Europe's "Most Dangerous Moment" - An Interview with Pierre Vimont

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine escalates, the world is witnessing what the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell claimed is “the most dangerous moment for security in Europe after the end of the Cold War.” On the topic of the Ukraine crisis, Visiting Professor of International and Public Affairs Pierre Vimont discusses what brought us to this moment, where we are today, and where we are headed. 

Emma McDonnell
February 28, 2022
  1. On Thursday morning, Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine. What comes to mind as you see this happen? What do you think will determine how this conflict progresses? There are military factors, but what about the political and diplomatic factors? On both a European and global scale? 

Unfortunately, this dramatic turn of events and the Russian decision to invade Ukraine was to be foreseen since Vladimir Putin went on television last Monday and made his now well-known speech that definitely closed all diplomatic channels. The writing was on the wall, and the military option was unavoidable.

In the short term, any diplomatic effort will be far-fetched. It is difficult to imagine the Kremlin stepping down now that the decision to invade the whole of Ukraine has been taken. So diplomacy has to wait and see. The one opportunity that could appear would be a military situation where the Ukrainian defense would be strong enough to slow down the Russian offensive and get the conflict bogged down. Then there might be calls for a cease-fire and room for diplomats to step in.

But for the time being, military developments on the ground are the ones that are going to shape the political reactions from all sides. And if a stronger national resistance may perhaps surprise the Russian military and slow down their rollover, the Russian military superiority, unfortunately, makes the issue of the conflict predictable. There is little doubt that we are going to see a firm military and political takeover of Ukraine. I hear a lot of observers referring to the precedent of Georgia 2008. My own guess is that we may be more in line for Czechoslovakia 1968.

Is there an opportunity later on for diplomacy to come back onto the scene? It may take some time before diplomatic channels are open again. The post-Cold War order if ever there was one is now over. As said before, it is on the ground that the new security order is going to take shape. For Western partners, it means preventing for the moment Russia from moving further toward NATO countries. The Russian President’s insistence on Ukraine last Monday may indicate he is not looking beyond Ukrainian territory. Yet with this Russian military intervention in Ukraine, whether it leads to full occupation or meets resistance from the local population, we are back to the Cold War times and it will be a long time before rebuilding any kind of European security order. The Helsinki arrangements are gone and one can fear that going back to a rules-based coexistence between Russia and the rest of Europe will require a lot of patience and time. Looking retrospectively at the way President Putin misled in recent days all his interlocutors and their mediation efforts, it is obvious that trust is gone now. And rebuilding trust needs time.

  1. In a New York Times article published last Monday, the day of Vladamir Putin’s speech declaring to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Thomas Friedman discussed the West’s expansion eastward into the post-Soviet space via NATO and EU membership in the years following the Cold War. Friedmann explains that following the Senate ratification of NATO expansion in 1998, he called George Kennan, the architect of the containment policy who on the topic declared, “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake.” Fast forward to today, many debate as to why the West would push itself into a space that was reeling from the aftermath of the Cold War and, at the same time, place itself on Russia’s doorstep? Do you think this has led us to today, and we are seeing the implications of this play out?

I believe so. One can certainly assess, as Thomas Friedman is rightly saying, that we missed the opportunity in the immediate post-Cold War years, between 2000-2010, to build up a contractual relationship with Russia that could have led to a peaceful relationship. If you remember when Putin came into power, right at the turn of the century, he made some interesting openings, even proposing to be party to the NATO alliance. This was gently dismissed by western partners. Then he went to Germany and made a rather interesting speech in the Bundestag, proposing cooperation and friendship. But the West thought this was unnecessary as Russia was no longer considered as a significant geopolitical actor. Then, Russia, feeling rejected, went on its own course. 

Fast forward to today, Russia is certainly to blame for having repeatedly used force and violated international law, and multilateral and bilateral agreements. Russia went into direct military conflict with Georgia in 2008 and with Ukraine in 2014 and once again today in 2022. This is evidence that we have not managed to go back to where we were right at the beginning of the century and I think both parties missed by then a real window of opportunity. The question today is how to reinvent a similar moment and find the ways and means of peaceful coexistence between a Western military alliance, which is what NATO is, and a Russian nation that feels threatened by such an alliance. We can go on repeating that NATO is a purely defensive alliance and has no aggressive intention against Russia, but the problem is that Russia feels aggressed and we have to take that into account. Now the problem from now on following the ongoing Ukrainian invasion is that we are probably facing a completely different Russia from the one that was calling for dialogue ten years ago. There have been calls from some European leaders for a discussion over a new European order. Yet is Russia genuinely dedicated to discussing a new security order based upon the principles and values agreed in Helsinki? More precisely, as we observe their current attitude, is the Russian leadership still ready to abide by the principles of the UN Charter? By their own behaviour in recent weeks, one can be doubtful. Once again, the issue now is how to rebuild trust in the aftermath of such a stunning action.

  1. In the years that Ukraine has dealt with Russia, Europe's common stance has been “We express deep concern about Russia’s actions.” This generally creates the impression that Ukraine has Europe’s “concern,” but that is the extent of it. Conversely, it has also signaled to Russia that there would be a limited response to Russia’s involvement in the country. Many argue that this has laid the foundation of weak diplomacy. This has evoked criticism and skepticism of Europe as a figure here. How would you categorize the different responses and approaches up until this moment? And what have been the driving factors and motivations in their response?

