Russia Caucasus Ukraine

The Commission in the West… on Ukraine! (shift)

(BRUSSELS2) Several of us journalists asked questions about a possible European reaction to Ukraine, and the possible Russian reaction, during the European Commission's daily midday briefing this Friday.

The exchange of questions and answers lasted almost half an hour and covered a significant number of subjects: sanctions against certain Ukrainian officials, the signing of an association agreement and the possible reaction to the events in Crimea. We were looking for a somewhat precise reaction to this turn of events... Without success. The Commission spokesperson stuck to detailed responses of extreme caution and a certain diplomatic circumspection, which in themselves have a significance: the political weakness of the European executive. The exchange should be listened to again here.

The political solution.

In Crimea, we have seen the different reports which are sometimes contradictory, you have to be careful about the situation on the ground and where the different parties are” explains Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly. And to add: “The situation in Crimea requires a political solution, first and foremost. And this must be done with dialogue between all parties. We have been calling from the start for dialogue between all the Ukrainian components and for respect for all, we are calling on all the players — I mean everyone — to show maximum restraint and respect more than ever the integrity and unity of Ukraine. »

We do not see very clearly on the movements on the spot (in Crimea)

To the question (that of B2) what reaction will the Commission have when the integrity of Crimea is violated, for example a procedure to recall the ambassador? The answer remains the same. “ The information is not very clear on the movements – he repeats. " NOTWe want to take stock of the situation, we need to see more clearly. We have to be sure of what is happening on the ground by our diplomatic means, by the various services that we have. Until we have that, we stick to the political message. In other words, one word: the preservation of “ territorial integrity but with no firmer meaning to the Russians.

The parallel with Georgia: dangerous

To a colleague who continues and wonders if the situation in Crimea is not a repeat of what happened in Georgia. The answer is firm: “ There should be no parallel. (…) Any parallel is risky and dangerous. »

Comment: Cascading errors

This dialogue is confusing. The Commission's spokesperson is reduced to delivering (very well) a message (very bad) which denotes total naivety and political unpreparedness in the face of the events which had already begun this morning in Crimea and were confirmed this evening. And this response is not isolated. In fact, the European Commission has seemed, for several weeks, totally disconcerted by the evolution of the situation in Ukraine. And multiplies the remarkable contradictory attitudes and political head-to-heads. Four subjects, for example…

1) The role of Russia. Just a few days ago, the speech was: an association agreement is on the table, it is up to the Ukrainians to decide and for them alone, we do not want any dialogue with Russia, no trilogue (as well as the proposed Moscow). Today it is a direct appeal to the Russians. “ All of Ukraine's partners are important. (…) Russia (also) is an important partner, cultural economic policy. Russians must be part of a solution, if they want to be ". Too late !

2) Ukrainian power. Until the end of November, Yanukovych was a respectable and democratically elected leader. Since the European Union was preparing to sign an association agreement with it. When the opposition and protest started to win, the person lost respectability and the opposition gained respectability. But C. Ashton, like the Commission, refused to distinguish among the opponents, in particular to distinguish a very nationalist part close to the extreme right. Today, now that the first nationalist measures taken by the new opposition government - notably the suppression of minority languages ​​- Russian, Hungarian, Polish, etc. - spoken in Russia - have been taken, we are calling on the new Ukrainian power to more tolerance. Worse, by calling “all parties » to a solution in Ukraine, the Commission recognizes in fact that the agreements concluded under European auspices on February 21 have not entirely been respected by the new Ukrainian authorities.

3) The sanctions. Shortly before the violence, the Commission refused any sanctions against those responsible for the tensions. “It would be counterproductive,” we explained. Position which held until the violence or complete U-turn and propose sanctions. Today, these remain “in the fridge” but the Commission refuses to make other proposals allowing not only those responsible for the violence to be sanctioned but also those responsible who could be responsible for embezzlement, and shifts the responsibility “ on the Member States ».

