UK House of Lords report - The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine


Veronika Czina             Adrienn Nyircsák


  • The EU institutions and the Member States “sleep-walked” into the Ukraine crisis and did not foresee its coming despite the early warning signs.
  • The sanctions against Russia should be renewed and tightened if there is no progress on the Minsk Protocol or improvement in the situation in Eastern Ukraine.
  • Sanctions should target Putin’s inner circle and the financial sector, but they cannot be an ultimate solution: their eventual removal should also be included in the EU’s negotiation package as an “exit strategy”.
  • The report condemns the UK and other Member States for not having been able to provide an “authoritative response” to the events.
  • More funds should be provided to Ukraine with strict political and economic conditionality.
  • The future EU-Russia relationship should be anchored in a strong campaign against corruption and cooperation in matters of common regional interest.
  • Member State unity towards Russia is conditional upon continuous political oversight and the adoption of a dual approach which serves a common goal.

On 20 February the House of Lords of the United Kingdom, more precisely its EU Sub-Committee on External Affairs, issued a report which can be seen as a thorough evaluation of the Ukraine crisis and the recent developments of EU-Russia relations. The report entitled ‘The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine’ does not handle either the EU or Russia with kid gloves, but its criticisms are constructive and contain viable suggestions for the future.

The European Union Committee of the House of Lords is responsible for considering matters related to the EU. It scrutinizes EU documents before decisions being taken on them in Brussels with the aim of influencing the UK Government’s position regarding the texts. The Committee also conducts inquires and reports to which the Government is expected to answer in writing. The reports are usually sent to the European Commission as well for consideration. The document was prepared based on evidence gathered from Russian diplomatic and policy-making circles and experts on Russia. The report, written in January-February 2015, comments on the actions of the Russian government with the primary role being to scrutinise the effectiveness of the EU’s policies towards Russia and to make recommendations to the UK Government and EU institutions.

The document consists of six chapters and a summary of findings and conclusions. After the 1st, introductory chapter, the 2nd part deals with outlining the main interdependencies that exist between the EU and Russia and with presenting the institutional agreements which form the basis of the EU’s relationship with Russia. Chapter 3 summarises the state of the EU-Russia relations by reviewing its evolution over the last 20 years and the role of the Member States today. In Chapter 4 the document focuses on the shared neighbourhood, meaning the geopolitical and economic competition between the EU and Russia in the neighbourhood, and the implications of the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union. Chapter 5 assesses the crisis in Ukraine and the EU’s response to it mainly through considering witnesses’ views, and the last part makes recommendations about how the relationship with Russia should be constructed.

The report makes quite a balanced assessment on the behaviour of both sides when explaining the cause of the deteriorated relationship between the EU and Russia. Through Russia’s tendency to separate itself from the EU and to appear as a rival, its Eurasian identity has come to the fore and the two powers became geopolitical and ideological competitors. On the other hand, the EU’s optimistic perception about Russia’s willingness to become a "European" country has been maintained for too long. Both the EU institutions and Member States have been slow to adapt to the realities. The report condemns the members of the EU for losing their analytical capacities and for failing to maintain oversight of the direction of the EU-Russia relationship. This resulted in the lack of an authoritative response.

The situation was further complicated by the current division of competences within the EU between the Commission and the Member States and by the Member States’ divided opinion on the situation. The cause of this lack of unity between the Member States lies in the countries’ different historical and economic ties with Russia. One of the main messages of the text is the necessity of a Member State unity on the Russian question. The writers argue that Member States have shown a “surprising and welcome” unity in condemning Russian actions and committing to the inviolability of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Although they hope that this unity continues, they discovered a lack of consensus on how to move forward with the situation, so they are afraid that the current unity might dissolve. As unity between Member States can be the main driving factor of an effective strategic policy on Russia, divisions can as easily lead to hampering such a development. Member States should not prioritize their economic relations over their shared strategic interests, but they must maintain solidarity on the current policy and continue to seek a common approach in the response to the crisis. This implies that any individual Member State action that goes against the EU’s sanction policy is undesired in the current situation.

