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28 January, 2014

Susan Stewart: “A plan B for Ukraine is only emerging now”

The EuroMaidan began as a protest against President Yanukovych’s decision to disrupt the Association Agreement with the EU. Over the past two months, it has escalated into resistance to the government and President Yanukovych himself

On December 19, the rally grew into clashes after the parliament passed a slew of repressive laws in violation of the procedure and the opposition failed to respond to this with clear objectives, decisive actions or nomination of a single leader of the resistance movement that could later run for presidency.

Although the protests have now moved away from Ukraine’s accession to Europe, the Eastern Partnership programme and the Association Agreement as its result were among the causes that sparked the protest initially. The Ukrainian Week talks to Susan Stewart, Deputy Head of the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), about the original purpose of Eastern Partnership, German policy towards Ukraine and sanctions against Ukrainian officials.

UW: What was the original purpose of the Eastern Partnership initiative?

It was twofold. For one thing, there was a sense of a need to differentiate the European neighbourhood policy more strongly. Some EU member-states sensed that it wasn’t possible to address the needs of all 16 countries under this one overarching policy. The countries to the east were seen as “European neighbours” whereas the countries to the south were referred to as “neighbours of Europe”. The “European neighbours” are states that have a claim to be European countries and, at least according to the EU treaty framework, could eventually apply for membership. That was one reason.

The second reason was that Poland in particular wanted to carve out a role for itself within the EU being still a relatively new member-state at that time and wanting to show that it had a contribution to make in the realm of foreign policy. Countries to the east were seen as the obvious area where Poland could bring in its expertise and work with these countries. I think that’s also an important factor.

Poland didn’t want to bring this up as a purely Polish initiative. Instead, it wanted to show that it could work with partners within the EU. Because of the good relationship between Radoslaw Sikorski and Carl Bildt, that was a major reason for Sweden to agree to get involved. But I think Sweden’s role since the beginning has been rather subordinate to the Polish role. The Swedes have been much less visible as promoters of the Eastern Partnership.

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UW: How did the core countries, including Germany, France and the UK, take the EaP initiative initially?

Germany was always supportive. None of the countries were categorically against it. It was seen as something that makes sense. On the Polish part, it may have been a response to France’s attempts to launch a similar Union for the Mediterranean. So, there was a sense that the European Neighbourhood Policy had to be differentiated, but also that eastern countries shouldn’t get too short shrift. If France traditionally had its emphasis on the southern EnP countries, there should be some corresponding initiative for the east. There wasn’t any strong opposition from other countries to the idea of EaP. I would say they were mostly passive supporters. But the interest in the initiative among most member states was not particularly strong.

UW: What does the outcome of the EaP – success or failure - mean for different EU member-states?

It is the most important to Poland and countries on the eastern border of the EU because it has security implications for them. If Russian influence grows in some of these countries, this will be a concern on many levels, including the security level, in many countries, especially those on the border. For the other countries, like Germany, France and the UK, it’s not as tragic, even if it’s certainly not the desired outcome. When Germany, France and the UK look to the east, their policies have mainly been focused on Russia and less so on other countries. They have offered some passive support, and some active involvement, too. But it’s not as vital an interest to them as it is for Poland as the initiator of the EaP or, say, the Baltic States.

However, I don’t think it is going to get to the point where EaP simply ceases to exist. You can argue that it has now, at least in certain aspects, failed or the progress has not been nearly as fast and as solid as was expected or desired. It certainly hasn’t lived up to its potential yet. But that doesn’t mean that the initiators will give up on EaP and start something else.

UW: There is a concept that Ukraine has been treated by the West as a buffer zone that could remain so or could go further under Russia’s control to avoid spoiling the West’s relations with Russia. How accurate is it?

I don’t think that concept is accurate, at least it has not been up to this point. I wouldn’t say that this attitude has existed, other than occasionally on the part of a few individual policymakers. On the whole, I don’t think that the concept has been prevalent in the EU.

There are many different perspectives on Ukraine within the EU. Generalizing them, I think that the EU’s awareness of the depth of the problem in Ukraine in terms of the economy, governance and so on, may not have been sufficient. People may have thought that it would be possible to increase cooperation with Ukraine but they underestimated how difficult it would be. Since they didn’t see Ukraine as weak and corrupt as it is, they were not overly concerned about Ukraine turning into a buffer zone or slipping into Russia’s control – that suggestion was not prevalent. There was some concern about a potential drift towards Russia, but the dominant belief was that it was in Ukraine’s interest to come closer through the EU by signing the Association Agreement and that this would happen.

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That concept – of Ukraine as a buffer zone - could however gain currency now that these major problems in the relationship with Ukraine have arisen. I think that awareness of how Ukraine is being governed is much stronger now.

Still, the protests in Ukraine have made it absolutely clear that there is a significant proportion of society that really is interested in deepening relations with the EU. These protests are not falling on deaf ears. People in the EU are hearing them. And they would basically like to somehow respond to that. But, in fact, so far nobody really knows how. There are now efforts being made by the EU and others to ensure that the violence stops and the governing elite and the opposition reach a compromise, but I have not yet seen any coordinated plan emerging.

