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EU-Ukraine: Press 'pause'

Christoph Hasselbach, Brussels / re, ng
November 29, 2013

The EU Association Agreement with Ukraine has failed for now. But it wasn't just down to pressure from Russia, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.


Ukraine wants it all. Good relations with Russia and the European Union. It does not want to choose between the two sides. That is understandable. The Ukrainian economy needs the Russian market and depends on it as an energy supplier. Ukraine depends more on Russia - at least right now - than on the EU. Culturally, Ukraine is also divided between an eastern-influenced part and a western-influenced part.

Moscow thinks in spheres of influence

Europe has been sympathetic to these needs. And without Russia this would not be a problem. The EU does not demand that Ukraine cut off relations with Russia or that it devote itself entirely to Brussels. The problem is Russia. Russia demands such a decision. President Vladimir Putin thinks in old geostrategic patterns. For him all countries of the former Soviet Union that join the EU are lost spheres of influences. He threatens them and he lures them, doing everything to keep them.

Christoph Hasselbach, DW Brussels
DW's Christoph HasselbachImage: DW

The partnership is not a bazaar

The EU is unable to do anything about this. It cannot engage in such forms of pressure if it is to remain true to its values. And it refuses to haggle over the amount of economic support. And that is where Europe's sympathy for the difficult situation Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych finds himself in ends. Yanukovych tries to make a virtue of a necessity, playing off the EU against Russia to persuade them to make a better offer.

The EU and the democratic forces in the Eastern Partnership countries are now surveying the ruins of their efforts. It is not just Ukraine that has kissed goodbye to rapprochement with the West. Armenia has also practically abandoned similar plans and have turned to Moscow once again.

Belarus, with its authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, was never really part of the group. Only Moldova and Georgia are moving in the desired direction, but they are too small to really get the ball rolling.

Lithuania remembers the old days

The failure of the partnership is particularly painful for the countries on the EU's eastern periphery. Take Lithuania. The partnership is first and foremost its project. The country was occupied by the Soviet Union barely a generation ago. Vilnius is less than 50 kilometers from the border with Belarus, Europe's last true dictatorship.

Whether these relatively young EU countries are surrounded by stable, free market-orientated democracies or suspicious rivals, is a big deal for people in Poland or Lithuania.

But most western EU states have never been interested in the Eastern Partnership - France, Italy and Spain usually look towards the West or even the South, but not East. The project lacked crucial support from within the EU from the start.

Putin, Yanukovych stymie progress

What is to be done? The EU should definitely keep its offer to Ukraine and others open - that's not debatable. But the EU should not water down its conditions, otherwise the bargaining would start afresh. EU states should keep stressing that the partnership is not directed against anyone and that all parties will benefit - including Russia.

But all that is not going to work with Putin and Yanukovych still around. But society is changing, in Russia as well as in Ukraine. And that's not just down to influence from the EU, but also because of change from within. Things could be very different in a few years' time.