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Is the EU to blame for the crisis in Ukraine

Many people blame the EU for triggering the conflict in Ukraine writes Charles Grant. However, the EU’s failure to predict Russia’s actions does not make it responsible for them. Since the fighting began, the EU has done a lot to help Ukraine and constrain Russia’s behaviour.

Many of those demanding ‘Brexit’ are adamant that the EU blundered into Ukraine, a country it little understood, and that it set off a chain reaction leading to a bloody civil war. Eurosceptics accuse EU leaders of imperial over-reach in trying to drag Ukraine into an ‘association agreement’. This encroachment on Russia’s sphere of influence was bound to provoke the bear to lash out, they say.

Thus Boris Johnson declared on May 9th: “If you want an example of EU foreign policy making on the hoof, and the EU’s pretensions to be running a defence policy, that have caused real trouble, then look at what has happened in Ukraine.” (It is notable that Johnson’s fellow-Brexiter, Michael Gove, who is particularly tough on Russia, has never said anything comparable.)

The Russians themselves offer a harder version of Johnson’s narrative. They criticise the EU for allowing Sweden and Poland – two countries they regard as ‘anti-Russian’ – to shape the ‘eastern partnership’ that the EU unveiled in 2008. The partnership’s rationale was to thicken the ties between Brussels and the six countries that lie between the EU and Russia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. For the most democratic partners, the EU promised association agreements, including ‘deep and comprehensive free trade agreements’ (DCFTAs) to promote trade.

The Russians see the eastern partnership as an EU scheme to undermine their sway in eastern Europe. In some ways that is true. But they also complain that the EU negotiated the association agreement with Ukraine, the neighbour that matters most to Moscow, behind their back; and that the agreement will have dire consequences for the Russian economy. On those points the Russians are wrong.

Since the agreement was the proximate cause of the popular uprising that overthrew the regime of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, it is worth looking at its origins.

In 2008 Brussels and Kyiv announced plans for an association agreement and a DCFTA. There was a national consensus in Ukraine – extending to those like Yanukovych who were relatively sympathetic to Russia – to pursue the EU deal. By 2012 the negotiations were complete, and the text was initialled by EU and Ukrainian leaders. Even though Ukrainian presidents of different political stripes had asked Brussels for the promise of membership since the mid-1990s, the agreement said nothing about that possibility. The prospect of such a backward country joining their club horrified most EU leaders.

Despite Russian claims to the contrary, the EU tried to consult the Russians on the negotiation of the agreements. At the twice-yearly EU-Russia summits, the Commission always put the agreements on the agenda. Igor Yurgens, a senior adviser to then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, recalls that at these summits the Commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, urged the Russians to discuss the agreements. But the Russians were not interested in doing so. Indeed, at that time Russia was fairly relaxed about Kyiv’s links with the EU. Vladimir Putin had even said in 2004 that Russia would welcome Ukraine’s accession to the EU. NATO, of course, was another matter.

All this changed when Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012, for a third term. He planned to turn the customs union that linked Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia into a much grander ‘Eurasian Economic Union’ (EEU), which he hoped would become a strategic counterweight to the EU. He needed Ukraine to give the project weight and credibility. In the spring of 2013 Putin learned that if Ukraine implemented the DCFTA – which would mean lowering tariffs – it could not join the EEU, which would have high common external tariffs. Putin took exception not only to the EU-Ukraine deal, but also to similar agreements that Brussels was negotiating with Armenia, Georgia and Moldova.

In Kyiv, Yanukovych insisted that he was still committed to the agreements with Brussels. These were due to be signed in Vilnius, at a summit between the EU and its eastern partners, in November 2013. But Russia put pressure on Ukraine by blocking some of its exports. Sergei Glaziev, a close aide of Putin, said that if Ukraine went ahead with the DCFTA, the economic consequences would lead to the break-up of the country. At the same time Russia warned Moldova that proceeding with its EU deal would lead to its exports being stopped and its guest workers being expelled. In September Putin persuaded Armenia to scrap its association agreement with the EU and join the EEU instead.

When all this was going on, in September 2013 I went to Valdai in northern Russia for the annual meeting of the ‘Valdai Club’, at which journalists and academics get a chance to question Putin. I asked the president if he didn’t think that the threats to Ukraine and Moldova were counter-productive, since they were making public opinion in those countries more hostile to Russia. He answered that if Ukraine signed the DCFTA, “cheap and competitive EU goods would flood into Ukraine, so Ukraine would have to dump what it makes onto the Russian market. And then we would have to protect our market. We are warning them beforehand, in an honest way. And if Moldova signs its DCFTA, cheap Italian and Spanish wine will sneak into our market as ‘Moldovan’ wine.”

At that point, neither analysts such as myself, nor the key EU officials, realised how steamed up Moscow was becoming over the association agreements. We cannot be sure of what Putin said to Yanukovych in the next few weeks. But it was strong enough for the Ukrainian president to announce in November that he would not sign the agreements with the EU. Senior officials in EU institutions, European governments and the Obama administration were shocked; virtually none of them had expected such an outcome.

