Monday

21st May 2018

Opinion

EU realpolitik on Ukraine - too little, too late

  • EU flags at the Maidan in Kiev in early 2014 (Photo: mac_ivan)

On 3 March, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker announced that Ukraine would not join the EU for at least 20 years.

At the same time, the foreign ministers of France and Germany demanded that Kiev clear the way for local elections in separatist-occupied eastern Ukraine, which would most likely lock in the military successes of pro-Moscow fighters.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Ukraine war has claimed 9,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

Unsurprisingly, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seconded the demands from Berlin and Paris.

This European realpolitik should surprise nobody: over Syria, there is a dangerous military stand-off between Russia and Turkey. Turkey is a Nato member and vital for the EU to decrease the flow of refugees into an increasingly unwelcoming and strained EU.

Ukraine, on the other hand, is in a deep political and economic crisis. European leaders now have an all too transparent interest in curbing Ukrainian hopes for EU membership and soothing Russia’s strategic paranoia.

Realpolitik has, rightfully, a bad reputation - especially for the EU, which is praised by politicians for its Nobel Peace Price and lauded by political scientists as a “normative power”. But if Europe had adopted realpolitik earlier, Ukraine would have suffered less. Here’s why.

Talk is not cheap

Talk is not cheap in international politics. But those who talk often reap the benefits, while others pay the price.

In the past, European leaders have left all possibilities open for themselves. They endorsed Ukrainian aspirations for EU integration - without ever clearly stating what Ukraine could realistically hope for.

This was convenient: If Ukraine would turn out to be able to master its massive problems - political polarisation, corruption and poverty - the EU could simply reach out and add another item to its “normative power” list. But if Ukraine would fail, the EU could easily retract.

Talk was cheap for the EU, but not for Ukraine. For over two decades, big parts of Ukraine’s civil society and, more importantly, a strategic majority of its political elite had confidently set their bets on this European promise.

Contrary to vulgar and populist views of “EU imperialism”, it was Kiev and not Brussels that has pushed for more integration.

This was the case even when supposedly “pro-Russian” presidents were in charge of the country: Ukraine first asked for full EU accession under Leonid Kuchma in 1998. And only under the notorious Viktor Yanukovych, who had received personal endorsements by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, did negotiations over a serious association agreement with the EU begin in earnest.

Kiev saw a real chance for a full accession of Ukraine to the EU - but so did Moscow.

The siloviki, the old military and espionage cadres around Putin, had long noticed that Ukraine, while pushing for Europe, kept resisting integration into a Russia-dominated Eurasia.

Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, refused to join the Commonwealth of Independent States. Kuchma rejected the Collective Security Organisation, which was created by Russia to balance Nato. And Yanukovych kept Ukraine out of the Eurasian Union, which Putin had built with rapid speed after EU-Ukrainian negotiations on an association agreement had begun in 2008.

Russia lashed out

Russia said openly that it saw both Nato and the EU as threats encroaching on its borders. Consequently, it put enormous pressure on Ukraine, using gas prices, transit fees, subversion, threats and trade embargoes. The more Ukraine moved EU-wards, the more Russia lashed out.

In other words: the leaders of the EU and its member states have had plenty of chances to realise how differently Moscow and Kiev viewed the question of Ukraine inching towards the EU - and how serious this issue was.

What followed was the conclusion of the sad story of how the EU’s vague and idealist rhetoric, coupled with a lack of real political interest, played its part in bringing about Ukrainian suffering.

In 2013, Yanukovych gave in to Russian pressure and refused to sign the association agreement. Ukrainian protesters felt betrayed by their ruling class and started to face off against heavily armed policemen on Kiev's Maidan square.

All the while, the Europeans insisted, in highly moral tones, that they would not negotiate with Russia over Ukraine’s future.

Fast forward to March 2016: After the past two years, Ukraine and Russia are in a state of undeclared war, 9,000 people have died, over one million Ukrainians have lost their homes, Russia has annexed Crimea and the Ukrainian economy is shrinking by 10 percent a year.

Hundreds of protesters were also killed or went missing on the Maidan.

Straight-talking realpolitik

Contrary to earlier pronouncements, the EU did indeed negotiate with Russia over Ukraine’s future.

