As Ukraine, and the rest of the world, emerges from the chaos of the final days of the disastrous Yanukovich presidency, and the crisis in the Crimea that has followed, the EU needs to think through the best ways forward both with Ukraine, and with Russia. With so much uncertainty, one thing is clear: the political tensions between Russia and Ukraine will remain in the short to medium-term. It is also likely that EU-Russia relations will be marred by complete lack of trust and diametrically opposite perceptions of the situation.
There are voices that argue that the EU should now offer full membership to Ukraine in order to steer this country towards a decisively European future. Others say that neither Ukraine nor the EU would be ready for that. However, the escalation of recent weeks has raised the stakes considerably for European leaders, something which is reflected in their decision to provide 11 bln euros worth of assistance to Ukraine. If it is to move forward successfully from here, the EU must now accept and grapple with a number of evident realities and shape policy in light of them.
First, the EU lacks a comprehensive understanding of Ukraine’s complexity and a working strategy that reflects and responds to it. The turmoil in Ukraine has shown that the Eastern Partnership as an overarching political framework does not fit the new realities. The uncertain future of the Crimea will be a serious factor determining Ukraine’s integration with Europe. At the same time, this makes Ukraine’s case similar to that of Georgia and Moldova, as both countries have unresolved territorial conflicts and a Russian military presence. It is understandable the EU will need to formulate tailor-made practical strategies to Ukraine and the two other neighbours. Politically, however the EU should send a coherent message that the existence of “frozen conflicts” should not be a reason for the EU to hold back the offer of integration.
Inside Ukraine, the EU cannot afford to leave the state-building project to the Ukrainian people alone and then decide whether it is good enough for membership or a deep free trade agreement. This is precisely what happened after the Orange revolution and ten years later the EU has a major crisis of power in the country with far reaching implications that are yet uncertain. The EU will need to help facilitate a very complex process associated with rebuilding a democratic balance of regional, language, ethnic and religious identities and interests existing in the country.
Second, the EU needs to understand that it should not opt for a geopolitical competition with Russia over Ukraine. Any talk of a new cold war will echo the internal divisions in Ukrainian society while at the same time spurring the suspicions of Moscow. Geopolitical competition will only give legitimacy to those hardliners in Russia to decrease freedoms in their own country. The EU should be careful not to think about Europe as divided between two spheres of influence or even two trade blocks like the EU and the Eurasian Customs Union.
No matter how hard and often frustrating it can seem, the EU should engage with Russia, though now on a different basis. There are different formats for multilateral diplomacy such as the OSCE where everyone, including Ukraine, has an equal seat. Various EU countries can take initiatives on behalf of the EU, as Poland, France, and Germany did in Ukraine. Russia needs to be reckoned with but the best way to do it is to be firm and open about the facts and topics that the Russian mass media misinterpret or distort according to their own perceptions and rhetoric that is reminiscent of the Cold War. The EU also has to be active and effective in explaining its position and delivering this message to Ukrainian society at large.
Thirdly, the EU needs to work more effectively with the Russian and Ukrainian societies. Both Russian and Ukrainian elites live, have business, and family ties in Europe. The middle class, and the young people in these countries often choose Europe to study and work. Not to use this as leverage to shape the views and attitudes of these people towards Europe – and their home countries relations with it – would be a huge missed opportunity.
This boils down to consistency and pro-activeness. The EU needs to be consistent about its fundamental values and ways it communicates them to its neighbours. It has to be vigilant about corruption and money laundering coming from both Russia and Ukraine taking root in its member states. It also needs to be consistent when the rights of minorities are under pressure both in Ukraine and in Russia. It needs to engage equally actively with the Western Ukrainians and their Russian speaking fellow citizens in the East and the Crimea. It needs to support civil society both in Russia and Ukraine.
The crisis in Ukraine has the potential to be truly frightening and to shake the foundations of the EU but it should also be a chance for the EU to realise the degree of interdependency in Europe and its own role within it. There is no need to think in terms of a return of the Cold War. Instead the EU should think of new, more effective ways to be a leading actor on the European continent of the 21st century.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.