Away from the East
EU to Swim the Backstroke?

Ahead of an EU summit in Riga on its Eastern Partnership program, which starts tonight and extends into tomorrow, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin announced that he wants concrete assurances from the EU’s leaders that Ukraine will become an EU member state, and that visa-free travel will be extended to its citizens next year. “We want to see light at the end of the tunnel,” he told a German paper.

Ukraine is likely to be disappointed, according to a draft of the meeting’s resolutions leaked to the press. The document makes no explicit guarantees on eventual membership, and doesn’t even move the needle on visa-free travel. The Financial Times:

An EU diplomat says, however, the pre-Riga debate on the language on this issue has been “very difficult”. Divisions between cautious countries such as Germany, France, Spain and Italy, and more bullish Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, have been even more marked than before.

“It’s a reflection of the bear in the room,” he says. “We’ve ended up with a typical European compromise using a formulation of words that nobody can understand.” […]

Moldova won coveted visa-free travel last year; the hopes of Georgia and Ukraine of obtaining the same at Riga have been dashed. Brussels says more technical preparations are needed. Privately, EU states fear a flood of Ukrainian refugees.

This is all a stark turnaround from late 2013, when starry-eyed eurocrats met in Vilnius at a similar meeting and tried to prod Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to sign onto an association agreement. The language of the statement released at the time seemed to suggest that a path to eventual EU membership might be considered.

What followed, of course, was Yanukovych’s bloody ouster and Ukraine’s subsequent dismemberment at Russia’s hands—creating a civil war on the very edge of Europe that has so far killed over 6,000 people and left thousands more displaced. We have long been wondering in these (virtual) pages whether the Europeans had in fact brought a “baguette to a knife fight” with Russia. Did the eurocrats know exactly what they were promising? And did they have the will and conviction to stand behind their promises?

Since then, it’s been made reasonably clear that the answer to both of those questions is “no.” The Eastern Partnership program, spearheaded by countries like Poland and Sweden, appears only ever to have had lukewarm support in many Western European capitals. The bureaucratic language formulated at Vilnius was meant to paper over differences of opinion within Europe at least as much as it was meant to encourage eastern countries to reform. The dumbfounded, fumbling response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine during the early months of the crisis betrayed the degree to which Europe had sleepwalked into this mess. And the degree to which the leaked draft from Riga backpedals from earlier promises indicates that many European leaders envision a solution to the current Ukrainian crisis that involves keeping the remaining former members of the Soviet Union officially out of the club. Angela Merkel, speaking today on the eve of the Riga meeting, gave lip service to supporting “our eastern neighbors on their path to a society based on democracy and the rule of law” but went out of her way to say that  “[t]he eastern partnership is not an instrument of EU expansion.” You could imagine the satisfaction in Moscow at those words.

This new, more cautious approach, however, still engages in wishful thinking—that Europe can keep the problem neighbors safely at arms length, while they somehow shape up mostly on their own. It’s just not all that likely that a democratic, rule-bound, prosperous Ukraine is likely to spring up on Europe’s periphery, especially if Russia continues to have a say in the matter. Leaders who think otherwise have managed to talk themselves into a fantasy again, underestimating Putin’s strength, Russia’s appeal, and the fragility of the Western position in the region. (A glance at today’s NYT report on Moldova’s slide towards Russia and away from Europe is instructive.)

And it’s not merely the prosperity and well-being of the people living on Europe’s periphery that’s at stake. For a Europe that has set increasing independence from Russia’s energy supplies as a goal, failure to secure its eastern neighbors has cold, hard strategic consequences. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin is not in the mindset of finding positive-sum compromise solutions, and it is likely to push for maximum advantage wherever it can—beyond the post-Soviet sphere, in the Balkans, and in the Mediterranean.

The problems that need to be overcome are daunting (though not necessarily insurmountable). The oligarchies that have established themselves on the ruins of communism in many of these countries are corrupt, short-sighted, and far more interested in continuing to plunder the country than in accepting the legal oversight and strong state that could develop the country as a whole. Combine all that with public cynicism and apathy and general social rot that comes from immersion in the Soviet system, and you have quite a stew. The Europeans (and the Americans, too, it’s important to add) never really bothered to contemplate what impact these problems will have on Western strategy—what the consequences are of having an unstable, crime ridden, poorly governed belt of countries in the area between Russia and the EU.

Of course, the Riga meeting has not happened yet, and we have yet to see what kind of language ultimately emerges from it. But if these early signals are any indication, many in the West have yet to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation Europe finds itself in.

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