Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

The EU cannot afford to abandon Ukraine

Dzerkalo Tyzhnia (Ukraine) - September 5th 2009

The experience of the Cold War taught us that the best way to handle relations with Russia is from a position of unity and strength. Russia has historically projected these values internally and in the wider world, and therefore respects unity and strength in others. Russia’s instincts are always to look for weaknesses in other nations to exploit and domestic disputes to stoke.

Sadly, the European Union is today unsure and inchoate in its approach to its relations with Russia. This position contrasts considerably with that of the United States which, even under the supposedly more benign foreign policy of President Barack Obama, has adopted a robust and uncompromising approach to the Kremlin and its relationship with neighbouring former Soviet republics.

In some ways this is understandable: the EU now borders Russia, it has accepted as equal members of the Union three former Soviet republics and is strengthening relations with other countries on Russia’s flanks, with a view to their eventual EU accession. US-Russian relations are uncomplicated by this recent historical legacy. The EU must therefore necessarily adopt a more nuanced, layered and multifaceted approach to its dealings with the Kremlin.

Europe’s thirst for Russian gas has become the dominant – too dominant -- element in this relationship. Russia knows that its hydrocarbon supplies can be a powerful diplomatic tool in projecting its foreign policy, not only in the former Soviet states that Moscow rather patronizingly refers to as its ‘near abroad’ but in EU member states as well. Russia’s close relations with Germany and Italy in particular have helped to dilute the EU’s reaction to Russian adventurism – such as last year’s war with Georgia – and thus limited the EU’s moral authority.

This lack of will – what some might now call a modern day form of appeasement – could ultimately result in something like a new Iron Curtain falling across Europe. If the EU shies away from confronting Russian irredentism and revanchism, Moscow will inevitably seize the opportunity to reassert its hegemony and influence in countries such as Ukraine that have spent years trying to move out of Russia’s shadow and towards a sovereign future of their peoples’ own choosing.

Last summer’s Russian invasion and dismemberment of Georgia was a salutary reminder that once Russian revanchism is allowed to run at full tilt, the results are almost impossible to reverse. Russia now intends spending huge sums developing military bases in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There are now no practical steps the EU can take to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity beyond military action, which is never going to happen.

Ukraine’s presidential election in January 2010 will be the next major test for the EU as it seeks to manage relations with Russia. The EU needs to send a clear warning to the Kremlin that any attempt to interfere in the democratic processes of a sovereign independent state like Ukraine will reap severe consequences. It is essential that the EU closes ranks in the face of Russian provocation and learns the lessons of what happened in Georgia. Ukraine is an undeniably European country with every prospect eventually of joining the EU and NATO, should that be the choice of its citizens. If we truly believe in democracy, liberty and expanding the community of EU member states, the EU cannot afford to abandon Ukraine.

Already there are signs that Ukraine faces months of political turmoil. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev recently wrote to his counterpart Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine with a long list of grievances and apparent slights, and concluded by refusing to send a new Russian ambassador to Kyiv for the time being. Yushchenko has undeniably bungled relations with Russia, and much else besides, during his presidency. But nothing he has done merits the diatribe issued by President Medvedev, who made his implicit threats in a video message with a Russian warship hovering menacingly in the background. With winter on the horizon, Russia could well engineer another gas supply dispute affecting not only Ukraine but the EU as well.

There are also signs that pro-Russian activists are agitating in Crimea, a predominantly Russian-speaking region and home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Ukraine recently expelled a Russian diplomat from Crimea for allegedly distributing thousands of dollars to pro-Russian pressure groups. This comes on the back of several years of Russia illegally handing out Russian passports to citizens there.

President Medvedev recently tabled legislation in the Russian Duma that, if passed, will empower him to take military action to defend Russian citizens abroad. It’s not too hard to imagine a Georgia-style scenario if the main pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovich loses the presidential election in Ukraine and a pro-Western leader accelerates Ukraine’s reorientation away from Russia. The Kremlin could also incite such actions on the basis of defending the Black Sea bases, the leases for which are due to expire in 2017. As that critical date approaches, Crimea may well become an increasing source of tension between Kyiv and Moscow for years to come.

It’s easy to say that the EU would react with appalled outrage to any interference, military or otherwise, in Ukraine’s presidential election and its aftermath. But Georgia’s experience suggests otherwise. The EU’s subdued reaction and swift return to normal business with Russia have left Georgia facing a permanent Russian military presence within its territory. Is the freedom and security of the citizens of another European nation more important than our addiction to Russian gas? It’s a choice the EU needs to make, and one which will define its standing in world affairs for decades to come. Moreover, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunning silence as President Medvedev berated his Ukrainian counterpart in her presence suggests that Germany, which for decades watched the freedom of the city of Berlin defended by its allies in the West, has conveniently forgotten history. There is an old principle of Roman law: qui tacet consentire – silence means consent. Let us hope that the German Chancellor, if re-elected, will reconsider her apparent acceptance of Russia’s bullying towards its neighbors.

Of course, Russian meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs is nothing new. The Kremlin’s ham-fisted attempt to rig Ukraine’s presidential election in 2004 resulted in the pro-Western Orange Revolution. It’s clear Russia would like to reverse the democratic gains of the past five years in Ukraine and install a more compliant, pro-Russian president in Kyiv.

A strong, united European Union standing squarely behind Ukraine should be enough to deter such an outcome and enable Ukraine to make further progress towards a future tied to the security and economic apparatus of the West. At the same time, the EU should be able to enjoy cordial relations with Russia, but on the basis of equality and sovereignty, not hegemony.

Ultimately, the EU needs to recognize Russian recalcitrance as a sign of the country’s waning power in the world. Like a child who grumbles because he can’t have things all his own way, Russia is frustrated by a rapidly changing world and the disappearance of the certainties of the Soviet era. The recent fluctuations in gas and oil prices have also brought home to Russia the vulnerability of its undiversified economy, and in the medium to longer term Russia faces a demographic crisis of huge proportions that will have severe consequences for its military power. Once the EU starts dealing with Russia from a position of strength and unity it can start shaping this crucial relationship according to its own values and needs.