EU must reflect on Russian checkmate

(B2) The upcoming Eastern partnership summit in Vilnius will have to settle for a much less ambitious agenda than initially anticipated after Ukraine turned its back on an association agreement and free trade pact with the EU

Between Moldavia and Ukraine… (© NGV / Bruxelles2)

Out of the four countries with which the EU hoped to sign a deal, only Moldova and Georgia will initial an agreement at the end of this week. Armenia made the choice to stand by Russia’s side, and Ukraine has just decided to follow the same path.
Is it a failure or an excess of self-confidence on the EU’s part?
Launched by the EU in 2009 at the Prague Summit, the Eastern partnership was originally destined for six countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The goal was ambitious: “Consolidate democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and gradual integration in EU economy and greater mobility for the citizens” (the visa liberalisation process). It also foresaw financial aid. From 2010 to 2013, €1.9 billion were allocated to these countries.
In order to consolidate this change, the EU put in place association agreements, designed to replace the former partnership and cooperation agreements. They also contain a “deep and comprehensive” free-trade dimension. In other words, the aim was to link the countries strongly to Europe, while at the same time driving them away from Russia, which has always opposed the Eastern partnership dynamic.

Kremlin besieged

Over the past 20 years, Moscow’s sphere of influence and its economic attraction zone have gradually shrunk.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, in 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev accepted to withdraw the troops from Germany and other satellite countries but only if the freed countries don’t become members of NATO, a promise that was not kept. Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia in 1999 and then Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states in 2004, all have joined the Alliance.
In 1991, with the break-up of the USSR, the Baltic States took their independence easily, but in Moldova and Georgia the separation came with bloodshed: thousands of lives were taken during the autonomy wars of Transnistria and Abkhazia.

A change of paradigm

As long as it was about satellite or non-strategic countries, Moscow did not react. But the 2008 military response in Georgia, when tanks were sent to “protect” the people of Ossetia and Abkhazia against the “aggression” of Tbilisi sounded like a warning, which should have made the EU think.
Putin’s and Medvedev’s Russia is not Yeltsin’s Russia.

Russia’s refusal of the American missile defence has forced Washington to review its system. Gazprom has successfully developed alternatives to the European Nabucco project, even attracting EU countries like Germany, France, Greece and Bulgaria.
The Kremlin is also looking to position itself on the world stage. Its support to the regime in Damascus and its brilliant coup in the dismantling of the chemical weapons proves it. Its place in the negotiations with Iran confirms it.

EU misjudgement

The EU has misjudged all of these facts. Instead, it reveled in its “global approach” and strategic partnerships, copying an enlargement policy, which has been a success so far. But by doing so it has overestimated its own power and underestimated the Russian reaction.
By aiming at Ukraine, Europeans knew they were setting foot in the heart of Russian power.
“Everyone is well aware of the geostrategic importance of Ukraine and that it’s about extending the EU borders 2000 km eastward”, a Minister participating in the negotiations admits.

The Kremlin “negotiated” globally: all means available – economic and political – were used. Threats over Georgian and Moldovan wine, Ukrainian gas, hygiene issues with the Lithuanian milk and tensions with the Dutch diplomacy were all just the visible part of the iceberg.
Russian officials continually traveled back and forth to Kyiv to bring the country back in the Russian sphere, by using the stick and the carrot.

Caught in their own trap

Europeans have in fact been caught in their own trap. By making Yulia Tymoshenko the banner of liberty and the sine qua non condition to the signature of the association agreement, they gave Ukraine an excellent argument not to sign it, without having to break up with Europe.

By insisting on her liberation, even though she is not the “paragon of freedom”, as one Minister put it, the Europeans wanted to control destiny.
To break the deal with Europe, all the Ukrainian president had to do was leave her in prison.
The surprise was hard to swallow. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle cancelled his trip to Kyiv and it took the EU 8 days to come up with a reaction.

Mea culpa

The EU will have to review its strategy toward Moscow. It needs a deeper and more united position. It’s clear that all 28 countries don’t have the same approach to Russia and to the Eastern neighbours. For those member states at the East, it’s a step toward EU integration, as the Slovenian Foreign Minister, Karl Erjavec said on 18 November.

For the founding members, no enlargement is possible for the moment and no promises should be made.
“It’s a red line”, the French say. “We will not sign any document mentioning a European perspective for these countries”.
The EU can’t treat Russia as it has in the past, a country that is taken into account politely on the international scene but never consulted on European matters. It is with Moscow that he EU will have to build a new European policy and not by confronting it systematically. That, too, is what is at stake in Vilnius.

(Published 26 November 2013 with Euractiv)

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).