Association Agreement with EU – victory for Ukraine or Russia?

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has recently earned a rather unflattering nickname Putler, has managed to compromise the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme and established a veto right for himself on EU expansion in Eastern Europe, according to a Lithuanian political observer.

Laurynas Kasčiūnas of the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre says that by postponing the provisional application of the free trade agreement for 15 months the European Commission essentially succumbed to Russia’s pressure.

Russia at dinner table with Europe

The provisional application of free trade agreement would have allowed goods produced in the EU and Ukraine to move freely without waiting for every single EU country to ratify the treaty.

Without the provisional application clause, Ukrainian goods will be admitted freely to the European Union, but EU production will not have the same freedom to enter Ukraine and, consequently, Russia. According to Kasčiūnas, with this concession, Russia has also managed to block another provision which bars an EU-associated country from joining Moscow’s Customs Union.

This was exactly Russia’s goal. In the short run, Ukraine will also benefit, as new and lucrative EU markets will open up for its products.

“But what has happened here if we look globally? The Eastern Partnership programme has essentially invited Russia in, allowing a third country to put pressure on the Eastern Partnership and devalue it. A two-party agreement has turned into a trilateral issue, Russia won leverage in the Association and Free Trade Agreement. And the treaty is a basic building bloc of Eastern Partnership,” according to Kasčiūnas.

“It’s a massive blow for the Eastern Partnership policy,” he says, adding that the agreement was construed as a stepping stone towards possible membership in the EU. However, with Moscow admitted into the company, the Kremlin has essentially been granted a veto right on EU expansion.

“Not only has the EU held back membership prospects from Ukraine, but it also handed to Russia an informal veto right on eastward expansion. This complicates the EU’s entire external relations policy in the east, erodes and paralyses it,” the political analyst says.

How did Ukraine surrender?

The EU’s Eastern Partnership policy is built on two basic elements: (1) a prospect for non-EU countries to integrate into the common market (Association and Free Trade Agreement) and (2) freer movement of persons with the possibility to waive visa requirements altogether. The main goal of the Eastern Partnership is to draw eastern partners into the EU’s economic and political sphere and, consequently, free them from dependence on Russia.

Six countries used to be involved in the Eastern Partnership: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, the more successful ones of the lot are only Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

According to Kasčiūnas, the idea behind the Association Agreement is to provide a stepping stone towards full EU membership, i.e., to use economic incentives to influence the partner countries’ geopolitical orientation.

Moscow’s interests, unsurprisingly, are in direct opposition to the Eastern Partnership goals. Tensions peaked in the run-up to Vilnius Summit last November. Just before the event, Armenia declared it had chosen Russia’s Customs Union instead of the Association Agreement. Moldova and Georgia did sign agreements with the EU, but were subjected to painful trade wars by Russia.

Ukraine, unfortunately, crumbled under Moscow’s pressure. The then president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the agreement, but lost control of further developments soon afterwards: mass protests broke out in Kiev, leading to a regime change, while Russia’s response was to occupy and annex Crimea and inflame separatist war in Donbass.

Ukraine’s new pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko worked hard to meet the expectations of the EuroMaidan – as anti-Yanukovych protesters in Kiev came to be known – and move the country closer to Europe, but eventually bowed down to pressure and asked to postpone the implementation of the free trade agreement.

“Judging from what can be observed now, Ukraine’s move westwards has been stopped, the country is left in a buffer zone,” Kasčiūnas sums up. “As for Russia, they saw the Maidan as a game changer in the region, since people they did not control came to power. It was a blow to the balance of power, in their view, a reshuffle of zones of influence, so in order to restore the balance and keep Ukraine in the buffer zone, they occupied Crimea and incited unrest in Donbass. They succeeded.”

Silent agreement between the West and Russia

The postponement of EU-Ukraine agreement is but one piece in a bigger geopolitical puzzle, according to Kasčiūnas. Other pieces include Proshenko yielding to demands for expanded autonomy in separatist-held regions.

The latter point was part of the ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk by Ukraine, Russia, separatist leaders and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Kasčiūnas sees the ceasefire agreement as a price that Ukraine and the EU agreed to pay for provisory peace.

The political analyst says that the West and Russia have essentially stroke a silent deal that Ukraine remains in Moscow’s sphere of influence, but in exchange the latter stays away from NATO and EU countries.

“It’s a dangerous moment. We used to talk that, during the Wales Summit, Georgia would be offered a roadmap to NATO membership, but no one has as much as mentioned it lately. I do not know if the West and Russia have a formal or an informal agreement, but I believe that the West has adopted the line of not irritating Russia and almost acknowledging its ‘vital’ sphere. This essentially means that neither NATO nor the EU will make any further expansion to the east,” Kasčiūnas says.

“This is more than obvious in NATO’s policies: the alliance has increased its presence here [in the Baltics and Poland], but did not offer anything to Ukraine or Georgia. So we have new security lines drawn in Europe,” he adds.

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