In the analysis of the six stages of the crisis*, the report lists several significant factors that have contributed to the escalation and the mismanagement of the situation on the part of the EU. The first element is the lack of political oversight, or the “sleep-walking” of the EU and its Member States into the crisis. This implies that during the preparation of the Association Agreement with Ukraine, the EU did not anticipate Russia’s hostile reaction towards the developments, and it made assumptions based on previous observations without discussing the matter with Russia. Similarly, Russia also kept understating the importance of the issue for a long time, due to the absence of political oversight over the negotiation process. The report heavily criticizes the European Commission and the European External Action Service for failing to “connect the dots”, i.e. not considering relevant factors together in the context of the bigger picture; such as the intentions of Ukrainian leadership, the public mood in Russia and Ukraine, and the strategic importance of Ukraine to Russia, which all together lead to the eruption of hostilities. The report also remarks that at the moment of the turn of events the EU had only a limited opportunity to act, since Russia was also taken aback by the sudden realization of the determination of the Member States to conclude the Association Agreement.

The report carefully lays out the implications of both maintaining and altering the current regime of sanctions. In general, it deems it effective in terms of economic effects, but it is doubtful whether it has been successful to generate a political impact within the Russian government. Sources have reported no significant change in the attitude of the Russian president in geostrategic issues. Furthermore, Russian retaliatory measures have been causing economic hardship especially in Eastern Member States and even in Germany. Additional adverse effects may arise from the fact that sanctions take toll on the population of Russia and Ukraine, which can contribute to the reigning nationalist and anti-EU rhetoric and can be thus exploited by political leaders.

The analysis suggests that the EU review its sanctions policy and tighten if necessary to generate further effects, especially in the inner circles of the Russian government. However, on the long term the EU should opt for the progressive removal of the sanctions since the three-tier restrictions are detrimental to both the EU’s and Russia’s interests. In addition, the EU is advised to back up its strong political support of Ukraine, which is entrenched in fundamental European values, with more resources invested in the country’s economy recovery and fight against corruption.

The most worrying sign of the current stalemate is the lack of dialogue with Russia which has been causing growing frustration among European officials. The report highlights the urgent necessity of initiating trilateral negotiations between the EU, Russia and Ukraine. This is not an easy feat, given the fragile status of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The Committee advises the EU to adopt a “tactical and pragmatic approach” to the Russian occupation of Crimea, by prioritizing the restoration of dialogue with Russia over the immediate resolution of the situation.

The report concludes that on the long term the EU will have to live with Russia as a neighbour and as a regional power member of the UN Security Council. In this spirit, it proposes a series of actions for the EU and its Member States to unite their efforts in the prospect of a successful EU-Russia relationship.

The Minsk Protocol remains the basis of any move towards peace, but it is not being implemented at the moment. The first step in dealing with the crisis happening in the EU’s neighbourhood should be distinguishing between the legitimate and the illegitimate security interests of Russia. The second step could be to create a strategy to promote reform in the neighbourhood and make a new effort to rebuild relations with Russia. The report also encourages a review of the European Neighbourhood Policy, to be undertaken by the High Representative of the EU for CFSP and the Commission.

Final recommendations for the future made by the EU Subcommittee on External Affairs of the House of Lords (UK) to restore a peaceful EU-Russia relationship:

  1. The EU should conduct a thorough evaluation of Russian interests and political culture.
  2. All engagement with Russia must bear no prejudice to EU rules and values.
  3. Combatting corruption should become primordial aspect of the EU-Russia relationship.
  4. The EU must be more stringent in ensuring that Member States comply with anti-corruption legislation and should provide additional resources to smaller members lacking the adequate capacities to combat corruption.
  5. The EU and its Member States must insist on holding Russia accountable against violations of human rights within the Convention system.
  6. The EU should seek possibilities of cooperation with Russia on the basis of shared interests in a common economic space and security architecture.

Recommendations on building Member State unity:

In the long term, only a dual approach to Russia can be effective, relying on both European-level and Member State action in the service of a common policy.


* The phases distinguished by the report are 1. Early discussions on the Association Agreement (AA); 2. Suspension of the signature of the AA and Maidan protests; 3. The flight of Yanukovych; 4. Annexation of Crimea; 5. Rebellion in Eastern Ukraine and downing of MH17; 6. Minsk Protocol. 


The views expressed above belong to the author and do not in any way represent the views of the HAS Centre for Social Sciences.