Helpless in the Face of Russian Aggression

Joost Lagendijk
March 04, 2014

For the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman, PN Member Joost Lagendijk, former Member of the European Parliament, assesses how the West is reacting to Russia's "act of aggression" against Ukraine. 

Listening to the choir of American and European specialists since the Russian takeover of Crimea, there seem to be only few things that everybody agrees upon. One is that this is 2014 and not 1853, so a second Crimean War is not in the cards because nobody, except maybe some Ukrainian ultranationalists, wants it. But how, then, to react to what all agree is an act of aggression that clearly violates Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity?

Do European leaders recognize, as Judy Dempsey urged on her blog “Strategic Europe,” that the age of illusions about Russia turning into a modern state governed by the rule of law, is over? Are Europeans ready to accept that the EU and Russia are now engaged in a massive and dangerous struggle for Eastern Europe? Not really.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers warned that if Moscow does not back down, Brussels will suspend bilateral talks on visa-free travel for Russians and will consider further targeted measures. The ministers left it to their bosses, the European prime ministers and heads of state who will convene for an emergency summit this Thursday, to take the plunge and decide on what will probably be a short list of rather harmless steps that will not impress Russian President Vladimir Putin. The reason behind this cautious approach is the insistence, especially by Germany and the UK, on not rushing to implement sanctions that would hurt European interests, and first investing in international mediation between Russia and Ukraine. Washington went one step further by suspending military ties to Russia, calling off trade talks and warning that the US is preparing to impose sanctions on high-level Russian officials such as visa bans and the freezing of assets. Only few observers expect these initiatives to change Putin's calculations.

Is there more that could be done, realistically speaking? Several Russia specialists have underlined that neither the US nor Europe can stop Putin because the Russian president is determined to prevent Ukraine from drifting too far toward the West, both economically and politically. As Julia Ioffe put it provocatively in the magazine The New Republic: “While Washington and Brussels huff and puff about lines and sovereignty and diplomacy, Russia will do what it needs to do and there's not a thing we can do about it.” Others disagree and have stressed the dependency of the Russian economy on international financial markets and the billions of dollars that Russia's elites have invested in the West. According to this logic, wealthy Russians will turn against Putin's reckless adventures if their accounts will be frozen and their access to the US and the EU barred.

That argument was, however, refuted by Ben Judah in a powerful article in Politico magazine. He thinks that the EU is not going to cut Russia's rich off from their wealth because, in Judah's words, “Europe is run by an elite with the morality of the hedge fund: Make money at all costs and move it offshore.” Judah is also convinced that, eventually, this is not about the Ukraine but about Crimea, the majority Russian peninsula that is at the heart of Russian romanticism. Putin knows that millions of Russians will cheer him as a hero if he returns Crimea to them and there is nothing European politicians or bureaucrats can do about that.

Where does that leave Turkey? Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said that Turkey does not want a crisis with Russia about Crimea. On the other hand, he has also stressed that Ukraine's territorial integrity should be protected and that Turkey stands by the approximately 280,000 Muslim Crimean Tatars that constitute 12 percent of the total Crimean population. Many Tatars are afraid that they could be the first victims of an orchestrated campaign that would pit them against the Russian majority. The Crimean Tatars are known for their nonviolent resistance to Russian domination in the past. But, as one insider put it in the Washington Post, “If Russia does not back down and tries to annex and hold on to Crimea, it is certain to face sustained and mobilized opposition from the Tatars.” It is not clear what Ankara will do when faced with such a scenario.      

At the moment, it seems Putin will be able to get away with his Crimean power grab because neither the US and Europe nor Turkey is willing to run the risk of entering into a conflict that would harm the interests of all parties involved.


Originally published by Today's Zaman.

Photo by Mitya Aleshkovsky.


Joost Lagendijk has been Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009. He is now living and working in Turkey as a columnist for the Turkish dailies Zaman and Today's Zaman.