Among the lessons to be drawn from the Russian-Georgian war is that the next flashpoint between the European Union and Russia may turn out to be Ukraine. There is a particular risk of trouble over Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula where ethnic Russians are in the majority and where Russia’s Black Sea fleet has a 20-year lease on bases that is due to expire in 2017.
To help avert a crisis in Ukraine, the EU badly needs to come up with a convincing strategy for rescuing the country from the geopolitical no man’s land in which it has languished since the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. Russia’s military intervention in Georgia underscores the Kremlin’s determination to rebuild its influence in former Soviet republics on its western and southern borders. Ukraine - with 46m people and a culture and history intimately connected to that of Russia - is the biggest prize of them all.
Unfortunately, the EU’s plans for Ukraine are at present anything but convincing. At an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels last month, the 27-nation bloc even found itself debating whether to state the obvious and call Ukraine a European country. The snag is that to do so would imply that Ukraine has the right to eventual EU membership, a prospect that some EU member-states can’t stomach.
EU and Ukrainian leaders are due to meet in the French town of Evian on September 9 and sign an association agreement on closer relations. But this accord will be deliberately ambiguous about whether or not it puts Ukraine on a track leading one day to EU accession.
A new report by the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank argues that the EU cannot afford any more delays in defining and deepening its ties with Ukraine. It proposes giving Ukraine access to the EU’s four freedoms (freedom of movement of goods, people, services and capital) and a roadmap for visa-free travel. It advises the EU to commit itself to consulting and assisting Ukraine in the event of a challenge to the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It recommends support for Ukraine’s efforts to secure the peaceful withdrawal of the Russian Black Sea fleet from Crimea.
Above all, the report advocates that the Ukraine should be offered a “clearer perspective” towards a Nato membership action plan, and states that the EU should recognise Ukraine’s right to join the EU. None of these steps would be intended as a provocation to Russia, whose sheer size and regional weight leave the EU with no choice but to pursue a policy of long-term diplomatic and commercial engagement with Moscow.
The report’s recommendations make a lot of sense. However, they may overstate the EU’s ability to apply its famed “soft power” in a country that is right on Russia’s doorstep and permeated with Russian influence. Equally, they may underestimate Russia’s probable response to any hint that Ukraine is drawing close to Nato.
All in all, one has to fear that a crisis in Ukraine, like this month’s fighting in Georgia, will flare up long before the EU’s member-states have forged a consensus on what they want to do.