First, the difficulty is as soon as Europeans discuss Russia, not only are they deeply divided but they tend to have highly emotional debates. The Russian issue hits a very sensitive note, which is natural because of history and geography. One cannot expect Poland, Romania, or the Baltic States to respond and react in the same way as other Western European countries like France, Spain, or Italy, which are all very far away from Russia and therefore can take a more open view on this. This has to be taken into account. You have to reconcile major diverging points of view. 

Second, seen from the European side, setting up the Eastern Partnership policy in 2009 represented a gesture of openness towards East European neighbours with the objective of building up a mutually beneficial partnership. From Moscow’s perspective, this partnership looked more like an encircling move of Russia and even worse, like stepping into what Russia considers its sphere of influence. It is all very well for Europeans to say that we do not accept the mere idea of sphere of influence, but the reality is there. Western Europe was de facto expanding its presence and influence in parts of the European continent that were close to Russia and therefore stirring a sense of hostility on the Russian side. This may well be a complete misperception from the Russian side but it was there for all to see as Russia furthermore refused to take part in this Eastern Partnership when proposed. Europeans should have taken this frustration into account but they did not and from there on the gap simply widened. We haven’t been able to manage this in the proper way. We needed a fine balancing act and never really found it. Not to say that we are the only ones to blame. Russia’s obsession with maintaining its sphere of influence distorted its understanding of what Europe was trying to do. We could have maybe prevented this with improved dialogue and listening to one another. This has resulted in growing tensions, misunderstanding, misperceptions and what today has become direct antagonism.     

  1. France’s President, Emmanuel Macron has continuously floated the idea of European strategic autonomy. Some are critical of strategic autonomy and would prefer to strengthen the European pillar of NATO to take the more dominant role in matters of security. On the other hand, many feel as though Macron and French government officials have a point about the need for Europeans to create a common continental security approach to more strongly position the EU’s role in world affairs. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think failure to do so could result in Europe being sidelined from major discussions and being threatened on its doorstep?  

Strategic autonomy is the right idea, an idea that is in line with what Europe needs to do today. But the problem of strategic autonomy is that it has been mostly promoted by the French who are immediately perceived by most of their European partners as trying to impose their vision of Europe as a major global power. And this concept of Europe as a global power represents a notion that many European Union members find problematic, This is all the more striking as a more thorough discussion on strategic autonomy usually meets a genuine consensus when EU members are discussing industrial policy, economic and financial autonomy, the future of European digital industries, how to be more present in new technology, and defend our interests in relation to environmental protection and climate change. To a very large extent, European leaders can easily adhere to the strategic autonomy being applied in these fields. But when it is about foreign and security policy, they are somewhat uneasy because they think that such autonomy can only lead to a decoupling with NATO and undermining the military alliance with the United States which they consider essential for their own security. This point of view has strong foundations and t has to be taken into account. And yet, at the same time, we hear from Washington that Europeans should pay more for their own defense and take a greater share of the security burden. So there may be room for compromise in the security field if all sides recognise that a European security policy could stir a constructive complementarity with NATO whose main mission, the collective defense of Europe, has regained prominence with the Ukrainian crisis while the monitoring and management of other sources of tension in Africa or in the Middle East could belong to the responsibility of Europe. Yet, out of the security field,   strategic autonomy is also and probably essentially about how Europeans can defend and promote their own interests when need be. Here the issue is not about decoupling from our US partner, it is how Europeans live up to the global competition they are facing today in all the fields where the future is being shaped from new tech to digital, climate change, vaccines,… If we want to remain a player in today’s world then we need to get our act together. 

  1. The unified Western response that we are currently seeing will not just disappear over the next few weeks and months. In looking at this “us versus them” situation, has Russia done more harm to itself than anything? And if so, how? 

I think so. I would hope that the Russian leadership would reflect on this because what they have done in recent weeks had the immediate effect of uniting and enhancing the NATO and Western alliances. Just look at what happened earlier this week, this is very striking. The first sanction package that was released right after the Russian decision to recognise the independence of the two Donbas regions came from the Europeans and with it came the decision to suspend the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Two or three weeks ago, we didn’t know what was going to happen. Germany was accused of wobbling on this issue.  But with the Russian move on Donbas, Germany immediately made the decision, in close consultation with America. What was a difficult, political topic inside the coalition was swiftly overcome. All in all, this is a major setback for the Russian leadership. One can only hope this does not go unnoticed in Moscow and that some lessons will be learned out of this major blow to their own expectations of dividing the Western allies.

  1. I wanted to discuss the role of diplomacy thus far. A number of Western countries like the United States and Canada were quick to relocate or evacuate Kyiv. The diplomatic presence can often be a significantly stabilizing role in such scenarios. Do you think the situation would have progressed differently if Western countries maintained their embassies in Kyiv?

Naturally, due diligence must apply. Governments have a responsibility to protect their own citizens and also their officials who work in their embassies. Asking your nationals to leave the country which is about to go into an open conflict is the proper way to act. For the embassy staff, one has to make a distinction between staff who do not need to remain and those who must in my opinion stay on the ground. Why? A government must keep eyes and ears to keep observing what is going on and send all the useful information while also keeping the communication channel open with the local government. But it also has a psychological and political dimension. It is a way of showing solidarity in the present case with the Ukrainian population. By simply being there, it is a demonstration of empathy and friendly presence in those difficult moments. Experience shows that local populations are grateful for that presence because they feel the pressure of the ongoing tension and they can easily feel very lonely. The longer diplomats can stay, the better.