started to see the EU as a strategic competitor,"

A fundamental difference, Timmermans added, is that the EU is based on the rule of law and in EU deliberations, even the big powers can be overruled or restrained. Such an outcome would be unthinkable for the Eurasian Union being pushed by Putin for former Soviet republics.

Now, he said, Europe faces in Putin a brilliant tactician who is hopeless on strategy, a failing of Russian leaders over history.

The danger, he added, “is that far-reaching tactical steps can have far-reaching strategic consequences."

Timmermans said the EU has to learn how to perform on a geo-strategic scale but up to now has lacked both the structures and political culture to do so. And on a more practical level, it must persuade European publics, in an era of austerity, to accept higher defense spending after years of declines.