A general sense of despair about Europe’s inability to “get Ukraine right” has set in. Europeans were wrong from the start, many critics say, to have conducted negotiations with Ukraine on an EU association agreement, failing to see the geopolitical implications of a closer bond with a country Russia considers to be in its exclusive sphere of influence. When protesters gathered in Kiev to oppose the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, the EU was lambasted for not supporting them enough. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and buildup of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, Western European states have been accused of not showing enough resolve to support neighboring NATO members that feel threatened by Moscow’s actions. The list of critiques goes on and on. 

But the EU deserves more credit than that. Support for the rule of law, territorial integrity, and reform-oriented economic policies have always formed the core of the EU’s approach to Ukraine. Those were the right policies before the events of the last several months, and they remain so today.

Cornelius Adebahr
Adebahr is a nonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe. His research focuses on foreign and security policy, in particular regarding Iran and the Persian Gulf, on European and transatlantic affairs, and on citizens’ engagement.
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Indeed, it was the idea of Europe that initially drove hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens to take to the streets in protest when their leader rejected the association agreement. The EU may be coy when it comes to the promise of membership, but Ukraine does have a European future—if it wants one. The EU just needs to more effectively employ its policies.

The Alleged Shortcomings

The EU is a different kind of global actor than the United States or Russia. Many pundits and policymakers alike resent the EU’s administrative and technocratic—as opposed to energetic and strategic—approach to foreign policy. But it is precisely the EU’s bureaucratic, norms-based policy of establishing contractual relationships focused on achieving mutual gains that fundamentally distinguishes its foreign policy from that of other nation-states. 

That approach has made the EU an attractive partner for many countries around the world. The union certainly does not forget to look after its own interests and those of its member states, particularly in (often asymmetric) trade relations. Yet the fact that it sticks to the agreements it has made—with the EU’s own courts supervising their implementation and bodies jointly staffed by EU and partner-state officials managing cooperation—makes the EU a reliable partner for more than 100 associated countries

Some argue that the EU should never have negotiated with Yanukovych because a kleptocratic leader is the wrong person to reward with an eventual agreement. Those critics make a good point. 

However, short of Ukraine’s descent into full-fledged authoritarianism, the EU could not have justified a failure to live up to the ten-year-old promises it made to partner countries under the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The core of this policy, which was developed in 2004, is that the EU’s neighbors commit to structural reforms in return for the tangible benefits of closer political and economic ties to the union. Backing away from these promises in the case of Ukraine would have led to a slowdown in the ENP countries’ association with the EU—which would have ultimately played into Russia’s hands.

EU membership prospects in the region are already grim. Five of the six ENP governments in the East are no longer in full control of their territory. Armenia and Azerbaijan are locked in a dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. Georgia lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia, territories that are autonomous republics with close links to Russia. The same happened to Moldova with Transnistria. And now Ukraine has lost Crimea. The other ENP state, Belarus, is a dictatorship. Going back on promises would have only made things worse. 

The EU is also criticized for presenting Ukraine with a choice between the Russia-driven Eurasian Customs Union and a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement as part of an association agreement with the EU. But the EU’s presentation of these two alternatives was merely a description of the obvious. At the heart of the dispute are two mutually exclusive models of economic integration. It is technically impossible for one country to simultaneously align its standards and legislation with two different economic zones, a European and a Eurasian (that is, Russian) one—and that is without accounting for the political and geopolitical intentions behind the Eurasian Customs Union. Making this clear to both Yanukovych and the Ukrainian public before signing any far-reaching agreement is good policy, not a gaffe. 

In fact, the EU should be commended—not scolded—for taking a firm stance on the bilateral nature of a bilateral agreement with Ukraine. No third party should have a veto over how a sovereign country negotiates its contractual relations with the EU. 

Setting aside the current problems in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, one could even argue that the EU’s approach worked in that, by providing the tangible carrot of closer association, it enticed the Ukrainian population to oust its elected, yet autocratic and corrupt, president. But while the EU may have secretly wished for this kind of “success,” it now finds itself unable to deal with the consequences. 

Good Intentions—Bad Follow-Through

In the end, the EU’s main mistake was to both overestimate and underestimate its neighborhood policy. It overestimated the attractiveness of an association agreement for the Ukrainian leadership under Yanukovych, even adding political conditions—such as the release of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko—to its signing of the document. It underestimated the extent to which Russia would see European policy toward the neighborhood as threatening and consequently did not prepare for an aggressive Russian reaction. And it neglected to reach out to Ukrainian civil society as a potential—now proven—agent of change. 

