Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Opinion

EU needs new Ukraine strategy

  • Street sign in Kiev city centre (Photo: Marco Fieber)

During a recent visit to Kiev by a group of European think tanks, a minister in the provisional government was asked what Europe should do to help Ukraine. His response was direct: "Stick to your values."

Behind his straightforward reply was a concern that Europe has failed to deliver the policies and support that Ukraine desperately requires. With the overwhelming victory of the reformist and pro-European Petro Poroshenko in Sunday's presidential election there is now, more than ever, a need for Europe to strengthen its engagement with Ukraine.

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Ukraine is currently facing three simultaneous crises.

Firstly, after decades of mismanagement, the economy is near collapse. Deep-seated and widespread corruption, notably during the regime of former President Yanukovitch, has left the national coffers empty.

To compound the economic meltdown, there is a political crisis. The former political elite is discredited in the eyes of the population. The provisional government, set up hastily following Yanukovitch's flight to Russia, is disjointed and viewed with suspicion in the east and south of the country.

Fundamental issues about Ukrainian national identity, and the place of ethnic Russians and the Russian language have been raised. The powerful class of oligarchs, which has played a central but shadowy role in Ukrainian politics, is fragmented.

Finally, there is an acute regional security crisis stemming from Russia's annexation of Crimea, its support for local violent separatist groups and its policies to undermine the country's political stabilisation.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has appeared close to civil war, with escalating violence, human rights violations, and the emergence of paramilitary formations.

Europe's primary reaction to the crisis has been to prop up Ukraine's beleaguered economy by providing large-scale financial assistance. The European market has been temporarily opened to Ukrainian goods. Ukraine will likely sign the economic part of the EU association agreement over the summer.

Europe has yet, however, to set out a substantial agenda to address Ukraine's political and security crises.

The EU supported the presidential election on 25 May as an initial step towards putting the country back together again and has welcomed the election of Poroshenko.

Europe has also introduced economic sanctions in response to the annexation of Crimea and threatened further sanctions if Russia moves openly into mainland Ukraine. But none of these approaches is sufficient to resolve the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.

Following this weekend's presidential election, European countries need to move beyond reaction to assert a forward-looking and comprehensive agenda for Ukraine and to provide the necessary financial and political support to advance this agenda.

Ensuring Ukraine remains a single country

The agenda should have two strategic aims.

The first goal has to be to ensure that Ukraine remains a single country and that the Ukrainian State is reconsolidated following its near collapse in some regions. Only on the basis of a united Ukraine will there be a realistic prospect of assisting the country to emerge as a stable, democratic and prosperous European nation-state in the years ahead.

European countries and the EU institutions can play a substantial role in working with the new Ukrainian President to advance domestic reforms.

As a first step, Europe can support early parliamentary elections, perhaps as soon as the autumn: A new democratically elected parliament and government would be in a position to push through the difficult political and economic reforms that Ukraine desperately needs and be able to counter Russian claims that the authorities in Kiev are illegitimate.

In order for successful parliamentary elections to be conducted, the issue of the separatist threat and the relationship between Kiev, the regions, and the various ethnic and linguistic communities in the country must be addressed urgently. Kiev has already begun talking with regional representatives.

Moving forward, the EU needs to encourage a deepening of this process and be clear with Russia in its diplomacy that the political dialogue is a Ukrainian-owned and a Ukrainian-led process. This is fundamental to Ukrainian sovereignty.

There already exists a broad consensus in Ukraine that decentralisation – not federalisation – and a strong legal guarantee for Russian language should be the basis for a new constitutional settlement.

Ensuring regional democracy and rule of law is also vital. Ukraine's regions must not become the bastion for corrupt political and economic elites that can stifle reform, promote gridlock and function as proxies for external powers.

Europe has a vital role in supporting good governance and administrative reforms in Ukraine, anti-corruption policies and strengthening civil society. It must ensure through monitoring that Ukraine conforms to international standards of minority protection, counters nationalist extremism of all hues and abides by its international commitments to democracy, rule of law and freedom of the media.

Europe should work with the newly elected President to rebuild and reform Ukraine's police. The reforms of the Ukrainian economy already in the pipeline need now to be implemented, notably in the energy sector, and further steps taken.

Finally, Europe should take practical action to prevent Russia from further consolidating the annexation of Crimea.

This could involve assisting Ukraine with legal challenges to the expropriation of Ukrainian property in Crimea, ensuring that Russian businesses that operate in Crimea are not able to trade in the European market and preventing European energy companies from participating in the development of the waters around Crimea. Close monitoring of the situation of minority populations in the peninsula, notably the Crimean Tatars, should be instituted.

The second strategic priority for Europe should be to rebuild an effective regional security order to protect Ukraine while it reconsolidates its statehood.

The Transatlantic alliance should lead on this issue but Nato membership for Ukraine should be taken off the table.

The United States, the European powers and the Russian Federation will need to come together to fashion a new security relationship involving robust legal commitments to prevent major powers meddling in Ukraine and to uphold the country's independence and non-bloc status.

The Ukraine crisis is a wake up call for Europe. It highlights that Europe needs a new political and strategic approach if it is to be an effective force in its east.

In building such an approach Europe should, indeed, stick to its values upholding democratisation, human rights and marketisation but these values must be wedded to a strategic agenda that can deliver today on Ukraine’s pressing political and security needs.

The writer is a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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