The EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: Invoking norms and values

JCMS |

by Giselle Bosse (Maastricht University)

The EU’s response to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 has been unprecedented, displaying rare unity among its member states, especially during the first four months following the invasion. The EU agreed on far-reaching economic and financial sanctions, the most severe sanctions ever imposed by the EU on a third country. The EU also provided military support to Ukraine through the European Peace Facility for the first time in its history. In another unprecedented move, the EU has implemented the Temporary Protection Directive, granting Ukrainian nationals and permanent residents the temporary right to live and work in the EU. Moreover, Ukraine and Moldova have been offered EU candidacy status. The EU’s rapid and determined response was unexpected in many ways, given member states’ previously diverging interests vis-à-vis Russia and on security and defense, significant differences on migration, and their general reluctance to expand the Union, or even grant candidate status to applicant countries. In my recent article in JCMS, I examine how the EU’s forceful response on such high-salience and contentious issues can be explained.

What we do(n’t) know so far about the EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine

The emerging scholarly debate recognises the unexpected and unprecedented rapid and determined response by the EU to the invasion, but few works examine the factors that facilitated agreement among member states. The main driver of the EU’s response is seen to be the sheer fact of a full-scale military invasion launched on the European continent, and the resulting threat to the fundamentals of European security. Yet, security considerations did not drive the EU’s responses during the first four months following the invasion. The EU’s most powerful member states Germany and France, whose role is considered essential to EU joint action by realist scholars, did not initially perceive the invasion as a direct threat to their national security and were later absorbed in domestic discussions on redefining their national foreign policy, which curtailed their ability to drive the EU’s response.

Approached from a different angle, the EU’s forceful response was possible because of a collective commitment to norms linked to international law and the principles of sovereignty and self-determination. Scholarship on the EU’s response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea demonstrated that, back then, member states accepted the political and economic costs of sanctions against Russia due to such a collective commitment. These norms were clearly visible again in 2022, as the EU has emphasised Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence’. However, in contrast to the EU’s ‘soft’ response to Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014, which did not include broad economic sanctions against Russia, the EU’s response in 2022 was tougher and cost member states substantially more.

Which additional factors may have led the EU to a more rapid and determined response in the first four months following the invasion?

How the EU’s response to the war in 2014 influenced the EU’s response in 2022

Against this background, my article asks in what kind of changed context the EU’s 2022 decisions became meaningful and rational, allowing for agreement to emerge among the member states on a set of unprecedented measures. The article contends that, given the dramatic change in context following the 2022 Russian invasion, key understandings, rationalities and norms invoked by the EU in response to the 2014 war took on new or fundamentally different meanings in 2022, inter alia propelling key actors in the EU to admit to previous misjudgement with regards to justifying policy choices in 2014. In short, I argue that in order to fully understand the EU’s response in 2022, it is essential to look back at how the EU reacted to the Russian war against Ukraine which started back in 2014.

How the ‘rupture’ of the Russian invasion led to changed understandings, rationalities and norms forging consensus among EU member states

The article examines the main lines of argumentation used by key EU actors involved in decision-making on the EU’s responses to Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 respectively, drawing on 18 semi-structured interviews with high level diplomats from EU member states, the European Commission and the European External Action Service between January and September 2015, and between June and November 2022.

The empirical analysis shows how key understandings, rationalities and norms invoked by the EU in response to the 2014 war took on new or fundamentally different meanings in 2022. For example, in 2022, there was a recognition that 2014 marked the begin of a continuous Russian war against Ukraine, in contrast to the understanding in 2014 that the events presented ‘not a war as such’. The argumentation in 2014 included that any solution to the ‘conflict’ must avoid the risk of escalation by Putin while peace being ‘worth a try’. This argumentation also embedded a number of speech acts vis-à-vis Russia, such as threatening tougher sanctions or isolation in case of further escalation, committing the EU to some further course of action in the event that Putin would choose to further escalate the ‘conflict’ to a war or full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

On this basis, and recalling the need to stay credible in light of the EU’s previous warnings against further escalation by Russia, the European Commission in 2022 successfully generated agreement among member states in favour of tough sanctions. That agreement was inter alia facilitated because the a priori rationality underlying the dominant approach used in 2014, centred on ‘not provoking Putin’ and ‘giving diplomacy a try’, was invalidated by the 2022 invasion. In addition, an invocation of duties towards suffering fellow-Europeans in Ukraine, and the re-conceptualisation of the EU’s spatial identity to include Ukraine as ‘one of us’ (as opposed to the framing as ‘European neighbour’ used in 2014) enabled those actors arguing in favour of unprecedented measures to gain the ‘higher moral ground’ in discussions among the member states.

This is not to deny the clear limitations of the EU’s response in terms of military support or guaranteeing Ukraine’s eventual EU membership. However, considering the EU’s previous enlargement fatigue and that Ukraine is neither (yet) a member of the EU or NATO, the EU’s invocation of moral duties towards Ukraine does constitute a significant change compared to the EU’s previous approach.

Outlook: The gradual withering away of ‘lessons learnt’ and EU moral duties towards Ukraine?

Since June 2022, EU member states have shown increasing signs of disagreement and subsequent sanctions packages have been ‘softened’ by numerous derogations. The decision to open accession negotiations with Ukraine (and Moldova) in December 2023 demonstrated the EU’s continued commitment, but also exposed divisions between the member states, which have also delayed the promised €50 billion funding programme for Ukraine. It remains to be seen in how far the ‘lessons learnt’ in 2014 and the EU’s moral duties towards Ukraine as ‘one of us’ will still play a role in EU foreign policy-making as the ‘rupture effect’ of the Russian invasion gives way to ‘Ukraine fatigue’, amid declining support for Ukraine by European publics, and with the EU’s attention shifting to the Israel-Gaza war.


Giselle Bosse is Associate Professor and Jean Monnet Chair in EU External Relations at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University. Her research focuses on the EU’s Eastern Partnership, EU relations with Ukraine and Belarus, EU democracy promotion and the role of norms and values in EU international relations.