Four years after the EU’s push for closer ties with Ukraine provoked Russia and helped start a revolution, the country is ravaged by war and nearly broke.
So as EU leaders gather in Brussels Friday to celebrate the Eastern Partnership, their foreign policy initiative to strengthen relations with countries in the former Soviet bloc, the central question is: Can the EU pick up the pieces?
Do not expect a clear answer.
EU policymakers have been, and remain, deeply divided. Some argue that there is a moral obligation to do more to protect Ukraine and end Russian military aggression, especially because Kiev has shown commitment to make tough changes. Others say the West has already provided too much aid, and taken on too much risk, for a country where corruption remains woven into the fabric of government and efforts at reform, particularly in the judicial, financial and energy sectors, have been far too slow.
In a bid to show continued support for Ukraine ahead of Friday’s summit, the European Investment Bank on Thursday announced an additional €37 million in financing to help prop up the country’s agriculture sector. Total financial assistance to Ukraine from the EU is now roughly €12 billion — including, in 2014, the largest financial package ever given to a non-EU country.
Symbolism aside, Ukraine remains in serious trouble. A new study commissioned by the European Parliament declared the Eastern Partnership to be an overall success, but also noted that 94 percent of the aid to Ukraine has been in the form of loans, saddling the country with debt that will hinder its recovery in the long term. Over the next five years, the country will have to repay €38 billion, yet there are just €5 billion in reserves in the National Bank.
The political agreement with the EU has brought “Kiev closer to the EU and other Western institutions than ever before,” the report’s authors wrote, citing a new visa-free travel regime. “In the wake of the Euromaidan Revolution and subsequent Russian challenges to Ukraine’s sovereignty, the era of geopolitical choice for Kiev is over. Still, these dramatic events have made EU and NATO membership more distant than ever.”
However, the report said: “Ukraine’s economic downturn — a result of post-Maidan developments, Russia’s aggression, two decades of delayed reforms, and the government’s efforts to stabilize [the] macro-financial situation — has led to serious dissatisfaction among the population.”
One senior EU official noted that Ukraine’s government expenditures had dropped in the last two years to 40 percent of GDP from 53 percent signalling commitment to austerity programs and genuine success in curtailing corruption. “They adopted health, education and pension reform in the last five months,” the official said. “To say they are reforming too slowly — by what measure?”
Ukraine is the most dramatic, but not the only, illustration of the ambiguous results of the Eastern Partnership, which was the EU’s signature foreign policy initiative when launched in Prague in 2009.
The other five partner countries are all facing difficulties.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are still at war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moldova remains in a standoff with the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria. Two of Georgia’s territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are all-but-annexed by Russia. And Belarus is a largely isolated police state, despite some thawing of relations with the West.
Longtime Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko, who had faced EU sanctions because of political repression in his country, was invited to the Eastern Partnership summit for the first time but declined.
EU officials generally reject claims that they bear responsibility for the political crisis that erupted in Ukraine in the fall of 2013, when they pushed hard on then President Viktor Yanukovych to sign political and economic accords with the bloc. At the same time, Moscow pressured him not to sign and threatened economic reprisal if he did.
Yanukovych formally refused to sign the agreements at that year’s Eastern Partnership summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, setting off the mass protests that ultimately toppled him. Yanukovych fled to Russia (Moscow called it a coup), and relations between the Kremlin and the West deteriorated to their worst levels since the Cold War.
The so-called Normandy format peace process, led by France and Germany since 2015, has failed to end the conflict, prompting some criticism that Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Washington have not done enough.
Despite that criticism, Friday’s summit will focus not on the Ukraine conflict but on updating a list of “20 deliverables for 2020” that the EU first developed last December, a sign that the early ambition of the Eastern Partnership program has yielded to reality.
Meanwhile, there has been ongoing debate over how much more the EU can or should do. Lithuania proposed an ambitious “European plan for Ukraine” that aims to leverage an additional €50 billion in investment over 10 years, but there is no consensus yet on implementing it.
“We need to increase engagement with stakeholders, find the hearts of ordinary people, show they are not abandoned, build capacity and resilience of Eastern Partnership countries and of Ukraine in particular,” said Lithuania’s ambassador to the EU, Jovita Neliupšienė.
Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, a Russia-focused think tank in Washington, said Moscow bore responsibility for the conflict, but the West was wrong in pretending that the current peace initiative had any chance of success.
“Russia does what it does, it lashes out with force against developments it doesn’t like,” Rojansky said. “Russia, with the full collusion of some very cynical actors in Ukraine, broke Ukraine.”
But he said the West needed to step up and find a way to avoid competing on Russia’s terms. “We’re playing pretend,” he said. “Once you accept that the competition will be waged on post-Soviet rules of exerting power through force, we have already lost.”