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War in Ukraine: What EU and the West can expect from the future threats?

As was expected by the USA, in the end, Putin has decided to start a large-scale military operation against Ukraine, bringing a new war in the European continent. The reasons behind the attack were presented as to defend the territories of Donbas and to “demilitarize” Ukraine. Putin, and his foreign minister, have stated many times that the attack is not meant to invade all of Ukraine, even though the attacks have also reached the Western part of the Ukrainian territory, such as the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security at Yavoriv close to the border with Poland1.

The reasons seem to be more profound and linked to the Eastern expansion of NATO, due to the fact that Putin has requested several times, to the Western counterpart, to ensure the neutrality of Ukraine.

The EU along with other countries, as a consequence has decided to opt for a package of massive sanctions against the Russian Federation, Belarus, and some personalities linked with Putin. The Western countries have decided to attack from the economic point of view, since any military troops sent to help Ukraine will be seen as a direct attack on Russia and, therefore, could turn into a large-scale conflict with even more dramatic outcomes2.

The objective of the sanctions is to destabilize the Russian economy and try to trigger resentment from the Russian population3. However, historically speaking, the sanctions never served as an effective tool to stop a military attack, because it is the population that is the agent suffering the most from these measures, especially when we consider an authoritarian regime.

Nevertheless, for the Western countries, these measures seemed to be the only tools available, so far, to respond to Putin’s war.

What kind of sanctions?

The Russian Federation was already the object of European sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. After that episode, sanctions have been regularly renewed4. The tensions have also grown over Russian intervention in Syria, Libya, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, the commercial relationships, between Brussels and Moscow, remain close, given each other’s dependence.

EU to hold Russia 'accountable' for Ukraine attack, prepares new sanctions  | Al Arabiya English
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a statement following the conclusion of an EU Foreign Ministers’ meeting on the crisis in Ukraine, in Brussels, Belgium February 22, 2022. (Reuters)

The rapid Western response has shown a renewed solidarity, among European countries and within the transatlantic relationships. The measures adopted have evolved and will continue to change according to the progression of the war. The sanctions to the Russian economy are many and concern many sectors such as technology, trade and transport and will be in place at least until 31st of July 2022, since they can be renewed every six months5. The boycott targets people and entities responsible to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence. Among these people, there are the Russian president Vladimir Putin, Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and different personalities in Belarus. Diplomatic measures and restrictions on media, such as Russia Today and Sputnik, have been included in the package6.

On the US side, similar measures have been adopted, adding to the European ones. On the 8th of March, the USA banned all imports of Russian oil and gas. But do Russian exports represent that much for the US economy? In 2021, Russian crude oil and refined petroleum products exportation to the USA represented about 700 000 barrels per day. The ban will potentially deprive Russia of billions of dollars per year in revenues from the USA7. However, Russian crude oil and petroleum product importation represent only 8% of all imported oil and less than 2% of the total US supply8. Hence, the effects on the USA’s economy will be noticeable but very contained.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Association Graphic: Monica Hersher / NBC News

Can the countries from Europe follow the lead? The UK proposed not to import Russian oil by the end of 2022, but Russian oil imports represent 8% of the total UK oil demand9.

However, European countries are more dependent on Russian oil and gas than the US or the UK are. Indeed, a quarter of its oil and 40% of its gas are from Russia10 and huge differences can be seen among countries. Is it realistic that a common block may answer the Russian question?

As it can be observed, in this case, the EU is not able to answer as a block to the Russian case. Many countries brought their specificities and exceptions in banning Russian energy.

In the first semester of 2021, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and Finland had more than 75% of their petroleum oils imports coming from Russia. Concerning the gas imports, for Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Austria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Finland, more than 75% were from Russia11. The other European countries have all important shares of Russian gas and oil imports. These extremely pronounced dependencies cannot allow these countries to act unanimously and reject, as the US could do, Russia from their energy mix.

Italy is one of the countries that risks the most. A glance at the Italian energy mix shows that reliance on natural gas for electricity production keeps on rising and reached almost 45% of the total12. Moreover, it receives more than 40% of its natural gas from Russia. But it is not the only sector that may drastically suffer from potential sanctions. The Italian luxury goods businesses and banking sectors are also at risk13. Germany supports this position about not banning Russia from the SWIFT system, yet14.

This dependency on the energy sector impacts tremendously the entire Union. At the production level, such as the industrial sector, a rise in the energy prices may drastically affect the whole European economy. A worse-case scenario would be the complete cessation of Russian energy exports towards the EU.

Was Russia prepared for Western sanctions?

After the Crimean annexation of 2014, Western countries already adopted economic sanctions against the Russian Federation. This provoked a deterioration of the relations between the two sides15 that nevertheless have remained tied by fossil fuels. Since 2014 and the economic embargo, the Kremlin needed to revise its policies and economic relationship with the West towards more independence, while the EU has remained predominantly dependent on Russian energy imports. The reorganization aimed to be able to withstand any potential additional Western financial pressure.

Many important shifts in the Russian economy happened in the past years but they have been ignored by the West, especially by the EU.

First of all, Russia has tried to be more economically tied to the Chinese economy. Moscow is, indeed, already selling LNG and gas to Beijing via ‘Power of Siberia’, a pipeline that is long 3000km and is designed to export a capacity of 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas (bcm) per year. This line feeds the domestic consumers in the Far East of Siberia and China. The agreement was already taken in 2009 by Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), but the gas started to be pumped only in 201916. More recently, on the 4th of February 2022, a new contract by the two sides was signed. This agreement coincided with Putin’s visit to Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics, while many Western countries boycotted it diplomatically as a protest due to human rights violations in the country17. According to the new accord, Gazprom will deliver 10 bcm per year more via the Far East Russian region, and it will start in 2-3 years18.

So far, in additioning to the different exportation agreements from Russia to China, gas prices tend to fluctuate daily.

The deal was settled in Euro, with the specific aim to diversify from the US dollar, and thus, try to be more independent from the West. Indeed, after the sanctions following the invasion of Crimea in 2014 hit, Russia has drastically reduced the use of US dollars in its economy19.

Source: Bank of Russia

This has been done to “de-dollarize” the economy. For instance, the Russian debt is more in rubles than in dollars compared with the past.

Furthermore, Western sanctions also hit oligarchs’ properties. To maintain strong support for his actions, president Putin used to reward oligarchs domestically in Russia20.

Another important development is the attempt to switch from the financial circuit SWIFT to the CIPS one. Western leaders believe that cutting out Russia from the SWIFT would be a “nuclear measure” financially speaking. Banning Russia from SWIFT would mean that the Russian banks would need to find new ways to communicate with foreign banks already in the circuit, which could be costly and inefficient. However, Western leaders, especially European ones, are skeptical about using it, since it would hit them as well, given the strict binds that they still have with Russia21.

Relying on CIPS could be a window opportunity for Russia at this moment. CIPS was created in 2015 to increase the global use of the yuan in the countries that are in the Belt and Road Initiative and, more importantly, to reduce the dependence on US dollars22.

Nowadays, Washington has significant leverage on the global economy, since most of the transactions and trade are made through US dollars.

Nevertheless, CIPS is still a weak system compared to SWIFT. Only 76 banks are direct participants, which means that they are the only ones that can exchange information through CIPS. All the indirect participants still rely on SWIFT. The success of the Chinese financial circuit depends on the yuan’s internationalization – by now the yuan’s share of global payment accounts 3.2%.

Finally, Russia has expanded its currency reserves to 631$ billion equivalent, which corresponds to a third of the entire Russian economy, to be prepared if sanctions would have hit. The dollar accounts for only 16% of the reserves, and it has been replaced with gold, euros and China’s renminbi23.

….But not enough to face sanctions.

“Russian economic officials are pretty proud, and have good reasons to be, for the work they’ve done to make the Russian economy more immune to sanctions” Alexander Gabuev said, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center24.