4) Military intervention. A few days ago, a senior European diplomat – although very wise and very ordinary – confided to a few journalists (including B2) that the era of Russian military interventions that we had experienced in Budapest in 1956 or in Prague in 1968 was not more news. Again this Friday, the European executive refused to see a military intervention while soldiers “without insignia” were already present in Crimea. The reason put forward (“we are waiting to verify”) clearly shows the limits of this exercise which also reveals a certain European “naivety” in the face of the new Russian power.

Comments : So many about-faces raise questions. Is this voluntary or is there a free-for-all within the European executive? Several different hypotheses can be identified.

  1. Unpredictability. The Commission believed (naively) that the association agreement (led by Commissioner Stefan Füle) would be accepted and did not plan a plan B (a credible hypothesis, the Ukrainian file having now been taken up by C. Asthon and Füle returned to its shelves).
  2. The analysis error. The European Commission has remained with an outdated analysis: Russia is too weak and too dependent on international relations to react (a feeling very present in European circles which have not really drawn the consequences of the turning point of 2008 and the intervention in Georgia (the intervention of the spokesperson on this point is enlightening).
  3. Political following. Europe does not intend to be a “power” and is content to follow American policy towards Russia (NB: at noon the United States had not yet established its position).
  4. Political cynicism. A tacit agreement was reached on Russian reappropriation of Crimea and the preservation of the rest of Ukraine. A new division of Yalta, Georgian style…

Conclusion: Choose your version. But we can also consider that the four hypotheses add up. It is thus striking to see in the Russian-Ukrainian affair how difficult it is for Europeans to review their positions and analyses, once they have formed them. It is not so much the non-use of force, to which Europe is reluctant (fortunately), which is at issue here. But errors of assessment combined with the refusal to use all the usual diplomatic (summoning an ambassador, etc.) and political (emergency meeting of ministers, etc.) instruments, which usually make it possible to send a preliminary signal of discontent to an international “interlocutor”. All things considered, the weakness and a certain blindness of the reaction of the European institutions seem to me to be quite close to what happened in 2007-2008 at the start of the financial crisis. Europe has always acted, with a delay, on events.

(Updated March 1) formal corrections and additions of a more developed conclusion

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

2 thoughts on “The Commission in the West… on Ukraine! (shift)"

  • Derek Prager

    There are not many parallels to be drawn between the Georgia/Ossetia/Abkhazia case and the Ukraine/Crimea case. The circumstances are very different. For Georgia, Putin set a trap and Saakashvili jumped in with both feet but was right at home in historic Georgia. South Ossetia is an artificial province that has always been Georgian, but includes a minority protected by Moscow. Crimea is “artificially” Ukrainian or Russian, since Tatar, but assimilated Ukrainian since Stalin. Just as the Sochi Region is Georgian, until Stalin's decision to integrate this magnificent region into Russia.
    Another huge difference between Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine today: Putin prepared his coup for a year – by his own admission (he is not afraid of anything) – to overthrow Saakashvili and annex Georgia. Europe, taken aback, sent Sarkozy to fix things. For Ukraine, it is Putin who is taken aback. But as he had passed a law which allows him to intervene anywhere in the world where a Russian would be in danger, which is the case of Ukraine and especially Crimea where, as in Abkhazia during the years preceding 2008, he distributed Russian passports by the thousands to Russian-speaking Crimeans who wanted them in recent days.
    Putin, for the moment, seems to be testing the waters, sniffing out Western reactions. The Chechen experience should give him confidence: 200.000 dead and he is still there. The territorial integrity of Georgia, he had nothing to beat, and he occupies 20% of the territory without any sanction. So Ukraine, the mother of the Russian fatherland…

  • Giraud Jean-Guy

    The worst clumsiness/ volte-face of the Commission was to open and then close a “prospect of accession” of Ukraine to the EU. It was the work of the “Commissioner for Enlargement” who clumsily tried to play a diplomatic role in this affair. JJ

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