how Europeans are working in unison to try to defuse tensions with Russia

“The path of cooperation between Russia and us is still possible.” The President of the European Commission called for the de-escalation of tensions between Moscow and the West, Wednesday, February 16, after several weeks of concerns around a possible invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army. “NATO has yet to see any signs of any reduction in Russian troops, and if the Kremlin chooses violence against Ukraine, our response will remain strong and united”however, warned Ursula von der Leyen.

>> Follow the latest news about the Ukrainian crisis live

This declaration, between the threat and the attempt at appeasement, illustrates the intensity of the crisis between Moscow and the West. The deployment of large Russian contingents on the border with Ukraine since the fall of 2021 still raises fears of a new conflict on this front. However, the Kremlin announced on Wednesday the departure of part of its military forces from Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Thursday, the Russian Ministry of Defense again assured that “certain phases of the exercises were coming to an end, and thatgradually, the soldiers will return to their home bases”. Corn “it’s a process that is extended over time”he specified.

A screenshot from a video released on February 16, 2022 by the Russian Defense Ministry, showing military vehicles leaving Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.  (RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY/AFP)

“You can see [dans ces annonces] the result of the diplomatic efforts of European states, which have made the need for de-escalation heard”, esteem with franceinfo Cyrille Bret, associate researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute. Because the communication battle between Washington and Moscow on the Ukrainian crisis has not “produces no effect in two months”, notes the teacher at Sciences Po. In parallel with these discussions and those led by NATO, the EU has therefore found itself in a unique position to try to defuse the crisis.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed an intense “European diplomatic ballet”, emphasizes Cyrille Bret. The leaders of the 27 member states, led by Paris and Berlin, have multiplied calls with Washington, Moscow and Kiev. Emmanuel Macron, who holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, and the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, even made the trip to Russia and Ukraine to advance negotiations between the two countries. “France and Germany are the two biggest players in the EU, so it is normal that they are leaders on this file”reports to franceinfo Edouard Simon, director of research at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris).

“Historically, France and Germany have a position of dialogue and openness towards Russia. Berlin for economic issues, Paris for geopolitical reasons. But as leaders of the EU, they must defend the interests of 27 as a whole.”

Edouard Simon, research director at Iris

at franceinfo

Since the annexation of Crimea, EU members have succeeded in presenting a united front on the Ukrainian question. A more complex task than it seems. “The EU has a common foreign policy, but any decision must be taken unanimously. It only takes one country disagreeing and no measures are adopted”, recalls Edouard Simon. In the Ukrainian file, they have nevertheless managed to agree for almost eight years: “The 27 not only decided on sanctions against Moscow in 2014, but they have systematically renewed them since.”

This unity is all the more notable because “without diverging, the interests of each state towards Russia are different”. Viktor Orban’s Hungary is Moscow’s closest ally in the EU. Conversely, Poland and the Baltic States adopt a tough stance vis-à-vis the Kremlin. “The main objective of the Europeans nevertheless remains to prevent a return to war in Europe, continues Edouard Simon. Concern over the annexation of Crimea has therefore allowed for a more concerted approach to relations with Moscow, although foreign policy is more a matter for the states.”

The European institutions play a key role in these internal discussions. The European External Action Service (EEAS) and its High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, “make the link between the capitals to adopt a common position”, explains Edouard Simon. At the beginning of February, Russia sent 27 identical letters to member states on the subject of the Ukrainian crisis, in an obvious attempt to play on European divisions. But the Kremlin received only one response, from the head of EU diplomacy, recalls The Express.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, on January 8, 2020 in Brussels (Belgium).  (DURSUN AYDEMIR / ANADOLU AGENCY / AFP)

If the leaders of each State multiply the press conferences, behind the scenes, Brussels “carries out important linchpin work: sharing information with the 27, coordinating dialogue between the capitals and decision-making”, list Cyrille Bret. This notably enabled the Foreign Ministers to agree on a common (and firm) response to Russia in mid-January.

Faced with this united front, Moscow seemed to open the door to appeasement on Tuesday. “The announcement of the withdrawal of Russian troops from the border with Ukraine is a sign of good will that should not be overestimated”, however warns Cyrille Bret, who recalls that “Russia knows how to blow hot and cold”. “The Kremlin could decide to conduct other military exercises or to increase its naval presence in the Black Sea”he illustrates.

NATO also declared on Wednesday that it had no “noted any de-escalation on the ground at this stage”. Russia can still invade Ukraine without notice, capabilities are in square”, insisted the secretary general of the organization. The White House has even accused the Kremlin of having deployed 7,000 additional troops to the region, where Westerners estimate that more than 100,000 Russian soldiers are now positioned. “All the indications we have is that they are ready to (…) attack Ukraine”Joe Biden said Thursday.

Less assertive about Russia’s intentions, European leaders remained wary. The lyrics are fine. We are waiting for the actions. If the actions are there, it will be even better”, launched the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on Tuesday. Ursula von der Leyen, for her part, assured that the EU was ready to reduce or cease its orders for Russian gas in the event of aggression in Ukraine. If theand “goodwill gesture” of Moscow could constitute “a starting point for further negotiations”it does not therefore mean the end of the crisis, analyzes Edouard Simon. “At this stage, Russia has not achieved any of its goals,” in particular to ensure that Ukraine will not join NATO and to obtain the withdrawal of American troops from Central and Eastern Europe, recalls the specialist in European security and defense issues.

As tensions remain high between Moscow and Washington, the EU is faced with a crucial question: what new sanctions to adopt against Russia in the event of aggression against Ukraine? Suspending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project would have serious consequences for Germany, which is very dependent on this energy resource. And any sanction against Moscow would have economic and geopolitical repercussions for all Europeans.

“The response to Russian aggression in Ukraine would probably fall within the competences of the EU, but also those of the member states. It would therefore be an important test for the unity of the 27”, Judge Edward Simon. If the situation were to escalate, the tactics adopted by Moscow would be decisive. “If there was a frontal aggression, the European consensus would be preserved”says Cyrille Bret.

“What is certain is that it is becoming more and more difficult to make the voices that support Russia, which appears to be a threat, heard within the EU.”

Cyrille Bret, researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute

at franceinfo

Faced with this explosive situation, the 27 European leaders met on Thursday “to take stock of the latest related developments” to the Ukrainian crisis. “We urge Russia to take concrete and tangible steps towards de-escalation, because this is the condition for sincere political dialogue,” recalled the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, on the eve of this meeting. “We can’t forever attempt diplomacy on one side, while the other side is amassing troops.”