As a result, and with only its fair-weather, rules-based, long-term policy at hand, the EU was completely unprepared for the chaos that unfolded after Yanukovych fled Ukraine.

Failing to anticipate Russia’s reaction was indeed a major mistake on the EU’s part, but in light of current events, it has set out to revisit its policies. The EU has shown a degree of flexibility that has gone largely unnoticed. It has separated for the moment the economic and political parts of the association agreement, signing the political portion with Ukraine’s interim president and holding out on the economic one until the presidential election scheduled for late May brings in a new—and broadly legitimate—leadership. Moreover, the EU has begun to refine the overall ENP in light of the lessons learned from the current crisis. This flexibility is indicative of the EU’s significant ability to embrace self-criticism and work to correct past policy failures. 

Further evidence of its capacity for self-reflection, Europe balances its anger at Russia’s disregard for international law with an acknowledgment of its own past difficulties following the letter of the law. The best example is that of Kosovo, which Putin referenced in his “victory speech” in late March as an example of Western hypocrisy. In 1999, NATO intervened in the then Yugoslav province of Kosovo without UN Security Council backing. This event, combined with Kosovo’s ultimate declaration of independence from Serbia nearly ten years later, prompted in EU member states an enormous amount of soul-searching, a fact that distinguishes this case from Russia’s unscrupulous and swift annexation of Crimea. And while the EU does not have a perfect track record in abiding by international standards, EU leaders—unlike Putin—have their own critical audience reminding them of their shortcomings. 

The tragedy of the EU is that it wants the right things for itself and its neighbors—to establish a “ring of well governed countries” around the union and to ensure that no “new dividing lines in Europe” are created—but it has not yet developed the right tools to achieve these goals when confronted by the machinations of less well-meaning partners. It is precisely because the EU seeks long-term relationships based on mutual gain that it does not easily deploy military might or economic sanctions to impose its will on other nations.

Still, the EU does not need to change this overall approach. It should execute the strategy it has followed for years but employ more effective and targeted policies.

Keep the Strategy, but Sharpen Its Policies

More than twenty years after gaining independence, Ukraine still has a number of pressing reforms it needs to make, from establishing a stable internal order to freeing the economy from political and oligarchic influence to fully respecting human rights and the rule of law. The EU can effectively help the country address those challenges. 

Indeed, many of the reforms that Ukraine needs have been outlined in EU documents over the years. A 2008 joint evaluation report on the EU-Ukraine Action Plan laid out the structural reforms necessary to stave off economic collapse in the country and provide Ukraine with desperately needed credit. Those changes are now likely to be forced on the country by way of conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. A joint statement released after the 2006 EU-Ukraine Summit called for reforming the country’s gas transit system, which is opaque, corrupt, and dependent upon Russia. The List of the EU-Ukraine Association Agenda Priorities for 2011–2012 proposed an inclusive constitutional reform process as well as a strengthening of local self-government to help build a more decentralized political system and greater respect for cultural diversity—which would in turn address the grievances of Russian-speaking populations in the country. 

Now, the EU just has to follow through on those statements. That means, above all, upholding the rule of international law on the European continent. 

Europeans must continue to stand up to Russia and fight against the first forceful change of European borders since World War II. While the EU needs to do its part on the diplomatic front, a body like the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization with 47 members (including Russia), can work behind the scenes. The council’s resolution to suspend Russian voting rights until the end of the year is an important signal, as would be a Russian withdrawal from the assembly in response. The annexation of Crimea ought not to be accepted as a minor hiccup in the broader game of politics. 

Preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine, especially with regard to its eastern and southern regions, is equally important. To do so, the EU will have to help ensure presidential elections take place as scheduled on May 25, followed in due course by parliamentary elections. For this to happen, the EU will have to coordinate closely with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which would monitor such elections and already has observers on the ground. It will mean strongly supporting Ukraine’s ongoing constitutional reform process, which may include further decentralization if the government in Kiev and regional representatives agree to such a scenario without interference from Moscow. 

Finally, the EU—together with the United States and in support of the IMF’s bailout package—should take steps to prevent economic collapse in Ukraine. This may require unconventional measures to enable the government to pay its bills, such as acquiescing, for the time being, to the demands of Ukraine’s unsavory oligarchs in exchange for their underwriting of at least part of a negotiated savings package. Unpleasant as it may be, the oligarchs, as a result of their personal wealth and political influence, must be involved in any “national unity” deal to stabilize Ukraine. 

The choice is up to EU leaders. If they decide to push for the right policies more forcefully, confronting Russia as well as the old elites in Ukraine, the EU itself—not merely the idea of Europe—could be the driving force behind a positive outcome in Ukraine.