Europe seeks strategic autonomy in de-escalating Ukraine crisis

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (2nd left) speaks with Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other attendees as they take part in a European Union leaders extraordinary summit to discuss the crisis between Russia and the West over Ukraine in Brussels on Feb 17, 2022. (YVES HERMAN / POOL / AFP)

ROME – Leaders across Europe have been on a diplomatic blitz to de-escalate tensions between Ukraine and Russia while seeking a strategic autonomy in line with European interests.

On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen joined European leaders in pushing to achieve a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis, calling on Russia to take concrete action towards de-escalation

On Thursday in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and visiting Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio voiced a commitment to a diplomatic settlement to the crisis.

"Russia … has emphasized its readiness to discuss and seek ways out of this crisis. I heard the same statements in Kiev from my colleague Kuleba (Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba)," Di Maio said at a joint briefing with Lavrov.

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The meeting epitomizes the shared aspirations of countries in Europe to seek a solution to the current crisis.

DIPLOMATIC ENGAGEMENT

On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen joined European leaders in pushing to achieve a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis, calling on Russia to take concrete action towards de-escalation.

The roll call of European leaders who in recent days called for avoiding conflict in Ukraine includes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

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Earlier this week, Scholz met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev before meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Scholz said that dialogue remains crucial despite differences between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union with Russia.

An honor guard marches to the Ukrainian government office building during a Day of Unity celebration in Kiev, Ukraine, Feb 16, 2022. (PHOTO BY SERGEY STAROSTENKO / XINHUA)

Europe is faced with one of its most dangerous crises in decades, and there is an urgent need to defuse tensions regarding Ukraine and prevent a possible war, the German leader stressed.

Macron, who also met with Putin and Zelensky, said at a joint press conference with Scholz in Berlin that pursuing dialogue with Russia is "the only path that will make peace possible in Ukraine."

Andrei Bystritsky, chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of Russian think tank Valdai Discussion Club, said that Macron was the first major European leader who flew to Moscow and Kiev "at a time when everyone was scaring each other with the threat of some attack."

The discussions around the idea that the Minsk agreements remain the foundation of a Ukrainian settlement have reached a new level, said Bystritsky.

STRATEGIC AUTONOMY

While European nations share the goal of avoiding an armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in searching for a way out of the current stalemate, they are charting a course that differs from that of the United States.

For years, the EU has emphasized strengthening strategic autonomy.

Bystritsky pointed out the European leaders' visits showed that "no one wants a war and that dialogue gives fragile hope that it would ultimately be possible to build a more effective European security system."

"European countries have their own set of priorities, whether it's about energy supplies, trade, or the refugees that such a conflict would no doubt produce," said Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at the Russia, Caucuses and Central Asia Center at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meet to discuss the security situation around Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine, Jan 19, 2022. (UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE / HANDOUT VIA XINHUA)

"It makes perfect sense for European nations to be focusing on their own priorities, even if there is a global consensus that conflict should be avoided," Tafuro told Xinhua.

The standard view held by most national leaders lobbying Putin to avoid war is self-determination for Ukraine, said Sarah Whitmore, a senior lecturer in politics at Oxford Brookes University and honorary fellow with the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham.

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"I think countries see a moral responsibility to do what they can do to avoid conflict," Whitmore told Xinhua, pointing out that domestic concerns are also helping drive national positions.

Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, stressed that EU member states have divided opinions on sanctions against Russia.

Although some member states openly support the introduction of preemptive sanctions against Russia, the sanctions are unlikely to materialize due to other EU countries taking a more constructive approach, such as Spain, Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Hungary, Suslov said.