Even so, Western bans still have an important effect on the Russian economy, particularly in the long term. This could be due to the unexpected readiness and compactness of the EU members taking these decisions. More likely, this shows that both sides are still deeply connected.

The Kremlin remains fully dependent on exports of fossil fuels, rendering the economy volatile to oil and gas prices and imports, even if Russia is redirecting its energy exportations towards other clients.

Source: OEC

On the other hand, the EU members persist in depending on Russian gas. Indeed, by not targeting Russian exports on gas, Brussels leaves maneuver of action to President Putin.

The Kremlin remains convinced in the path towards independence from its Western counterpart. In a meeting between the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia, Mr. Sergey Lavrov has stated that “we will solve this problem in such a way that never again will we depend on [our] Western partners, be it governments or companies that are not guided by the interests of their business, but have become a tool of political aggression, Russia is now experiencing from the West”25.

Considering all the economic sanctions directed towards Russia, was it possible to predict an escalation of the situation in the Eastern parts of Ukraine?

The US desire to expand the containment policy introduced by G. Kennan was considered by many, including Brzezinski’s view of the US’ position towards Russia in the Grand Chessboard, to be dangerous and may have had as a consequence a Russian outcry and physical operation, as it did happen. As it can be noticed the expansion of NATO, towards the Eastern parts of Europe after the fall of the URSS, occurred despite many statements that NATO would not be extended eastward. As Zelikow and Rice reported in their book called Germany united and Europe transformed in 1995, former US Secretary of State Baker made clear to former Chancellor of Germany Kohl what he had discussed with former President of the Soviet Union in February 1990 about a unified Germany tied to NATO “with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not be shift one inch eastward from its present position”26.

Even if the meaning of these words has been clarified later on, by James Baker stating that he was mentioning only East Germany, the subtlety of their words may be lost. The situation resides in the fact that no written assurances were signed from either Baker or Kohl’s sides. Nevertheless, after this episode, NATO began to move eastward, and after five waves of extension a great part of Eastern Europe, if not all, was under NATO’s jurisdiction, surrounding de facto Russia. NATO’s defense system has been improved in the past decade, despite Russia’s criticism of the potential escalation of tensions that it may cause at the Minsk summit in 200727. In Poland the installation of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (ABMD) or the one installed in Romania greatly increased tensions within the region28.

Moreover, in February 2019 the administration of U.S. former President Donald Trump announced the suspension of the USA participation in the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) stating that Russia developed a prohibited missile. Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that the US anti-ballistic missile defense systems in Europe could be used for offensive purposes. This treaty was ratified by the USA and the Soviet Union in 1987 to eliminate their stocks of intermediate-range and medium-range missiles, so missiles having ranges from 500 to 5500 km29. In August 2019, the withdrawal of the USA from the NFI Treaty was completed, leaving at that time only the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in place to limit US and Russian nuclear weapons deployments, that was supposed to expire in February 2021 but both sides agreed to extend the treaty through February 4, 2026.

The US withdrew30, in November 2020, from the so-called Treaty on Open Skies and Russia followed in January 202131. This Treaty established a program of unarmed aerial surveillance flights to prevent misunderstanding, limit the escalation of tensions and enhance mutual trust among the different participating countries.

Looking at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, military movements have been spotted at the borders between Ukraine and Russia since November. The concentration of troops did raise apprehension among Ukraine and its Western neighbors. It could also be observed that politically, the Russian Communist Party (KPRF) submitted a draft resolution to State Duma to ask for the recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic32 to protect its population from the economic blockade it suffers33. According to Georges Kuzmanovic, the will to recognise the Donbas region as independent does not limit itself to the two already mentioned Republics but it also includes Mariupol and Cherson areas and concerns roughly speaking the Eastern part of the Dnieper river. Hence a territorial connection with the territories of Crimea would then be created; it is important to state that it is widely accepted across the Russian Federation that Crimea is part of it, Navalny’s position is even aligned34. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Russian passports were delivered to Ukrainian citizens living in the self proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics. Since April 2019, procedures to obtain Russian citizenship for residents of these two self-proclaimed republics have been simplified and since then over 720 000 residents have received Russian passports35. Consequently, the statement that Russian citizens may be under attack and at risk in these regions could have been used as a pretext for Putin to defend its population. Especially since military violence has been present in this region for the past 8 years.

