The President's Take

Managing the Global Fallout of the War in Ukraine

European policies vis-a-vis the war in Ukraine have drawn criticism for their secondary effects. In her introduction to the Watch List 2022 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group President & CEO Comfort Ero offers ideas for how the EU and its member states can address the war’s global fallout.

More than seven months into Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) and Kyiv’s other Western allies deserve credit for navigating the difficult balancing act of supporting Ukraine politically, financially and militarily without getting dragged into a direct confrontation with Moscow. Yet Europeans are still grappling with the undesired effects of their response to the war in Ukraine – both inside and outside Europe. They also struggle to explain their policy to foreign partners, particularly in parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America where the war’s economic repercussions, often aggravating pre-existing hardship, will likely be felt even more strongly than in Europe itself. Governments in these regions often view Europe’s response to the conflict with some scepticism. European policymakers do not have to concur with criticism from other parts of the world; indeed, some of that criticism is off the mark. But – as some European policymakers are increasingly aware – they do need to take the concerns seriously and find ways to better address them. 

While many non-Western governments condemn Russia’s invasion and sympathise with Ukrainian suffering, they often express reservations about the EU’s and other Western allies’ response to the war. Some point to the EU’s double standards, contrasting the welcome received by Ukrainian refugees with the treatment of asylum seekers from elsewhere. Others believe the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West are exacerbating global commodity shocks, particularly hikes in food and fuel prices, without having a decisive impact on Russia’s behaviour. A number of leaders outside Europe refuse to join efforts to isolate Russia, often due to specific national interests that they believe would make it counterproductive to do so. Many are frustrated by the attention they see European leaders giving to Ukraine above other pressing crises that touch more directly on their own interests. In parts of the world, all these doubts come on top of frustration at the slow pace of COVID-19 vaccine distribution and at what many in the Global South view as inadequate climate funding from Western capitals. 

Not all criticism of the EU’s policy is justified. Russia clearly shoulders the blame for the war and its global ramifications, since it illegally attacked its smaller neighbour. Throughout the war, it has destroyed and stolen Ukrainian grain supplies and damaged grain storage sites. For months, it blockaded Ukraine’s southern ports in the Black Sea and closed off the Sea of Azov, while responding to Western sanctions by banning the export of many commodities from Russia, including the fertiliser that many countries rely upon. All these actions have exacerbated an already dire global economic situation and contributed to major price hikes and shortages in key Russian- and Ukrainian-produced commodities, with major implications for global food security. Moreover, grievances at Western capitals, while entirely understandable, should not stop governments around the world from taking a clear stand against violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the repeated nuclear threats issued by its bigger neighbour. 

Nonetheless, Europe’s interests would be better served by its leaders recognising and engaging with critical views rather than rejecting them out of hand, which too often still happens. Some concerns from outside Europe are valid. Sanctions have, for instance, contributed to the cascade of global economic shocks; they have sent jitters through financial, insurance and energy markets and complicated payments to Moscow even for non-sanctioned commodities. European pressure on non-Western countries to choose between Russia and the West has painted leaders whose countries’ interests are not served by such a stark choice into a corner. Moreover, European bandwidth to deal diplomatically and financially with crises outside the continent has dwindled in the months since Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Even where criticism is perhaps misjudged, perceptions matter and can undermine the EU’s wider interests and, in particular, its role in promoting peace and stability. Awareness is growing in Brussels and European capitals that failing to address these concerns, whether real or perceived, is straining existing partnerships and starting to hamper the EU’s diplomatic clout and soft power. There are several ways European leaders could reverse this trend. 

First, the EU should make sure that it continues to address concerns related to the global economic fallout of the war. In word and deed, it should convey that it cares about the rising cost of living around the world. The EU and its member states, which together are already one of the world’s largest providers of development and humanitarian aid, have increased their financial support by scaling up humanitarian relief and contributing €600 million to an ad hoc fund aimed at cushioning the blow of the global food crisis. Their continued focus on these pressing global challenges will be critical at a moment when much of the developing world is facing a “perfect storm” (the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inequalities, surging commodity and fuel prices, plus in parts of the world the ravages of climate change), exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. 

Relatedly, the EU should do what it can to ensure that constantly evolving Western sanctions levied against Russia do not aggravate global inflation. The EU’s exclusion of food and agricultural products from sanctions and retroactive measures to unfreeze Russian bank assets for transactions necessary for agricultural trade are already steps in that direction. Nevertheless, sanctions continue to have secondary effects on global markets, particularly in the energy sector, which then reverberate more widely (as Crisis Group has explained previously). Brussels could speak more openly with other governments about these side effects, in order to have more constructive conversations about mitigating measures (such as better communication to reduce over-compliance, monitoring loopholes that affect global supply chains and removing obstacles to trade in non-sanctioned goods). Such an approach would do a lot more to boost EU credibility in the eyes of non-Westerners than the dominant narrative from European leaders insisting that the largest sanctions package ever imposed has no unintended consequences. 

