25th Oct 2016


EU and Ukraine: What went wrong?

  • Pro-EU rally in Kiev on Sunday: It remains to be seen if protests will amount to an Orange Revolution II (Photo: mac_ivan)

When Oleh Rybachuk, a senior Ukrainian envoy, came to Brussels in early 2005, he wanted one thing: a public statement that Ukraine can one day join the EU.

It was just a few months after the Orange Revolution.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians had risked their lives by going on the streets to overthrow a bogus, Soviet-type leader (Viktor Yanukovych) and the new authorities believed an EU accession promise would keep the movement going.

Instead, Rybachuk was shuffled from meeting to meeting with MEPs, officials in the European Commission and the EU Council, and with diplomats in EU countries' embassies.

They talked to him about the complexity of EU decision making and about "benchmarks" for financial assistance.

He left the EU capital angry.

"Who the hell do I have to see around here to get Ukraine into the EU?" he told a Polish diplomat before flying home.

What happened next is well known.

For their part, Orange Revolution leaders turned on each other in political vendettas and corruption scandals.

It got so bad that in 2010 Yanukovych was voted into power. On paper, he passed pro-EU law after law. But in reality, he took Ukraine backward. He jailed opposition leaders, rigged parliamentary elections, seized control of media and made his family very wealthy.

On the EU side, the accession promise never came.

Instead, the EU drafted a several thousand page-long "association agreement" and "deep and comprehensive free trade agreement."

It even refused to call Ukraine a "European state" because it sounded too much like the EU Treaty on the right of "European states" to apply for membership.

EU countries also kept Ukrainian people out.

Ukraine dropped visa requirements for EU citizens, but EU consulates became notorious for refusals: In an incident in 2007, one EU country made a Ukrainian children's choir sing in the snow outside its building before agreeing to issue travel permits for a concert.

Meanwhile, Russia was making moves.

In 2008, it showed former Soviet states it is ready to use hard power - tanks and bombs - to keep them in line by invading Georgia.

In 2009, it used mid-winter gas cut-offs to increase control over the Ukrainian economy by forcing it to pay extortionate gas prices.

In 2010, it used gas to get the Russian navy to stay in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

This year, a few weeks before Ukraine was to sign the EU agreement, it called in a $1 billion gas debt and threatened to impose a trade ban if Yanukovych put pen to paper.

The story ended on 21 November when Ukraine said No to the EU pact, citing Russian pressure.

What went wrong?

For sure, the Ukrainian elite is to blame for the fiasco.

Ukraine's one-time foreign minister, Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, says its former PM, Yulia Tymoshenko, committed "treason" by agreeing the 2009 gas price, in part, for personal gain.

EU diplomats say Yanukovych never intended to sign the EU pact because the status quo - Ukraine in limbo between the EU and Russia - helps him to retain power and enrich his clan.

Equally, Ukrainian people are responsible for their own fate.

Tens of thousands protested against Yanukovych in Kiev on Sunday (24 November), prompting clashes with riot police, in the biggest opposition rally since the Orange Revolution.

It remains to be seen if their tents will stay in place.

While many people in western Ukraine have lapsed into political fatigue, many in eastern Ukraine never shared the EU romance in the first place.

"In order to understand Ukrainian politics, you have to remember that Ukrainians gave the English language two words: masochism and anarchy," Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian novelist, told MEPs at a recent hearing.

The treaty fiasco also shows that EU soft power cannot compete with Russian hard power.

For cosmopolitan Ukrainians, the EU, an enclave of liberal democracy and open markets, is a more attractive model than Russia.

But when the gas goes off or tanks roll in, EU officials look small and far away.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin likes to summon local leaders for what Ukrainian diplomats call "man-to-man" chats.

But when he does, EU diplomats cannot make counter-offers. They cannot say: "Relax: We can wire $1 billion more to your offshore account. Relax: We will impose sanctions on Russia unless it puts the gas back on. Relax: If worst comes to worst, our military will stop Russian troops from 'saving' Russian passport holders from 'unrest' in Crimea."

EU institutions do not know what is really going on.

When EUobserver met one senior EU diplomat in Kiev in 2011, he said: "What I need is an organigramme that tells me which Ukrainian oligarch is backing which political party at any given time."

What he asked for is intelligence, which the EU foreign service does not get.

The Rybachuk anecdote indicates the EU also failed to compete with Russia on soft power, however.

The anti-Yanukovych protests on Sunday show that soft power is not nothing.

But over the past 10 years, EU institutions did not adapt to the rules of the game in post-Soviet Europe.

Time and again, when a Ukrainian official walked into an EU meeting, EU negotiators, used to deadlines and compromises in the Brussels environment, spoke in English of "win-win" situations and "long term" benefits.

When Ukrainian oligarchs read the EU treaty, they saw a template for EU firms to gain market share in the first years after adoption.

But when Ukraine's big men went to the Russian embassy in Kiev, they sat down at tables with crystal glasses and Beluga vodka.

