EU needs to step up its game in Ukraine

The EU should stay true to basic principles in dealing with Russian revisionism and push back when these principles are violated.

The article was first published in the EU Observer on 31 August 2015.

The situation in Ukraine looks increasingly grim. The war in Donbas has intensified. And Moscow shows no sign of ending its support for its proxy rebels or withdrawing troops and heavy weapons from Eastern Ukraine.

The EU's relations with Russia and the Eastern neighbours are on the agenda when EU foreign ministers and the High Representative gather in Luxembourg on 4-5 September for their post-summer Gymnich. This discussion comes not a day too late. The EU needs to urgently step up its game in Ukraine – or risk losing it. Here is what the EU needs to do.

1. Increase support for Ukraine’s reform efforts

The most pressing challenge for Ukraine is not on the battlefield but in carrying out its massive reform agenda. The EU has provided substantial support to political and economic reform in Ukraine since the crisis began. Yet more is needed, especially in the area of macro-financial assistance.

Ukraine avoided imminent default thanks to the agreement reached last week with private creditors to write off 20 percent of $18 billion of debt. But Ukraine still needs significantly more financing to stabilise the hryvnia and replenish its foreign reserves.

Since the Maidan protests, only three member states have given bilateral loans. The Commission has provided € 2.2 billion in loans to Ukraine. This is not enough. If the EU is serious about wanting Ukraine’s reform to succeed, the Commission and member states must provide further loans to shore up Ukraine’s economy. Default would be devastating for Ukraine’s reform efforts and could lead to political instability.

2. Push for more robust security arrangements in Ukraine

The ceasefire provisions in the Minsk agreement have proven inadequate to contain the fighting. The OSCE mission reports of daily shelling and clashes. The recent flare up is the most serious since the Minsk agreement was signed in February. Almost 7,000 people have been killed since the fighting began; some 1.4 million people have fled their homes.

  The EU should press for more robust security arrangements. The EU should also take another look at the possibility a UN peacekeeping force for Ukraine. The OSCE monitoring mission plays an important role in reporting on ceasefire violations and as a deterrent on the warring parties. But this deterrence is weak especially since the separatists regularly deny the mission access to Donetsk and Luhansk. 

A UN peacekeeping force mandated with traditional separation of forces tasks such as supervising the buffer zone on both sides of the line of contact would provide greater deterrence and stabilisation.

Russia has blocked previous attempts to obtain a Security Council mandate for a peacekeeping operation. But this is no reason to not try again. If Moscow, as it says, wants peace then it should have to explain why a peacekeeping force would not contribute to this. Using peacekeepers from Belarus might be an acceptable option for Moscow.

3. Step up support for implementation of Minsk agreement

It is not only the ceasefire that is regularly being violated. The Minsk agreement’s political provisions also risk not being implemented. The EU should increase overall support for implementation and take a clear position on the agreement's various elements. 

One of the main challenges over the next few weeks will be dealing with local elections in Donbas. The agreement stipulates that local elections should be held under Ukrainian law, in accordance with relevant OSCE standards, and monitored by OSCE/ODIHR. The Moscow-controlled separatists, however, have declared that they will hold parallel elections outside Ukraine’s constitutional and legal framework.

This would clearly be a violation of the Minsk agreement. It is also highly unlikely that elections organised by the separatists would be held in accordance with OSCE standards. These standards require a conducive atmosphere in which political parties and candidates can freely campaign and present their views. Freedom of media is a basic condition. It also requires an up-to-date electoral register; in the case of Donbas, eligible voters who have been forced to flee their homes should be included in the register.

The EU needs to send a clear message to Russia and its proxies that local elections in Donbas must abide by the Minsk agreement. Anything else would be a violation of Minsk and risks undermining the already fragile peace process.

4. Be ready to extend sanctions

The prospects for a complete implementation of the Minsk agreement by the agreed end of year deadline look increasingly poor. Discussions in the EU on whether Minsk has been implemented will intensify as the end of year approaches. The EU should be ready for a scenario in which Russia and its proxy rebels have not lived up to their part of the bargain. This means preparing to extend the sectoral sanctions that are conditioned on Minsk implementation.

Extending sanctions in case of non-implementation is not only about the EU's credibility as a peacemaker but also about the credibility of the Minsk agreement. This time around, the EU should consider opened-ended sanctions conditioned on Minsk implementation rather than sanctions that have to be regularly renewed. 

This would send a powerful signal to Russia about the EU’s willingness to stay the course on Minsk. It would also deny Moscow the opportunity to split the Union every time sanctions are up for renewal. 

5. Keep Crimea on agenda

The annexation of Crimea has largely fallen off the agenda. There is a sense in many capitals that this issue is “too hard to handle” given the likelihood of a reversal any time soon. But not talking about it is not a solution.

The annexation is too serious an issue to be left aside. The violation of fundamental principles, as set out in the UN Charter, Helsinki Final Act, and a host of other international treaties, deserves continued attention. It should be on the EU’s agenda with Russia, as well as with other states, in particular Brazil, China, and India. The EU should also review the sanctions linked to Crimea to plug any loopholes.

6. Prepare for a fraught relationship with Russia for the long term

The EU has still to figure out how to deal with its “Russia problem”. This is not a problem that has come about by the EU’s policy towards Ukraine or the rest of the Eastern Neighbourhood. It is a problem that originates in Moscow and in the decision to use force to annex territory and destabilise a country because it exercised its sovereign right to determine its political orientation. This amounts to a substantial challenge to core principles underpinning the European security order. 

The EU should not expect Russia to change its posture for the foreseeable future. A confrontational relationship with the EU and U.S suits the Kremlin and fits its narrative about how the West is pushing for regime change in Moscow. It also provides a convenient excuse for the failure to modernise Russia’s economy and be a relevant part of globalisation. 

Considerable staying power will be needed to deal with Russia’s revisionism. The best way to do this is to stay true to basic principles, push back when these principles are violated, and, in particular, reject the notion of spheres of influence. It also means that the EU should prioritise its support – both political and material – to the Eastern neighbours that are serious about EU integration.

Dialogue with Russia is of course necessary. But dialogue should not be diplomatic code for going back to business as usual. The EU should engage with Moscow – as many member states do – but remain firm on its principles.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.