Blood-red geopolitical borscht: EU’s Ukraine approach is a mess

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ukraine backing down from the EU's proposed Association Agreement not only shows Vladimir Putin's powers of persuasion, it also demonstrates the EU's hesitance. Either the European Union firmly stands by Ukraine or the latter will keep performing its balancing act between East and West, writes Eliasz Krawczuk.

Eliasz Krawczuk is an MA candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Ukrainian protestors on Independence Square celebrated Christmas on 6 January, without any knowledge of when and if their European wishes would be answered. Their persistence ensures that the debate over Ukraine’s future remains open. Nonetheless, the outcome depends on the next actions of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and the European Union’s leaders.

The hope for an association agreement (AA) with the EU – which collapsed at the Vilnius Summit on 29 November – would have ushered in Ukraine’s first step toward Europe and would have significantly altered regional geopolitics. Following Yanukovych’s rejection, a police crackdown spilled blood and escalated the ‘euromaidan’ protests.

Over fifty days of protests have passed and the EU holds another opportunity to entice Ukraine. Once again, despite the overwhelming support of thousands of Ukrainians, the EU remains hesitant even as Russia acts decisively.

Prior to November, Ukrainian leaders were intent on signing the agreement. Russia did not pay much attention to the negotiations until July 2013, when it realised that Ukraine could move closer to Europe and immediately began restricting Ukrainian imports. This pressure ultimately led the Ukrainian parliament, dominated by Yanukovych’s party, to reject the Agreement on 21 November. Russia won. But rather than Putin having played his cards right, it appeared that European leaders had not played aggressively enough.

Russia used three tried-and-true measures to force Ukraine’s hand: trade cuts, political pressure, and threats to cut energy supplies. These simple measures were ruthlessly effective in taking down Ukraine’s persistence just as it was about to cross the finish line. After waving his stick, Putin offered Yanukovych a carrot on 17 December through the purchase of $15 billion (€11.3 billion) of Ukrainian government bonds and a reduction in the cost of gas by over one-third. Although this deal saved the Ukrainian economy from collapse, it poses serious questions over what Putin received in return.

In comparison, European leaders focused on the release of former Ukrainian President Yulia Tymoshenko as a sign of Ukraine’s willingness to reform. This was a poor decision, primarily because the EU failed to explain how freeing one person would change the Ukrainian legal system. By coaxing Ukraine toward Europe, the EU could have helped implement governance and legal reforms that would benefit all Ukrainians, as well as European businesses.

It is worthwhile to consider the stringency of the EU’s position over Ukrainian reforms. It is unquestionable that the EU should maintain its principles and that Ukraine requires governance and economic improvements. Yanukovych’s term has seen a rise in corruption and a weaker rule of law. Nonetheless in Russia’s eyes, EU engagement with Ukraine is a threat. Russia has proven that it is ready to support corruption and nepotism to get what it wants. The question remains for the EU, was it worth keeping such a high bar for Ukraine’s first European step simply because it needed to be as strictly implemented as the last step?

Days before Yanukovych’s rejection of the association agreement, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt underlined that the EU would not force Ukraine to make a decision. This policy ignores that unswerving diplomacy and flexible negotiation also signal commitment. Economic and historical links augment EU ‘soft power’ in western Ukraine, resulting in strong European support. However, the EU’s hands-off approach isolates eastern Ukraine, which remains tightly linked to Russia through language, identity, and Soviet-era industrial connections. If it does not try to match Russia, the EU should not be surprised when Yanukovych follows Putin’s lead.

The argument that the EU does not want to pressure anyone also disguises how differences in interest toward a regional project cause the common EU position to fail. Although the Lisbon Treaty was intended to increase member state involvement in the EU, it has resulted in fragmentation based on competing national and regional interests. EU negotiators that demand Ukrainian regulatory improvements need the ability to offer additional loans to offset economic shocks, looser visa procedures, and support for Ukraine’s energy negotiations with Russia. Moreover, eastern Ukraine holds many eurosceptics. It is critical to convince Ukrainians dependent on Russia that they can improve their livelihoods and future in a European Ukraine.

Ukraine remains balanced on a knife-edge. It is a decent position for Yanukovych because he can play each side off the other to maintain trade, energy supplies, and his personal wealth. However, this position is unstable due to the tug-of-war between Russia and the EU, as well as protests from a population dissatisfied with its leaders.

The ongoing demonstrations are ominously occurring at the location of the 2004 Orange Revolution that threw Yanukovych from power. Yanukovych’s rejection of Europe has left Ukraine at another crossroad. However, the EU stands there alongside Ukraine: it can continue its hesitant engagement, or it can develop a decisive European path for Ukraine. Until then, Ukraine will remain precariously balanced between the EU and Russia.

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