They met Russian diplomats with a background in the intelligence service, the FSB, who spoke in Ukrainian or Russian about immediate gains and losses.

Clash of two worlds

"We don't know how to do geopolitics," an EU diplomat told EUobserver a few days before the Vilnius deal collapsed.

"It's a clash of two worlds. Ukrainian politicians are completely different to us: They know the West only through visits to five star hotels," he noted.

He said that if the EU underestimated Putin, it equally underestimated Yanukovych, who has played Brussels against Moscow to get "money, money, money".

The day Yanukovych said No, the EU foreign service used Russian tactics.

It said on 21 November that if Ukraine abandons the EU path, it is unlikely to get International Monetary Fund aid, threatening a state default.

The game is not easy, however.

The next day, Putin accused the EU of "blackmail," adding that EU countries are planning to "stage" mass protests in Kiev.

The same day, the EU foreign service reverted to form.

Its spokeswoman told press in Brussels that Ukraine should meet "benchmarks." She added that Russia will not pay a price for its actions, calling it an EU "strategic partner … important trade partner."

But if there is fault on the EU side, EU countries take the lion's share.

The EU commission and the EU foreign service are too bureaucratic and technocratic.

Their policy on post-Soviet states - the Eastern Partnership of benchmarks, criteria - is not fit for purpose.

They also contain plenty of people who see Ukraine as a low priority, far lower than, say, China or the Middle East.

But if EU institutions did not give Ukraine an accession promise, if they did not strong-arm Yanukovych, or punish Putin for interference, it is because EU states, such as Germany, France and the UK, did not give them the say-so.

Berlin, London and Paris know how to play dirty.

Former Soviet and Communist EU countries, such as Estonia or Poland, also know how to do business in the east.

But between them, EU leaders did not muster the political will to fight for Ukraine.

EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and commissioner Stefan Fuele could not win over Yanukovych in 11th-hour phone calls and trips to Kiev.

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton was busy on Iran.

But where was French President Francois Hollande or German Chancellor Angela Merkel when Yanukovych was meeting Putin in the run-up to 21 November?

Some Ukrainian diplomats have their own theory, full of post-Soviet paranoia.

When Merkel in Lubmin, near the German-Polish border, in November 2011, turned on Nord Stream, one Ukrainian diplomat recalled the Yalta Conference in 1945.

Nord Stream, a Russian-German gas pipeline which bypasses Ukraine, gives the Kremlin more influence over former Soviet and former Communist states.

The Yalta meeting saw the UK, the US and the Soviet Union carve up post-WWII Europe into east and west.

"It's as if the Germans have done a deal with Russia: 'This is ours. This is yours. You can do with it what you want'," the Ukrainian diplomat told this website.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFADraft Bill for a 2nd Scottish Independence Referendum
  2. UNICEFCalls on European Council to Address Plight of Refugee and Migrant Children
  3. ECTAJoin us on 9-10 November in Brussels and Discover the new EU Digital Landscape
  4. Access NowCan you Hear me now? Verizon’s Opportunity to Stand for Global Users
  5. Belgrade Security ForumMeaningful Dialogue Missing Not Only in the Balkans, but Throughout Europe
  6. EASPDJoin the Trip! 20 Years on the Road. Conference & Photo Exhibition on 19-21 October
  7. EuropecheEU Fishing Sector Celebrates Sustainably Sourced Seafood in EU Parliament
  8. World VisionWomen and Girls Urge EU Leadership to Help end Gender-based Violence
  9. Dialogue PlatformIs Jihadism Blind Spot of Western Intellectuals ? Wednesday 26 October
  10. Belgrade Security ForumGet the Latest News and Updates on the Belgrade Security Forum @BelSecForum
  11. Crowdsourcing Week EuropeMaster Crowdsourcing, Crowdfunding and Innovation! Conference 21 November - 10% Discount Code CSWEU16
  12. EJCEU Parliament's Roadmap for Relations with Iran a Massive Missed Opportunity

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersFish Skin on Bare Skin: Turning Fish Waste into Sustainable Fashion
  2. CEDECOpportunities From the Creation of Synergies at Local Level in the Energy Transition
  3. ACCAFinTech Boom Needs Strong Guidance to Navigate Regulatory Hurdles
  4. Counter BalanceWhy the Investment Plan for Europe Does not Drive the Sustainable Energy Transition
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region Seeks to Make Its Voice Heard in the World
  6. Taipei EU OfficeCountries Voice Support for Taiwan's Participation in ICAO
  7. GoogleDid You Know Europe's Largest Dinosaur Gallery Is in Brussels? Check It Out Now
  8. IPHRHuman Rights in Uzbekistan After Karimov - Joint Statement
  9. CISPECloud Infrastructure Providers Unveil Data Protection Code of Conduct
  10. EFAMessages of Hope From the Basque Country and Galicia
  11. Access NowDigital Rights Heroes & Villains. Who Protects Your Rights, Who Wants to Take Them Away