Ukraine Opts for Moscow Leaving EU Empty-Handed

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine

Brussels is baffled, rattled and stunned. The mood in Europe’s capital has turned into one bordering on not-so-quiet diplomatic despair since the Ukraine government on Thursday bluntly suspended preparations for the signing of a comprehensive trade pact and political association agreement that was to bring the country into the EU’s orbit. Both deals, years in the making, were scheduled to be signed and sealed at next week’s EU – Ukraine summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Instead, Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych announced that his country was seeking a “renewed dialogue” on trade issues and economic cooperation with neighbouring Russia. The Ukraine will now also consider joining the Eurasian Union – Mr Putin’s answer to the European Union which so far has attracted only Kazakhstan and Belarus.

A Kremlin spokesperson on Thursday evening said that Russia welcomes Kiev’s desire to “improve and develop” trade relations while Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt bemoaned the move in a tweet, noting that “politics of brutal pressure evidently work.” As a keen supporter of the EU’s march eastward, Mr Bildt was instrumental in forging the now scrapped deals.

The last minute change of heart suffered by the Ukraine government leaves the European Union’s eastern initiative faltering, if not in tatters. Thursday’s diplomatic debacle follows the one of last September when Armenia caused consternation in Brussels by suspending any and all negotiations with the EU regarding closer trade and political relations – generally seen as a first and essential step toward a membership application.

“The last minute change of heart suffered by the Ukraine government leaves the European Union’s eastern initiative faltering, if not in tatters.”

For the moment, the EU remains in talks with the Georgia and Moldova governments on establishing closer ties as part of its European Neighbourhood Policy Initiative. However, these countries are now too beginning to experience the full extent of Russian ire and may indeed succumb to it.

The scope of Mr Putin’s diplomatic coup is not yet grasped by most EU officials, some of whom still seem to cherish faint hopes for another eleventh hour about-face by the Ukraine government at the upcoming summit in Vilnius. Their undying optimism is, however, not connected to any developments in the real world and merely serves to underscore the shortcomings of the EU’s own foreign policy and its unrealistic expectations.

Knowing of President Putin’s heavy-handed approach to issues affecting his country’s interests, the European Union should have been much better prepared for the Kremlin’s onslaught. As it happens, they weren’t and the EU has now painfully discovered the limits of its “soft-power” – so touted by Mr Bildt and other, rather woolly-headed, diplomats.

The Kremlin’s resounding victory should not at all have come as a surprise. It is not as if President Putin is a grand master in the art of diplomacy; he is just a street-smart politician and a leader who knows how to effectively wield power.

Over the past few months, the French and Polish had repeatedly warned that the negotiating tack chosen by the EU in the Ukraine seemed primed for failure. By insisting, at the behest of the Germans, on an end to “selective justice” – a euphemism to describe the country’s courts subservience to both political and corporate interests – EU negotiators forced Ukrainian president Yanukovych into a position of great personal discomfort.

Though fully recognizing the need for an independent judiciary, the Ukraine president is loath to order the discharge of former prime-minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison where she has languished since late 2011 after a conviction on charges the EU believes were trumped-up. The EU had made her release a precondition for the signing of any deal.

President Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko are sworn enemies. Her release would have resulted in a severe personal loss of face for Mr Yanukovych and might conceivably have fatally undermined his grip on power.

The French in particular had warned that hinging a momentous shift in geo-political power on the fate of a single individual did not seem a wise course of action. Now the EU must face up to the fact that its diplomatic clumsiness has resulted in Mrs Timoshenko staying behind bars and Mr Putin racking up yet another major triumph. In fact, the EU has absolutely nothing to show for its efforts.

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