Ukraine: A victim of Euro-Russian divide?

Searching for a common ground with Russia is crucial to EU policy on Eastern Europe.

Ukrainians are protesting their government's decision not to sign an agreement with the EU [Reuters]

Vilnius will be much talked about in Europe. Twenty-two years ago the city was on the Western periphery of the Soviet Union; today it is the capital of Lithuania, a country which joined the European Union in 2004, and has held the Presidency of the EU Council for the past six months. As rotating President of the Union, it organised the Eastern Partnership summit in November, for which Vilnius will be remembered.

It should not be surprising that Lithuania organised the big event by bringing together the EU with the six countries which neighbour it to the East – Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Lithuania represents just how much a continent can transform itself. In 1989, all of Europe embarked on a process of knocking down the walls that divided the continent, the real ones – the Berlin Wall – and the imagined ones which separated Europeans politically, physically and culturally. In 1994, Lithuania,  and other European countries, applied to join the EU and, after lengthy transformations to become fully fledged democracies and market economies, joined in 2004 together with seven other countries that 15 years before, were behind the Iron Curtain. It is sometimes forgotten that this is one of the most historic achievements of post-World War II Europe.

Ukraine protesters want closer ties with the EU

But the Vilnius summit will be remembered because it showed that not all dividing lines and walls have been knocked down. Eastern Europe is where the fault lines appear, with Moldova and Georgia choosing to sign agreements with the EU, and Belarus and Armenia deciding to join the Russian-sponsored Eurasian Customs Union.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are now taking to the streets, where they are being brutally beaten, to protest against their government’s decision not to sign the agreement with the EU. Ukraine itself – part Russo-phone, part Western oriented – in many ways epitomises this division which endures in the European continent. This story is still unfolding with uncertain outcomes. Beneath it, is another story of divisions.

EU-Russia divide

The deep dividing line, of which Ukraine today is a victim, is between the EU and Russia. Moscow has always seen the EU’s engagement in Eastern Europe as competitive interference, and there have been not just a few moments in which the confrontation was out in the open – during the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and in 2008, with the war in Georgia. It has been said that the Orange Revolution represented to Russia what September 11 did to the United States. Indeed, this time Russia has pulled out all stops to fight for the country to stay within its sphere of influence.

While Russia is led by strong man Vladimir Putin, this competition will not end. Russia may have its spring too, sooner or later. Citizens’ demands for more freedoms do not stop at the imaginary line between Europe and Russia. But while waiting for this to happen, the Europeans ought to find a commonly agreed upon way to deal with Russia. Otherwise, the EU will not be able to handle Eastern Europe with sufficient care – failing hopes and expectations of the Ukrainians in the cold streets of cities all around the country.

Dealing with Moscow has always been one of Europe’s most sensitive dilemmas. The tsarist empire, the Soviet Union and Russia have all been both the enemy, and an ally. Europeans have fought with and against the Russians, just as they have done among themselves. Many see Russia as a European country which extends into Asia. But as the Western part of the continent embraced democracy, shared political values took divergent paths.

What is in the interest of most of Europe (especially the part that is not too close to the Russian border), is to have a close ally who can help on key matters such as dealing with Syria and the security of their energy supplies – about one-third of Europe’s gas, oil and coal imports come from Russia.

The entry into the EU of Central and Eastern European countries has complicated matters. After decades of Soviet rule, these countries have been extremely weary of Russia and their position has helped shape the rest of the EU, which has often been quite benign towards developments in Moscow. Paris, Berlin, Rome and even London (which occasionally has bilateral disputes with Russia) have always paid great respect towards their Russian partner, member of the UN Security Council and a key player in vital global issues. It should also be acknowledged that Russia is the rump state of an empire which crumbled 20 or so years ago, dealing serious blows to its deeply felt national sentiment.

How to go forward

Now the EU is lost over how to respond to what all European capitals see as Moscow’s bullying tactics in Eastern Europe. Some EU member states would like to see a more vigorous policy towards Russia, with Brussels entering into a geopolitical competition to pry Eastern Europe out of Moscow’s reach. But Brussels is notoriously bad at these tactics, preferring long-term visions of change, trade and legal calculations, to playing chess without really knowing the tricks.

Others are vehemently opposed to such tactics. After all, what is in the interest of most of Europe (especially the part that is not too close to the Russian border), is to have a close ally who can help on key matters such as dealing with Syria and the security of their energy supplies – about one-third of Europe’s gas, oil and coal imports come from Russia. For these reasons, Ukraine and the other countries between Russia and the EU are not as strategically important as the relationship with Russia itself. The end result of these different positions is a policy which is “neither meat nor fish”. Germany has become tougher on Russia because its Chancellor does not have a good relationship with Putin, but these shifts and nuances do not make up for the lack of commonly shared strategy.

Yet, at the same time, the EU has raised the stakes for itself and for the countries in the region. It has made commitments to deepen political and economic relations through the Eastern Partnership, it has fostered hopes, it has influenced pro-European groups as an example of democracy, it has upheld the same bastion of anti-corruption which has driven citizens in Ukraine (and in other parts of the world) to the streets to punish their leaders and their off-shore bank accounts. Most importantly, it has supported civil society developments and human rights in a region which, until recently, knew little of both.

In short, the EU has responsibilities. If it does not play well to the current turmoil, it will fail the region and lose face. Decision time is coming, and dealing with Russia is the issue.

Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels.