The unfolding political catastrophe in Ukraine has led not only to a vivid debate about appropriate crisis management but also to deep European soul-searching about the root causes of the disaster.
The situation is complex, and no one actor deserves all the blame. But it is now clear that the EU made almost every strategic mistake possible in its handling of the Ukraine file. Europe's leaders should examine those mistakes carefully to avoid making them again in the future.
Initially, the EU's Eastern Partnership appeared to be moving in the right direction. Until late 2013, the EU had an interesting offer for Ukraine: a series of association and free-trade agreements that would grant the country access to Western money and markets.
The EU institutions made the project a priority and created an impression of political unity around it. Even the European Neighborhood Policy's conceptual flaws, analyzed lucidly in a recent paper by Carnegie Europe's Stefan Lehne, did not derail the undertaking. Everyone expected the Ukrainian government to sign the EU accords at a summit in Vilnius in November 2013.
But then everything fell apart.
In their first mistake, Europeans completely misread their interlocutors' motivations and interests. The EU failed to see that then president Viktor Yanukovych was not interested in developing Ukraine's economy and modernizing its politics and society. All he was concerned about was his political survival. The EU's tools, with their assumption that Ukraine would be willing to reform, were bound to be useless.
Even more disastrous was the EU's misreading of Russia. In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has talked about the Kremlin's fears of Western encirclement. He has declared that EU and NATO enlargement are part of a conspiracy to destroy Russia, that Ukraine is not really a sovereign nation, and that Western agents provocateurs were behind Ukraine's 2004-2005 Orange Revolution.
Amid all that rhetoric, the West failed to recognize that Putin was deadly serious. Such talk was dismissed either as cheap propaganda or as the mild lunacy of a handful of overideologized true believers. Nobody imagined that Putin himself really believed his own bluster.