STOCKHOLM – As the European Union’s leaders gather in Riga for a summit with the six members of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership,” many recall the dramatic meeting in Vilnius of November 2013. It was there that Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, under heavy Russian pressure, refused to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement that had been negotiated from 2007 to 2012.
Of course, when Yanukovych returned home, he had to face thousands of protesters in Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square). Determined to hold him to his promise to sign the EU agreement and not take Ukraine into a customs union with Russia, the protesters mobilized the country. Yanukovych, failing to crush them with his security forces, simply fled. Russia’s behavior in Ukraine since then has made the Eastern Partnership more important than ever.
Until 2013, the EU’s Eastern Partnership seemed to raise no concerns in the Kremlin. It was never brought up at any of the numerous high-level bilateral meetings, nor at any meeting in which I participated. The Kremlin probably regarded it as irrelevant.
That changed after Vladimir Putin returned to Russia’s presidency in 2012. His main geopolitical project was now the creation of the Eurasian Union, which he knew could not succeed without forcing Ukraine off of its EU path and into his embrace.
While the EU’s vision of “wider Europe” relies on soft power, economic integration, and long-term institution building, Putin’s “wider Russia” policy depends on intimidation and violence. The EU pursues long-term geo-economics, whereas the Kremlin plays short-term hardball geopolitics.
That is why, soon after Yanukovych decided to flee to Russia, Putin’s “little green men” began to appear openly in Crimea, while Russian Buk anti-aircraft missiles and Russian battalion battle groups appeared in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region not long after. In annexing Crimea and stoking separatist violence in Donbas, the Kremlin’s aim has clearly been to destabilize Ukraine in order to bring it under Russia’s thumb. Indeed, the very notion of an independent Ukrainian state is openly questioned by Russia’s leaders, Putin included.
In Riga, the EU’s leaders will reaffirm the so-called deep and comprehensive free-trade agreements concluded with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. The most important signal will be the EU’s pledge that these agreements will take effect. Despite massive propaganda, intense economic pressure, and overt military aggression, the EU can and will stay the course in its Eastern Partnership and its offers to its neighbors.
Clearly, no one in Europe should underestimate the challenges ahead. When I left the Vilnius meeting in 2013, I could certainly see storm clouds gathering, but I did not know that Putin was prepared to unleash so much aggression and turmoil. Now we in Europe have every reason to prepare for the long-term effort needed to help our neighbors along their chosen paths.
But this will require a greater European commitment, both politically and economically, than we have seen thus far. Ukraine has been misgoverned for decades, and it will have to pass through a valley of reform-induced tears before it starts to reap the benefits of association and integration with the EU.
Unfortunately, it is far easier for Russia to fuel short-term volatility than it is for Europe to help build long-term stability. But to allow the Kremlin and its proxies to succeed would not only undermine the Eastern Partnership countries; it might jeopardize peace in Europe itself.
After all, the appetite grows with eating, which might well apply to the Kremlin’s “wider Russia” strategy. At some point, the risk of an open confrontation between NATO and Russia could grow. Even China, as it poses as Russia’s friend and patron, should consider the consequences for itself of such a risk.
Such a clash must be prevented. By confirming the Eastern Partnership agreements, the EU’s leaders will demonstrate that they are not prepared to acquiesce in a new Yalta-style division of the continent that would deprive these countries of their right to choose their own destiny.
The Riga meeting is unlikely to produce any headline-grabbing new initiatives. But none is needed. With everything from massive disinformation to tanks and soldiers thrown against the Eastern Partnership since 2013, just staying the course is a powerful sign of success. And, in the interest of long-term stability across Europe, that should be welcomed – even in Putin’s nationalistically aroused Russia.