In Between vs Belonging, or Why Ukraine Matters

The EU should recognise Ukraine as a European country.

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The EU should recognise Ukraine as a European country.

Hanna Shelest, Security Studies Program Director at the  Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” for International Centre for Defence and Security

Misinterpreting a Dialogue

Dialogue. This word became a mantra for many European politicians when speaking about Russia. When Ukrainians reject it, they look bad in the eyes of their European counterparts. But most of them don’t want to understand the logic behind a Ukrainian position. Franco-Russian dialogue about Ukraine and European security without Ukraine? PACE1-Russian dialogue without fulfilling any of the fundamental principles of the Council of Europe? Ukrainian central government dialogue with militants who are continually violating the ceasefire but not with those in Moscow who are supplying the weapons and paying for this war?

What type of dialogue should Ukraine welcome? Dialogue is essential but by definition it should be a two-way street. It should be between those ready to talk, not to manipulate, if the security situation on the ground is not changing, or if one side is threatening and turning facts upside-down. In such cases, a negotiating position should be supported not just by good intentions, but by a strong partnership, a clear position of all parties involved, and a long-term strategy for future co-existence.

With this in mind, we return to the statement that many Ukraine experts have been promoting since 2014: Europe needs to look at the “Ukraine issue” more broadly than just in terms of Russian-Ukrainian relations, but never forgetting that it is Ukraine at its core. For Russia, this confrontation is about the European order, competition with the US, and imposing its spheres of influence against Europe. But for the EU, it should be about a grave violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity, human rights and the lives of millions, international law and support for other independent states.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), in its April 2020 report “Peace in Ukraine I: A European War”,2 answers its own question “What should be done?” with the proposition that “European states should engage Russia in discussions of European security, including regional and sub-regional arms limitations”. The flawed logic is evident here. First, neither the EU nor NATO nor individual member states had ever stopped dialogue with Russian on these issues before 2014. However, the illegal annexation of Crimea was not a good first step to start a dialogue on the new security order, if such an intention existed. The problem is that most of the Russian proposals expressed in the 2000s were the “new” old ideas of divisions and controls, spheres of interest and influence where Moscow would play a leading role in countries that did not want to return to its “protectorate”.

This bottom line has not changed since 2014. Any call for dialogue should come with a clear understanding of how far the European states are ready to compromise their principles and values. When the answer is ready, it will be much easier to comprehend that Ukraine is both an ultimate goal and the testing ground for Russian policy. Could EU member states be next? Not in the same way. But an EU that does not counteract becomes an easy target for Russian acts of hybrid attack. Ukraine is a good example in this respect. Russia could be as strong as Ukraine was weak and not ready to oppose. Russia will be as strong as the EU is disunited. It is always easier to defeat individual states than a strong union.

As soon as Covid-19 developed in Europe, Russian propaganda picked up steam. The main messages were built on previous narratives: anti-EU sentiment, weakness of European institutions and unreadiness to support individual member states, failed policies at the local government level, inability to cope with the crisis; meanwhile, the Russian Federation is ready to help those in need (e.g. Italy). This brings us to the conclusion that, even when we want to forget about the continuing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, its consequences can reach us in the most vulnerable times. Russia is expertly using the coronavirus crisis to achieve its long-term goals. Requests to lift sanctions and PR manipulation thanks to medical assistance sent to Italy are good examples of this.

The Conflict that Cannot Be Forgotten

One problem is that most European leaders would happily forget about the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The number of deaths is comparatively low compared, for example, to Syria. The level of threat is perceived as lower than for terrorist attacks by ISIS. There are no economic or human consequences on the scale that the migrant crisis brought for the EU.

Like any crisis, Covid-19 arrived without warning and occupied the international community’s attention. The current response clearly demonstrated unreadiness and the lack of resilience in many European countries. However, the natural response—with all national efforts pulling together and concentrated on fighting this pandemic and its consequences, and 90% of efforts domestic and focusing within countries—doesn’t mean we can afford to stop paying attention to other existing crises around the world, and especially in our immediate neighbourhood.