UW: Germany now has a new coordinator of its Russian policy, Gernot Erler. Mr. Erler is known as a pro-Russian politician. How could this affect Germany’s policy towards Ukraine in particular, and former FSU countries on the whole? 

It’s very early to comment on this because the new government hasn’t been in place very long. It is true that there is now a new envoy for Germany’s Russia policy (on January 9, Angela Merkel accepted the appointment of a pro-Moscow veteran, Gernot Erler, a close ally of the pro-Russian Social Democrat leader and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as coordinator of German’s Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Partnership policies. Erler replaced Andreas Schockenhoff, known for his criticism of anti-human rights practices in Russia – Ed.). Gernot Erler actually proposed that the position of a coordinator for German-Russian relations should be created, and he was the first one to fill it. Back then, that position didn’t have as high a profile as it does now. Schockenhoff, partly because of being critical towards Russia, and very active in his pursuit of contact with Russian civil society, elevated the status of the position. Now, Erler is going to take over again. This time he will cover not only Russia, but all other post-Soviet countries, including Ukraine, so this means the EaP countries and Central Asia as well.

It’s a big question now that people here are asking. On the one hand, you have Steinmeier back in as Foreign Minister. This means that there will probably be a more even balance between the chancellery and the foreign ministry in terms of foreign policy. Under Westerwelle, I think, the chancellery was in some fields the primary actor in terms of foreign policy and Westerwelle remained a relatively weak actor up to the end. Now, it will be different. Steinmeier comes in having his feet on the ground: he has previous experience as foreign minister, and he also has a lot of experience working with Russia and the region, the initiation of the modernization partnership with Russia and all that.

On the other hand, we now see more critical statements of Russia by Steinmeier than one saw in the past, in particular about its role leading up to Vilnius. It still remains to be seen where Erler will go with that, whether there will be an attempt to pick up the strands of the previous policy and give new life to the modernization partnership, or whether there will be a more cautious and critical line similar to the one we saw previously under the coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats.

Erler does have a reputation of being very friendly towards Russia. It is a very strong tendency within the Social Democrats emerging from the experience with Ostpolitik under Willy Brandt. On the other hand, some things have happened in the past, particularly as a result of developments within Russia and with Russian policy, that may make it not so plausible to continue the line Steinmeier pursued before as foreign minister. So, it’s still up in the air.

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UW: Had the EU leaders been aware that Yanukovych would disrupt the AA?

I don’t think they were aware that he would refuse to sign it. They seem to have thought until the very end that it would be possible, even at the Vilnius Summit, to reach a compromise on signing – i.e., to come up with some sort of conditions or guarantees that would allow the signing.

I think there was awareness here in the EU, at least by the time people went to Vilnius, that the Ukrainian side was only interested in the AA as a sort of a card in a game it could play to gain benefits from Russia. But the EU was willing to accept that. They still wanted the signature, even if Ukraine was planning to use the AA for this kind of instrumental purpose. One reason was that the AA, once signed, could still be used as a certain source of leverage. Another reason was that the EU has its share of geopolitical thinking, too. Some people were saying, we need to sign the AA because Ukraine is going to drift further towards Russia otherwise. For some policymakers, this remains a reason to keep pushing for the signing.

UW: Do you think the EU will impose sanctions against Ukrainian officials? And would they be effective if it did?

The potential for sanctions being introduced is much higher in the US compared to the EU. This is because in the EU - as a foreign policy actor – it is very difficult to get to a consensus on anything. Still, I think EU sanctions are more possible in the case of Ukraine compared to Russia and the Magnitsky case. But I think that, at least before Vilnius, there was a lot of concern about not wanting to contribute to turning the Ukrainian situation into one similar to the Belarus situation and a feeling that sanctions would be a step in that direction. However, after the passage of the package of repressive laws on 16 January and the increase in violence connected to the protests, there have been some high-level politicians in the EU talking about the idea of personal sanctions on those in Ukraine responsible for violence by state structures. Nonetheless, so far the preference within the EU seems to be to try to pursue diplomatic contacts rather than to cut off certain channels by means of sanctions. It will be very difficult to get all member states to agree on something as drastic as sanctions, even if individual institutions, such as the European Parliament, might eventually support them.

With regard to the oligarchs, the idea of targeting flows of dirty money and trying to make more efforts to find out where money laundering is taking place and to counteract that is an idea that has been around in expert circles for a while. But so far there has been no concerted action to do that and to target the oligarchs. In fact, it is still a new idea, at least to many in the EU. The assumption has always been that many oligarchs have been pro-EU. This tendency of the oligarchs has been overestimated. People argued that oligarchs had an interest in the EU and would benefit from the AA, but they overlooked how closely intertwined they are with the regime and how interested they are in having a lack of transparency in their dealings; and how unlikely they are to actually go against the regime unless it seems like the regime is indeed going to fall. I think the oligarchs are very diversified both in their holdings and in the support they give to various political forces. So the whole situation is probably much more complex than it has been seen in the EU.

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