But Putin and Yanukovych were equally surprised by what followed in Kyiv, where the rejection of the EU agreements led to a popular uprising. Participants ranged from pro-EU students through middle-class Ukrainians outraged by Yanukovych’s corruption to extreme right-wing nationalists (though the latter were never the dominant faction that Russia claimed). In February 2014, with the clashes between demonstrators and security forces becoming increasingly violent – more than 50 protestors were shot by snipers in a single day – the security forces started to drift away from Yanukovych, who fled.

Putin may have expected the new government, led by those who had been in opposition, to be a puppet regime of the West. He may have feared it would seek to join NATO. Whatever his reasoning, he launched an operation to take over the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, leading to its annexation in March. Western governments were once again wrong-footed, having failed to imagine that Putin could carry out such a brazen and illegal act. By April, anti-Kyiv rebels, backed by Russian special forces, were taking over parts of the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine. That led to a war that has cost about 10,000 lives.

What responsibility does the EU bear for this convoluted and sad tale? The short answer is not much. It tried to talk to the Russians about its agreements with Ukraine, but they were not interested until after the texts were initialled. And even after the agreements were signed (in March and May 2014), the EU bent over backwards to keep the Russians informed and involved. In September 2014, under Russian pressure, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that he would postpone the implementation of Ukraine’s side of the DCFTA. The EU accepted this and agreed to a Russian request that officials from the Commission, Ukraine and Russia should meet regularly to discuss the deal’s impact on Russia, and what steps could be taken to mitigate any harmful effects.

After these meetings EU officials concluded that the DCFTA would have zero impact on the Russian economy, since none of its provisions would prevent or disrupt trade between Ukraine and Russia. The EU rejected Russia’s request that it be allowed to rewrite parts of the DCFTA, on the grounds that Ukraine was a sovereign country that had to do its own negotiating with the EU.

Russia continued to threaten dire economic consequences unless Ukraine tore up the DCFTA. But when Ukraine finally implemented the agreement, in January this year, there was not a lot more economic harm that Moscow could inflict; it had already cut most of its trade with Ukraine. (In a referendum in April, the Dutch voted against the association agreement; however, EU leaders are likely to find a way of salvaging most of it).

The longer answer is that the EU can be criticised for not thinking through the strategic consequences of its policies on Ukraine. In Paris and Berlin, some officials complain that the Commission and the European External Action Service are too technocratic and process-driven. They should have thought more about Russia’s political response to the association agreement, the argument goes. And if the Russians refused to talk about it, the EU side should have insisted.

There is something in this more subtle criticism of the EU. But it should be remembered that EU policy on Russia is driven mainly by the key national capitals, notably Berlin, Paris and London, and that the job of the Brussels institutions is largely to implement the line set by governments. And it was the governments which supported the EU’s eastern partnership and its association agreements, and which mis-read how Russia would respond.

Let us suppose that President Barroso had been more ‘strategic’, forcing President Medvedev and his then prime minister, Putin, to talk about the implications of the association agreement. He might have explained that Ukraine would not be able to join the Customs Union. The Russians would probably have objected, rather sooner than the summer of 2013. But what should the EU have done in such circumstances? Should it have told the Ukrainians: “Sorry, Putin is unhappy and we don’t want to provoke him, and nor should you, so let’s forget about our attempt to boost your economic development through increasing trade?”

To realists who take a Kissingerian world-view, such words might have been appropriate. Realists strongly believe – as do Russia and China – in the right of big countries to establish spheres of influence. But that world-view is incompatible with the Western principle of self-determination. If you subscribe to the latter, you have to allow Ukraine, as a sovereign state, to choose its own foreign policy orientation.

Evidently, principles such as realism and self-determination cannot be followed absolutely. Most Western governments – in my view, rightly – would not want to see Ukraine join NATO, for fear of the consequences. But unless one takes an extreme realist line, the EU was right to stand by its principles in supporting Ukraine’s bid for closer economic ties.

Finally, once Putin had invaded Ukraine, the EU (together with the US) led the international effort to stabilise the situation. It has helped to keep Ukraine afloat financially, with €4 billion in macro-financial assistance committed or disbursed since the start of the crisis in 2014; it has provided humanitarian aid for victims of the conflict, including displaced persons; and it has given technical assistance to help with reform, including the fight against corruption. Furthermore – despite grumbling from some member-states – it has maintained pressure on Russia, with sanctions that have been surprisingly effective in depriving major state-backed Russian companies of access to capital. Without these sanctions, and the possibility that they could be strengthened, Russia might have been tempted to take more Ukrainian territory.

The EU can be chided for not doing a better job of explaining to the Ukrainian people how they would benefit from closer ties. For example, the website of its Kyiv embassy has nothing in Russian, though that is the language spoken by many Ukrainians. But the EU cannot be blamed for Russia’s annexation of Crimea or its military incursions into the Donbass. And it deserves at least some praise for how it has since responded to the conflict.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform (CER). This article was first published by the CER. More information can be found at

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