It included Russia in the talks over the economic part of the association agreement and, on Moscow’s demands, delayed its implementation for over a year.

It seems that EU leaders explicitly told Kiev they would not support any military resistance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The EU and its major member states also accepted all the key Russian demands in the Minsk agreements while urging Ukraine to accept them as well.

This straight-talking realpolitik is one of the less bad options that the EU can currently take.

As morally reprehensible as it might be, it accommodates Russia’s paranoia and gives Ukraine a clear picture of what its real options are.

If the EU had taken this approach earlier, Ukraine would clearly be in better shape now. Ukraine’s perils are, of course, not solely or even primarily the EU’s fault, but Europeans do not have any reason to pat themselves on the back.

Jonas J Driedger is a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. His publications and research focus on European and Russian foreign and security policy as well as on military conflict between unequal neighbours

The Dutch rooting for a No in the Ukraine referendum

Next week, the Dutch will cast their opinion on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. While the Yes side is fairly uniform in its composition and logic, the No side is a motley crew. Who are they?

France puts spotlight on Ukraine in Russia peace talks

Paris talks saw France and Russia put pressure on Ukraine on ceasefire compliance despite US reports of Russian "violence". Separately, Ukraine was told it will not join the EU for at least 20 years.

Integration of Syrian refugees in Europe needs scrutiny

Most refugee-related services are outsourced to the private sector and NGOs, which are not adequately monitored and evaluated. When governments and EU institutions provide funding for refugee projects, they should scrutinise the NGOs and private players they work with.

Europe's last wild rivers under threat at Balkans summit

The EU is prioritising motorways and gas pipelines across the potential accession Western Balkan countries, plus hydropower energy projects which threaten one of the world's freshwater biodiversity hotspots.

More commitment to renewables from Council, please

More and more consumers are likely to invest in solar panels in the future as it becomes simpler to produce one's own electricity, writes Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation.

News in Brief

  1. Trump warns Nato allies' low budgets will be 'dealt with'
  2. Only Estonia, Greece and UK hit Nato spending target
  3. EU to start process to counter US Iran sanctions
  4. Macedonia PM sees 'possible solutions' in Greek name row
  5. EU takes six countries to court over air pollution
  6. New Catalan leader sworn in without reference to Spain
  7. Merkel and Putin revive dialogue in troubled times
  8. European companies putting Iran business on hold

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  2. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and reconciliation is a process that takes decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  3. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  5. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  7. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  10. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up
  11. European Jewish CongressCalls on Brussels University to Revoke Decision to Honour Ken Loach
  12. Sustainable Energy Week 2018"Lead the Clean Energy Transition"- Register and Join Us in Brussels from 5 to 7 May

Latest News

  1. Athens mayor wants direct access to EU migration fund
  2. Nordics could be first carbon-negative region in world
  3. Zuckerberg and Trump top the EU's agenda This WEEK
  4. Integration of Syrian refugees in Europe needs scrutiny
  5. Bulgarian PM: No asylum reform without stronger border
  6. Eight countries to miss EU data protection deadline
  7. Italian populists to defy EU debt rules
  8. Commission 'playing tricks' with EU budget figures

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU Green Week 2018Green Cities for a Greener Future. Join the Debate in Brussels from 22 to 24 May
  2. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  3. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  5. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  7. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  8. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  9. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  10. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  11. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersImmigration and Integration in the Nordic Region - Getting the Facts Straight

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMacedonians in Bulgaria Demand to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  2. Counter BalanceThe EIB Needs to Lead by Example on Tax Justice
  3. ILGA EuropeTrans People in Sweden to be Paid Compensation for Forced Sterilisation
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Danger of Standing Up for Justice and Rights in Central Asia
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Must Work Together to Promote Global Steel Sector
  6. Swedish EnterprisesEU Tax Proposal on Digital Services Causes Concern for Small Exporting Economies
  7. European Jewish CongressCondemns the Horrific Murder of Holocaust Survivor Mireille Knoll in Paris
  8. Mission of China to the EUAn Open China Will Foster a World-Class Business Environment
  9. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  10. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  11. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds
  12. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMeets with US Congress Member to Denounce Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations