The retreat of the Eastern partnership

March 12, 2014

The Russian bear must be left with meat after its early spring hunt. The hard part is: how much?

The veteran strategist Edward Luttwak argues for a “re-engineering” of Ukraine that would hand Crimea and the Eastern regions to Russia, saving the Western rump for Europe. This would, writes Luttwak, “offer the promise of stability at last, with the major disadvantage of legitimizing Putin’s use of force.”

Unprincipled as it is, a capitulation to Russia may be what the hesitant European Union, rife with part-submerged splits, will settle for.

Crimea should remain Ukrainian, but with greater autonomy, argues Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post. Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol would be “unambiguously” Russian territory (the city last week voted for this). Further, Kissinger writes, “Ukraine should not join NATO.” All this is in pursuit of what Kissinger sees as Ukraine’s unavoidable geopolitical fate: to be a “bridge” between Russia and Europe, but belonging to neither.

The EU, unable to be decisive, is waiting on events. The largest of these will come on March 16, when the Russian-organized referendum on Crimea’s status will be held. If the vote is for “reuniting Crimea with Russia,” as the ballot paper will put it, the EU will have to do something, likely on the economic front; a prospect that is already worrying Russian oligarchs.

What can be done in the event of a Russian-orchestrated split in Ukraine is the subject of anguished debate among officials of member countries that have something to lose if the rift with Russia widens. This may include energy supplies to Germany and Italy, investments through London or Russian tourism and property purchases everywhere in the EU.

The EU is already absorbed in trying to save its grandest project of the past two decades — the euro currency. The failure of another project, that of the “Eastern partnership”known also as an “association agreement” — is more bitter, and what to do about it more puzzling.

The Eastern partnership was unveiled in Prague five years ago. It called for “a more ambitious partnership” and a “deeper bilateral engagement” between the EU and six former Soviet states — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It excluded Russia and the five Central Asian republics — the “stans.” The partnership would “maintain and bolster the course towards reforms, [serving a] …shared commitment to stability, security and prosperity of the European Union, the partner countries and indeed the entire European continent.” It was the holy grail of international diplomacy with an outcome in which everyone wins.

Everyone, that is, except Russia. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin does not believe in win-win. He believes in zero sum, especially with the West. A little over two years after the Prague declaration, Putin announced the Eurasian Economic Union, building on the customs union that had already brought together Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. It was a declaration of war by competing unions, and soon the underlying dynamics began to reassert themselves. The largest of these were the self interests of the corrupt ruling groups in most of these republics, which would not be served by the better and cleaner governance practices that were championed by the EU.

Most of the partnership has failed. Belarus, invited to Prague in spite of protests from many in the EU, was never serious; Azerbaijan, oil rich and autocratically governed, says it doesn’t need Europe; Armenia was brusquely reminded that its true friend has always been Russia; and Ukraine, apparently set to make the leap, reneged just before its association agreement was signed. That leaves Moldova (population 3.6 million) and Georgia (population 5 million), both of which initialed an association agreement that is subject to ratification by their parliaments.

Moldova is the poorest state in Europe and among the most corrupt — with trafficking in women particularly pronounced. Two of its areas, Gagauzia and Transdnistria, have declared autonomy and incline heavily toward Russia. It remains an open question whether Moldova can find the unity and political will to follow through on the partnership.

The EU may be left only with Georgia, which made a Euro-Atlantic choice a decade ago.

The EU has spent 2.8 billion euros on these countries — the largest amount going to the largest state: Ukraine. European parliament members, who have become increasingly skeptical about the partnership project, complain that the EU now has little to show for it. Last year, a leading Polish MEP and former vice president of the parliament, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, led an attack on the program, arguing at a committee hearing that “the naked truth is that the EU is losing its eastern neighbors.”

The program is based on good principles: that every independent country has the right to choose its own allies; that government should be transparent and that corruption should be tackled. But the geopolitical reality is that Russia wants at least the semblance of an empire, and wants it more as Putin senses that the West will not fight him over Ukraine.

For the Europeans, the partnership was a good idea; a rare achievement with which to end European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s ten-year term in October. But to challenge Russia it must see Putin’s bet on the escalating crisis and raise it. It doesn’t have that kind of nerve.

For Putin, the partnership must fail if Russia is to be great again. The stakes for the two sides are, to say the least, asymmetric.

The Russian bear will probably be left with a good meal.

PHOTO: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich (L) gives a wink to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a signing ceremony after a meeting of the Russian-Ukrainian Interstate Commission at the Kremlin in Moscow, December 17, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin


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The bottom line is that the conduct of the new rules of the Ukraine makes it unclear whether they would be reliable partners. On one hand, the Ukrainian forces in Crimea has conducted themselves extremely admirably under difficult circumstances. In addition, the Ukrainian revolution was not followed by the kind of lawlessness that occurred in Egypt and other places that have experienced Twitter-feed revolutions. But the leaders of the country do not appear to be impressive, and the country’s major problem is that it is politically dysfunctional and rife with corruption. In one sense, this is a Ukrainian problem that is shared by both Russia and the West. However, the Ukraine may be a microcosm of Russia, and there is a risk that Russia domestic politics could spiral out of control more easily that most of us imagine.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

The conclusion of Ukraine crisis is one: the only reliable ally in todays world are: NUCLEAR WEAPONS.
20 years ago Ukraine get rid off Soviet nuclear weapons when United States and Russia pledged to guard its territorial integrity for all times.
On the other hand Israel has no major problems with Arabs since it has (unoficially) 300 nice warheads (before that development Israel was 3 times very close to next Holocaust).
Japan will gain them first in 5 years maximum. Next will be Iran. Brazil for sure. For South Korea it would be easy task. Then Germany as it would be only major country left wihout them.
And all this mess because some short-sighted US politicians declared KOSOVO independent in 2008.
It ruined the basis for European peace since 1945 till 2008: no changes in borders on European continent.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

Haven’t we determined that Henry Kissinger is a facist working for the bilderbergers? Or, at least, is very dumb and more likely to bring about conflict for profit? Of course, those are the same things.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

“The conclusion of Ukraine crisis is one: the only reliable ally in todays world are: NUCLEAR WEAPONS.”

Ukraine is a failed State. With or without nuclear weapons it’s still going to be weak and will never be able to challenge Russia.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

You nailed, what I was talking about. Any country that cannot defend itself from stronger neighbour is doomed, no allies, no rule of law, difficult times.
In nuclear weapons everything is about deterrent (MAD), no nuclear country was ever invaded. 100 warheads and 10000 soldiers to protect them for max 2 hours is all it takes. And any of uppermentioned countries has capability, budget and legitimate cause to pursue nuclear weapons.
I’m not worried about nuclear Japan, South Korea, Iran, Brazil or Germany. They are pretty predictable countries. But so many nuclear actors altogether will change current power structure that was carefully crafted after WW2. And again everything started in Yugoslavia, this time not Sarajevo, Bosnia but in Kosovo.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

The comment regarding certain countries being more aligned with Russia due to them being corrupt rather ignores the fact that the EU has not once had its accounts signed off by its own auditors, due to the massive corruption that goes on.

In the UK (where I am from) the way they have dealt with corruption has been to stop looking for it (MPs expenses scandal being a prime example, where the way to clean up image of politicians, stop publishing their expenses claims)

Posted by SRG21 | Report as abusive