It can be seen that rising tensions have been present for the past decades, with fewer and fewer international treaties to regulate relations among the actors.

Who stands with Russia?

On the 2nd of March, after a special session of the General Assembly was requested, a resolution was adopted demanding Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders”(UN). Despite the fact, the resolution didn’t sort out the important effects on the Russian move, it is, nevertheless, fundamental because it put different countries in front of a decision about the aggression in Ukraine. A total of 141 out of 193 UN Member States voted in favor of the resolution, such as all the EU Member States and the USA, that have reaffirmed the condemnation of the Russian aggression against the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine and to be ready to give aid to the Ukrainians36. Among them, Serbia voted in favor. Indeed, the condemnation wasn’t considered so sure, given its resentment for NATO – because the Alliance is the main concern behind Russian aggression. “I’d like to […] remind the first attack against a sovereign state on the soil of Europe after the Second World War, to place not so long ago in 1999, when 19 countries attacked at that time the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, primarily the Republic of Serbia, and there was no appropriate reaction of such distinguished institution to this flagrant violation of the UN Charter” the representative of Serbia said, “despite the fact they still suffer from the consequences […] Serbia is not giving up these principles even today” he followed.

FILE PHOTO: Serbian permanent representative Nemanja Stevanovic during the speech in UN General Assembly. Screenshot:

Against the resolution, there were Belarus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Russia and Syria. They claimed that the Western threat towards Russia and not considering Russian security concerns brought an escalation of the situation.

Finally, 35 UN Member States abstained, in which there was China. Beijing fully endorsed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries but “the draft […] doesn’t highlight the principle of indivisible security or the urgency of promoting political settlement and stepping up diplomatic efforts”, “it is important to give full attention and respect to the legitimate security concerns of all countries and on that basis conduct negotiations” the representative of China stated37.

The positions taken at the UN tend to show the appearance of two blocks at the international level. The first one, the West, opposes itself entirely to the Russian military operations in Ukraine. The second, illustrated mainly by the sino-russian cooperation, for various reasons, are opposed to discredit univocally the Russian concerns about NATO expansion and the threats to its national security that may result from it.

Despite the overall united answer to Russia’s attack, recent events seem to highlight fractures within the Western block.

An example can be AUKUS, which is a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. This pact was announced on the 15th of September 2021. Two main features are part of this agreement. The first one is the nuclear-powered submarines that the Royal Australian Navy will acquire from US technology38, undermining Australian-French relations, another important Indo-Pacific power in the area. The second one is the enhanced efforts on joint capabilities and interoperability on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities39.

As stated earlier, this AUKUS agreement has been criticized by many international actors. On the French side, French ambassadors were recalled from Australia and the US to protest against the cancellation of the Attack-class submarine project and the short notice of the Australian retraction before its official announcement. The People’s Republic of China’s Foreign affairs department spokesperson declared that this agreement erodes regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race and is firmly opposed to it40. These words were supported by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister41.

Hence, the anglo saxon relationships seem to improve and prevail in this region of the globe, putting aside powerful countries that are present worldwide, such as France, promoting distrust and de-unity; nethertheless creating the conditions for the development of another Cold War mentality.

China as a Russian ally?

“Friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” Russia and China said in a joint statement after the agreement reached at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing42. The deal represented a path towards a stronger alliance with Beijing, already started after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that led Moscow further from the West and closer to Mr. Xi Jinping.

The Russian aggression over Ukraine is considered by Beijing as a move against the international order built by the West and it says that Moscow’s security concerns should be considered more.

