Fatal Attraction: Ukraine, EU Soft Power and the Capability-expectations Gap

Kristian L. Nielsen

While the significance of the deterioration of EU-Russian relations due to the Ukraine conflict since late 2013 has received much attention, less attention has been paid to the nature of the EU's role in the run-up to, and during the conflict. This paper argues that the EU's role has been characterised by two distinct, yet classic dynamics. First, the EU's much-vaunted soft power arguably played a key role in mobilising the initial Euromaidan protests against Viktor Yanukovych's sudden U-turn on the Association Agreement. The EU thus became the focal point for Ukrainian aspirations. However, the very impact of EU soft power also carried with it a Ukrainian expectation for a clear EU policy in support of the country's aspirations. Yet, this turn of events also brought about a classic capability-expectations gap, as the EU was unable to respond adequately to a rapidly changing situation. As Russia resorted to military aggression and illegal territorial annexation, Ukraine - perhaps naively - expected external support, only to find a relatively unresponsive and passive EU. The difficulty of reaching internal agreements in the Council has led to a policy based on the lowest common denominator, as the EU has continuously proven unable and unwilling to rein in Russian aggression. Ironically, the EU's own soft power exposed a capability-expectations gap that has brought about great instability on the EU's periphery and posed the greatest challenge to European security since the end of the Cold War.

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