Secondly, the EU could try to better explain its policies toward Russia. It needs to find better ways of debunking Moscow’s rhetoric claiming that it is engaged in an “anti-colonial” struggle with the West. So far, Europe has tended to rely on a strategy of “fighting fire with fire” (as one European official put it) painting Russia itself as an imperialist and colonialist power. Accurate as they may be, such references are unlikely to be winning arguments coming from those Western European countries that are successors to the colonial powers that ruled much of the world in centuries past. (Ukraine and other states in the post-Soviet space are better placed to make this case.) Europe’s communications also run the risk of reinforcing the perception that the war is not a consequence of Russia’s illegal attack on Ukraine, but rather the result of a broader standoff between the West and Moscow, playing into Russia’s own interpretation of events. Rooting arguments in the basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, which most governments deeply care about, would stand a better chance of resonating. 

Thirdly, Europeans should avoid pushing governments into choosing sides. At the war’s onset, the EU pressured many states to demonstrate loyalty by isolating Russia. The main goal was to shore up support for Ukraine, but the approach also reflected an emerging EU tendency to try to contain Russia’s global influence. Parts of the Sahel, Central Africa and Eastern Europe have, for example, become arenas of confrontation in Europe’s tussle with Russia. It is a dangerous game. The EU cannot guarantee that states will privilege their links to Paris or Berlin, for example, over those to Moscow. The reality is that these governments often have strong motives for maintaining ties with Russia, ranging from energy policy and historical relations to dependence on military cooperation. Threatening to cut off ties – including some forms of development aid – to governments that seek to tighten relations with Moscow would risk alienating partners, undercutting European diplomacy and hurting the people of the countries in question. It may well reinforce the anti-Western sentiment Europe seeks to check. 

Some European leaders have softened their rhetoric around this issue, but not all. At the 2022 UN General Assembly’s opening session, EU leaders such as Council President Charles Michel and EU High Representative Josep Borrell went to great lengths to stress that Europe cares about other parts of the world, too, and that the “EU does not ask anyone to choose between East or West, North or South”. Unfortunately, there is still no real alignment on this stance with member states. Take French President Emmanuel Macron’s strong words at the General Assembly: he called countries that refused to take a side in the Ukraine war “complicit” in the “new imperialism”. Overall, European leaders should try to avoid creating a sense in their messaging toward non-Western governments that they are pushing poorer countries into being “a breeding ground of a new Cold War”, as Senegalese President Macky Sall, the chair of the African Union, put it in his own General Assembly speech.

Lastly, Brussels should not lose sight of crises beyond Ukraine. Attention to Ukraine is entirely understandable given the implications for Europe and, indeed, the global ramifications. But many non-Western partners are irritated by what they view as Europe’s inattention to other parts of the world since February. 

In reality, European leaders have played important peacemaking roles in several places even in recent months. EU officials, for instance, engaged in extensive shuttle diplomacy amid rising tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and also contributed to stave off a violent confrontation between Kosovo and Serbia. Those efforts have not resolved what are intractable crises, but the diplomacy has still been worthwhile. Europeans have worked tirelessly to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal and deserve credit for helping keep Iran and the U.S. engaged, even if prospects for reviving the agreement now appear gloomy. Europe’s support for Kenya’s vote, including an observer mission, helped secure a peaceful transition of power in a country that has experienced large-scale electoral violence in the past. 

In private, however, some EU officials acknowledge the limited bandwidth they have had for other conflicts since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU has used less of its clout than it otherwise might have to prevent escalations in Iraq, Libya and – perhaps gravest of all – Ethiopia, where more active diplomacy might have helped prevent the collapse of March’s humanitarian truce. The war in Ukraine could easily grind on for some time. Europeans should make sure they have time and attention for other peacemaking efforts and responses to humanitarian crises elsewhere. Some of these – the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Horn of Africa, Sri Lanka and Venezuela – are highlighted in this Watch List

That the war in Ukraine has consumed European attention and, in some ways, contorted its foreign relations is hardly surprising. Russia’s invasion is the continent’s gravest security challenge in decades. It has shaken the foundations of Europe’s security architecture and upended many assumptions about what the future for the continent holds. Thus far, as the Ukraine entry below makes clear, the response of the EU and its Western allies has been critical in helping Kyiv resist Russian aggression, while for the most part minimising risks of a direct North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-Russia war. For that the EU deserves credit. 

Nonetheless, Europe has been perhaps a bit tone-deaf to concerns from elsewhere about its policies and, while many top officials’ tenor is changing, more can be done. A different dynamic with partners – requiring a more open approach to addressing the negative fallout of its actions, more consideration of its foreign partners’ interests and a shift of its narrative toward the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity – would go a long way toward addressing concerns. Most importantly, the EU should devote time, energy and resources to crises in other regions even as it supports Ukraine. One does not have to view Europe’s historical role abroad through rose-coloured glasses to recognise that a world with less European energy for peacemaking and less European money helping mitigate humanitarian suffering or promote development is one that is considerably worse off. 

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