In everyday life, if you see two or more parties arguing vigorously, the best thing to do is maintain a benevolent neutrality. This simple lesson also applies to diplomacy. But, as recent events in Ukraine demonstrate all too well, it is apparently one the leaders of the European Union have failed to heed.
The EU is pursuing what it calls its ‘European Neighbourhood Policy’ in relation to a group of countries – including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – that are normally seen as being within Russia’s sphere of influence. By furthering its economic and security interests, and in the guise of ‘exporting democracy’, the EU is challenging Russian interests. This is a serious misjudgement, with serious consequences for the people of Ukraine.
The EU is playing on a longstanding division within Ukraine, between the pro-European, rural west of the country and the populous and industrialised east and south, which have long looked to Russia. It is now eight years since the start of the EU’s Action Plan for Ukraine, which talked up ‘the opportunity for the EU and Ukraine to develop an increasingly close relationship, going beyond cooperation, to gradual economic integration and a deepening of political cooperation’. Ukraine has enough difficulty balancing its internal tensions and the need to keep Russia on side (for both strategic and historical reasons, Russia sees Ukraine as a vital part of its sphere of influence). The intervention of the EU into Ukraine’s affairs, rather than helping matters, has only exacerbated these internal instabilities.
Last November, the EU held a summit in Vilnius in Lithuania with a group of former Soviet states in an attempt to agree an ‘Eastern Partnership’ with Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and three states in the Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Negotiations had been going on since May 2009, in the aftermath of the Russian intervention into Georgia. The deal would have given these states greater access to EU markets, but at the expense of having to adopt many EU laws and regulations, and with no economic aid provided. However, Ukraine refused to sign the deal, having instead opted to accept $15 billion in bilateral aid from Russia and receiving a much-needed reduction in the price of gas imports. Given the parlous state of the Ukrainian economy, Russia’s offer was one Ukraine could hardly refuse.
However, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many western Ukrainians, who see Yanukovych as a corrupt Russian stooge and who desire closer ties with the EU. The protests of the past two months are a direct result of the failure of the Vilnius summit. At the end of last year, in an article titled ‘Europe’s Ukrainian blunder’, the former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer – no stranger himself to heavy-handed diplomacy – was sharply critical of the EU’s strategy. ‘From Yanukovych’s point of view’, he wrote, ‘[the Russian] agreement made sense in the short run: the gas deal would help Ukraine survive the winter, the loan would help keep it from defaulting on its debt, and the Russian market, on which the economy depends, would remain open.’ So why, Fischer asked, ‘did the EU press for an association agreement, without being able to offer Ukraine anything comparable to what Russia offered?’.