As the world watches Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are no easy or foregone conclusions. The precise sequence of events has surprised and shocked many observers, yet there have been warnings for some years about the risks of military confrontation in Europe, centring on Russia-NATO tensions and the unresolved conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Our Network of security policy leaders from 40 European countries, including Russia, has been watching the warnings signs, raising the alarm, and making recommendations for conflict prevention, de-escalation and risk management. In the midst of the current crisis, we would like to flag resources that help to explain what is happening now and provide context and principles for future efforts to re-establish peace and security.
Our Network of security policy leaders from 40 European countries, including Russia, has been watching the warnings signs, raising the alarm, and making recommendations for conflict prevention, de-escalation and risk management.
It is a central tenet of the ELN model to represent and respect the views and diversity of geographic Europe. We do not hold a single policy position as an organisation, and this commitment to nuance and debate provides our credibility and strength.
Since our inception, we have raised recurring messages and themes from this diverse body, who have very different political views but have seen the same risks coming. Revisiting Network material written from Ankara, Berlin, London, Moscow, Paris, Rome, Warsaw, and beyond, our Network has consistently warned of the inadequacies in European crisis management systems. These are again being tested.
To know where we are going, we must know where we have been, and it’s possible to identify three broad trends in ELN output over the years. These are, of course, relevant to how we respond and move forward today, covering: Insufficiency, (mis)interpretation, and interdependency.
The question now is: Do we listen and learn?
Insufficiency: Trust and communication
In 2014, ELN Chairman Des Browne and Network members Wolfgang Ishinger, Igor Ivanov, Adam Daniel Rotfeld and Senator Sam Nunn wrote of Ukraine that “the heart of the problem [was] a corrosive lack of trust among nations in the region.” Little has changed. Among the recommendations of a 2017 Policy Brief on defusing future crises in the shared neighbourhood were arguments that high-level dialogue was essential for all sides, and, conversely, it was self-defeating to portray dialogue as a “reward” or as “business as usual”. In 2018 an ELN brief argued that engagement was a fundamental requirement to better understanding and better policy.
The heart of the problem was a corrosive lack of trust among nations in the region. Des Browne, Wolfgang Ishinger, Igor Ivanov, Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Sam Nunn, 2014
In 2020, 58 members warned that the security situation in Europe was at its lowest point since the Cold War. Russian and NATO military forces were operating in closer proximity, official lines of communication had broken down, and arms control treaties had collapsed with nothing in their place. In a joint statement this month, 34 younger generation voices argued that leaders “must solve [the Ukraine-Russia-West] conflict not through military action but by diplomatic means. Solving this crisis requires a long-term vision and a genuine willingness to engage in constructive talks”.
Experience has shown that hazardous military incidents are most likely to occur when communication channels are weak. Since 2014, the ELN has pressed governments to reduce the risks from hazardous military incidents with real-world results. We’ve assessed destabilising effects of lack of transparency in military exercises and campaigned with partners in the Baltics for Russia and NATO to develop a much needed military-to-military dialogue. Former Foreign Ministers of the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom wrote for us that “History tells us that one of the most difficult aspects of major-power crisis management is maintaining control over events… we badly need to improve military-to-military communication and engagement between NATO and Russian commands.”
Today, more than ever, leaders must keep vital diplomatic and communication channels open.
(Mis)Interpretation: Root causes and narratives
A lack of understanding in Russia-West relations has contributed to misinterpretation and miscalculation. In a view from Finland in 2017, Board member Tarja Cronberg wrote that the EU’s policy towards Ukraine was hampered by a lack of understanding of the country’s complexity. YGLN’s Samuel Charap argued in 2015 that a series of failures in dialogue on Ukraine had resulted from fundamental misunderstandings of the underlying issues, and that these needed to be addressed to resolve the crisis. Similarly, Ozdem Sanberk had warned there was no “single provision in the [Minsk] agreement that Ukrainian and pro-Russian rebels fully agree on.”
Four years ago, former Polish Foreign Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz told of a scenario of overreach by separatists in Lugansk and Donetsk, in which Russia might decide to use military means, to push Ukraine on a path back to Moscow.
Igor Ivanov of the Senior Network wrote in 2014 that Russia-West confrontation would make any lasting settlement in Ukraine even more difficult, or even impossible. Senior Associate Fellow, Ilana Bet-El, told us in 2017 that “for some years Russia and the West ha[d] been falling into the pattern of confrontation created by the Cold War and rooted in the October Revolution”, and it was “time to sit down and have a serious discussion with Russia: listening to the other side does not mean accepting its narrative – but listening can help diffuse it.”
In partnership with the Russian International Affairs Council, the ELN hosted workshops to explore areas of common ground on narratives. Our Contact Group on Russia-West relations continues to work through these issues. A group statement issued in 2019 noted that “talking to each other may not have resolved our differences. But we have found that it has improved our understanding of them.” Ernest Wyciszkiwicz of the group later outlined the futility of simplistic labels that only serve to freeze political realities.
Talking to each other may not have resolved our differences. But we have found that it has improved our understanding of them. ELN group statement, 2019
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Turkey, Hikmet Cetin, told us regarding Ukraine that “the cost of the crisis to the international system is insidious and one that will probably get worse over time.” Ukraine today shows the potential for regional conflicts to extend to the global level.
Our former Director argued in 2014 that “policy-makers on both sides should remember that catastrophe can happen even when none of the participants intends it [and that] a strategic response to the current crisis means thinking beyond sanctions.” In 2017, YGLN member Maria Shagina showcased that dividing lines between pro and anti-sanctions states were not clear-cut.
A commentary published in 2015 argued that sanctions would “hurt many in Russia but may not impact Russian decision-making or help Ukraine” and warned of the possible “consequences of what would effectively be an attempt to turn Russia into a nuclear-armed failed state.” An earlier commissioned article by William Potter examined the nuclear implications of the Ukraine crisis on the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The ELN model
Our Chairman wrote that “No security architecture, old or new, can succeed without leaders who are committed to addressing and resolving core issues. No process or structure, however elegantly designed, can substitute for bold political leadership and agreement on shared goals.” ELN has been committed to providing leadership and bridge-building since its inception.
In our Network, disagreements are plentiful but there is a shared commitment to work toward practical, politically viable solutions on existential risk, which have stood the test of time. Our Task Force position paper in 2014 said that divisions between the EU and Russia over Ukraine demonstrated an urgent need to pursue a new European cooperative project. It warned that the EU-Russia relationship had not delivered on genuine partnership, and that several frozen conflicts in Europe represented a continuing risk of military conflict.
Our Task Force position paper in 2014 said that divisions between the EU and Russia over Ukraine demonstrated an urgent need to pursue a new European cooperative project.
As our Network members have long argued, the community of states and people that make up larger Europe must sustain dialogue, help build understanding and recognise the interdependency of our security. This will not be simple, but in a region where thousands of nuclear weapons remain central to security arrangements and ready to fire at short notice, the alternatives are worse.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.
Image: Ukraine, 2014, Flickr, Steve Evans