On the other hand, Chinese relations with the EU and USA – already damaged by the human rights issue – are vital to its economy. Explicit support of the war would reduce even more the relations with the West. Chinese trade with Russia is high, but not enough to put under discussion the relations with the rest of the world43. Moreover, China has commercial interests in Ukraine, since it is a country in which the Belt and Road Initiative passes.

The relations between Moscow and Beijing are not crystal clear. Russia doesn’t see China as a threat as it is for the Western countries, however, there is not full trust between each other. For instance, Russia doesn’t use Chinese technology for its security services and, as it is for most the countries, Russian companies have problems entering the Chinese market44.

Their partnership – which is an informal alliance so that they’re not committed to supporting each other – works mostly because their economies are complementary. China is a manufacturing power but has few resources, for this reason, it needs Russian gas. On the other side, Russia needs investments and help in broadening its economic base45.

Furthermore, their relations reflect an asymmetry biased towards Beijing, which has more power. They’re not united by an ideology, but more by a joint resistance to the Western liberalism against the US world order, and the specter of mutual aid serves as a deterrent46.

This relation explained why Beijing has not publicly condemned nor has endorsed Russian aggression over Ukraine.


Taking into account the recent events, it is likely that Russia will distance itself more in all the fields from the West. This could result in more independence and it might evolve in a closer relationship with China. If it happens, the Chinese counterpart would take the lead in this partnership, given the asymmetry in their relations. It shows that Russia may prefer to be on the back burner in this sino-russian partnership than having a more prominent position with the West but not seeing its national security considerations taken seriously.

The same holds for Beijing, which is trying to be more individualistic in its policies. Covid-19 inserted China into a more isolationist trend towards an economic and technological aspiration of self-sufficiency. “I think they used Covid-19 as a good excuse to go home and close the doors – as that is the way they like it” a Moscow Sinologist said47.

The decarbonization of the Chinese economy and the construction of an independent payment system – the CIPS – suggest the will of Beijing to acquire more autonomy.

This more pronounced independence could help China to be away from Western pressure for eventual military operations against Taiwan. The similarities between Ukraine and Taiwan have been expressed by the West, after the Russian attack. Nevertheless, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said that the two issues “are not comparable” since Taiwan has never been independent while Ukraine is a dispute between two sovereign countries48. Anyway, a conflict isn’t likely to happen in the short term. Beijing is still deeply economically connected to the West. Furthermore, a new congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be held in the second half of 202249. The assembly is fundamental for Xi Jinping, to secure its position as head of the party. Starting an invasion by risking not to achieve the desired results, would put the Chinese president in a delicate position. In addition, Beijing is competing for the economic global primacy against Washington, being, thus, now focused on that field.

By now, what China has learned from the war in Ukraine, and thus can bring back for an eventual military operation against Taiwan, is that if the stakes are high the Western response may be ready and uniform. However, if, in the long term, China realizes an independent economy, the West wouldn’t be able to respond firmly as it has happened with Russia, since China wouldn’t need the Western bridges. Ukraine represents, then, a wake-up call for the West in the future geopolitical order.

Then, the EU is facing rising tensions between these two already mentioned blocks. However, its stands cannot be as firm and as cutting as the USA as the Union is too economically dependent on the Russian one. Moreover, the Western Block shows elements of distrust and fragility within it. Even if it is late, the evolution of the current situation may represent the moment for the EU to speak for itself and not count on the help of the anglo-saxon part.

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Léon De Tombeur

Diplômé en Histoire à la Sorbonne et en Relations Internationales à Lyon III, je me suis notamment intéressé à la politique internationale de l’Union européenne. Animé par un désir de contribuer à l’Europe afin de la rendre plus sociale et respectueuse de l’environnement, je me suis rendu à Bruxelles afin de travailler de concert avec les institutions européennes. Ma spécialisation tend davantage vers le domaine de la défense et de la sécurité, j’ai réalisé mon mémoire de fin d’études sur le futur de la défense anti-missile du continent européen. C’est pourquoi j’ai choisi le portefeuille de la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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