When you break your leg and a few weeks later catch the flu, it does not mean that you should forget about your leg and stop treating it. There is a good chance you will be left without your leg in the end. You cannot return to resolve the problem later, as the momentum may have been lost. It is the same with the response to Covid-19 and continued attention to the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Calls to freeze the conflict and lift sanctions on the grounds that they are ineffective are heard more and more often. It is true that many of these appeals are not aimed at supporting Russia, and their promoters are even ready to openly blame the Kremlin for the annexation of Crimea or the war in the Donbas. However, the frozen conflict is one of the worst-case scenarios because it would allow the international community to pay even less attention to what is happening in Ukraine. (This is already visible when you compare the respective level of attention to the Donbas and Crimea.) It would start a period of endless talks-about-talks about a possible resolution, demanding ever-greater concessions from Ukraine, and anchoring the constructed “national” self-identification of the Donbas.

In this respect, an important statement was made following the video-conference of the foreign ministers of the Normandy Four states on 30 April. The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said it was clear that Russia was a party to the conflict, but not a mediator, as it had signed the Minsk Agreements. This was important in terms of recalling the starting positions, as it distinguished Paris and Berlin as negotiators compared to Russia’s direct involvement. This was especially important given the recent emergence of various new proposals, such as the “12-step plan” presented in Munich, the ICG’s report mentioned earlier and “A Consensus Proposal for a Revised Regional Order in Post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia” published by the RAND Corporation.3

What unites all of these is attempts to propose that the EU states should excuse Russian actions, make concessions in order to move forward, and revise the European order based on the Helsinki principles—all at the expense of Ukraine’s, Georgia’s and Moldova’s security.

Moving Forward in the Right Direction

Ukraine is not in between Europe and Russia. Either EU member states recognise Ukraine as part of Europe or this confrontation will never end. A weakness of the EU states to accept Ukraine as an equal partner and a country of European destiny provides Russia with arguments and inspiration for continued provocation. Recognising Ukraine as a European country does not mean granting immediate EU membership. It means not questioning its European perspective and membership aspirations. It means practical steps to involve Ukraine in big European projects, including PESCO. It means perceiving it not as a neighbour, an object of that policy, but as a strategic partner.

Upgrading relations with the A3 countries (the three members of the Eastern Partnership that signed association agreements with the EU) can also send an important signal. Association agreements provide a perfect basis for increased functional, practical cooperation. Integrating with energy, aviation, roaming and industrial markets, and creating opportunities for joint enterprises and cultural projects contributes much more than individual political statements.

But all these practical steps should be well communicated, both in countries with association agreements and in the EU. This will create an opportunity, firstly, to perceive Ukraine as an integral part of Europe, whose future is not questioned. Many such cases have remained unnoticed until recently, for example Ukraine’s agreement with NATO on assisting in the Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS), through which Ukraine contributes the biggest aircraft in the world. SALIS provides assured access to aircraft (mission-ready within a few days in the event of a crisis) in support of national, NATO and EU operations for a multinational consortium of nine countries (Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia).

The recent pictures of “Mriya” landing in Poland, France and other countries delivering medical assistance from China and tweets about it by world leaders including the NATO Secretary-General provide a media lesson to build on demonstrating real interoperability and partnership. It is also crucial in showing European citizens that Ukraine is not only a victim and a security consumer but a significant other.

Europe should stop thinking about Eastern Partnership states as simply “post-Soviet”. It is a war of narratives as, in describing somewhere thus, you give credit to Russian arguments about its spheres of influence and natural interests. You are looking into the past of these countries rather than their future. The EU does not refer to the Balkan states as post-Yugoslavian all the time. So why are Eastern European countries still considered primarily as post-Soviet?

Confirming the European future of Ukraine and other A3 states makes Europe’s position in a dialogue with Russia much stronger. The current contradiction is not just a competition of powers. In asymmetric, hybrid war, it is very important to gain additional points and to build proper alliances. Dialogue is an effective instrument when you have both a solid background and strong back support. Ukraine matters because it supports the EU model of equality and democracy, of values and future development. Ukraine still matters because Russia’s behaviour is not likely to change in the near future.


1 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.