Taking the neighbours seriously – the view from Stockholm

Stockholm will without a doubt do more than its fair share to help develop a more effective policy.

Sweden and Poland were the two main players in the EU promoting a dedicated Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy. It was fortunate that Sweden held the Presidency of the European Council in 2009, when the EaP was launched. By contrast, the Swedish general election in September 2014 and the new government’s initial struggles in office coincided with the escalation of Russia’s war in Ukraine. This was unfortunate timing, both for the neighbours and for the EU’s EaP policy.

A staunch commitment to the eastern neighbours

In the aftermath of the Georgian-Russian war, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt joined forces with his Polish colleague, Radoslav Sikorski, to promote the EaP. Swedish security experts had issued a stern warning about Russia’s likely future challenges to the European security order and, from a Swedish perspective, efforts had to be stepped up to counter the negative trends in the region. Under Bildt’s leadership, Sweden’s foreign policy was characterised by unequivocal support for the eastern partners. The importance of the EaP for Sweden is reflected in the attention paid to the partnership countries and to Russia in each of the annual Swedish Foreign Policy Declarations between 2009 and 2014. Moreover, Russian state-controlled media such as RT, Tass, and Sputnik regularly mocked Bildt during his last few years in office, which was a testament to the important role he played in mobilising stronger EU involvement in the region.

That the EaP initiative would face setbacks hardly came as a surprise to Sweden. The Foreign Ministry carefully monitored regional developments. The violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity, the situation in Belarus and relations with Russia, in addition to the EaP, received considerable attention in Sweden’s 2009 Foreign Policy Declaration. These issues, and also energy relations with the Caucasus countries, were the focus the following year, and in 2012 the declaration noted the deterioration of the situation in Ukraine, the consequences that that would have for Sweden’s development aid to the country, concerns about Belarus, but also the implications of Russia’s accession to the WTO.

In February 2013, the Swedish Foreign Ministry noted worrying trends in the EaP region. The appointment of a Swedish “Eastern Partnership” ambassador was a clear acknowledgement of the fact that the Vilnius Summit the following November would be an important milestone. The Foreign Policy Declaration that year noted the financial commitment that Sweden and the EU had made to help the EaP countries. At the same time, Bildt noted the dangers inherent in the deliberate decision of the Russian government to prioritise the modernisation of its armed forces – to the detriment of economic modernisation and Russian society. In his farewell speech in September 2014, Bildt acknowledged that he had underestimated the destructive potential of the changes that had taken place in Russia under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership.

Tenacity pays off in the long run – terror does not

Considering the resources and energy that Sweden has invested in the EaP, Stockholm can hardly be satisfied with its record, which has been mixed, if not poor. Instead of enjoying greater stability, security, and prosperity in 2015, the eastern partners and even, remarkably, several EU member states in their vicinity now have to grapple with serious domestic challenges and find ways of effectively combatting the gamut of Russia’s methods of hybrid warfare. Still, after many years of limited progress and setbacks in the Eastern Neighbourhood, the first half of 2014 saw, alongside an intensification of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the most significant positive development yet. That Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine signed and ratified the bilateral Association Agreement (AA) and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU constituted a clear success. That Moldovans, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis now enjoy easier travel to the EU is also a sign of progress. Moldova’s positive trade development with the EU in 2015 confirms the value of the DCFTA in promoting reforms in the EaP countries. In the case of Ukraine, the postponement of the DCFTA implementation might be seen as a major disappointment, although the consensus of most experts is that pushing for implementation in 2015 would have done more harm than good.

Shaky at home, but committed to helping the eastern neighbours

Speculation was rife about whether Sweden without Bildt as its foreign minister would be a force for the eastern partners to reckon with. The general election in September 2014 seemed to confirm the worst fears: the new government’s first few months in office were characterised by ambiguity. Doubts increased about how Sweden’s new “feminist foreign policy” would be applied to relations with Russia and the eastern partners, and the war in Ukraine in particular. Analysts and observers on both sides of the Baltic Sea were especially unsettled by the scant attention paid in the 2015 Foreign Policy Declaration to the crisis in Ukraine, to Russia, and to the EaP.

The declared ambition of pursuing a “new role for Sweden in the world” in practice meant breaking with the strong and principled stance that Carl Bildt had pursued. Sweden’s allies in the EU began to worry about the mixed signals the new government was sending Russia at an absolutely crucial time for Ukraine and the region as a whole. Both Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and Foreign Minister Margot Wallström came to realise, however, that breaking with their predecessors’ policy served neither Sweden’s interests nor those of the eastern neighbours. In that respect, Wallström’s visit to Ukraine in late November 2014 was a turning point. She gained first-hand insight into the severity of the challenges faced by the government in Kyiv and confirmed that Sweden would support Ukraine, no matter what.

The following spring (2015), Wallström embarked on a course of active engagement in the EaP. She also held numerous meetings with other EU member states to discuss the way forward with the EaP, and travelled to the region with like-minded EU colleagues. In her visit to Moldova, she was accompanied by Lithuania’s foreign minister, while her Danish and Polish counterparts joined her when she visited Georgia. Wallström also participated in the meeting of the Visegrad countries to discuss the EaP, a few days before the Riga Summit, accompanied by her Romanian colleague. The sudden activism confirmed the impression that the Swedish Foreign Minister had turned over a new leaf in her commitment to the region.

Although Stockholm’s renewed activism has remained largely under the radar, there is no doubt about the strength of Sweden’s engagement in the EaP process. The Swedish Riksdag ratified the EU’s Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in late November, recognising their choice to take the “European path”. In December 2014, Stockholm signed an agreement with the UNDP in Ukraine, which saw it commit to financially support “early recovery and reconciliation” in Eastern Ukraine. Sweden also had a visible presence at the international donors’ conference for Ukraine in April 2015. More recently, in mid-May, Wallström announced that her government would provide medical aid to wounded civilians and military personnel in Eastern Ukraine.

After a period of uncertainty during the new government’s first few months in office, Sweden once again has adopted a clear position on Russia and the EaP partners, and is now pursuing active diplomatic engagement with its EU partners and those in the EaP region. Although Wallström’s voice is less audible in the debate, she has embraced the sharp and outspoken approach to foreign policy that Bildt was known for. She also shares his frankness. Indeed, Wallström has not exactly minced her words in recent months. Her Twitter account, @margotwallstrom,provides ample examples (see, for example, a tweet posted on 14 January 2015 which demanded that ”Russia cease its aggression”, and one on 5 March 2015 which called for the release of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko).

Furthermore, Swedish diplomats strongly reject the somewhat muffled criticism of Kyiv, Tallinn, Vilnius, and Riga that has been expressed by those who support an appeasement policy towards Russia. Stockholm finds utterly unacceptable the idea that “Ukraine brought this upon itself” or that Russian aggression against Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is “the Baltic states’ own fault” – views that are nevertheless becoming widespread in some European capitals, including Brussels. Where Sweden is considerably more cautious, though, is on the question of a stronger military presence in the Baltic region and the provision of military support to Ukraine (even if Swedish armed forces did deliver 15 armoured vehicles to Ukraine in early March 2015 to support the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission). On the whole, however, Wallström sides with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the view that there can be no solution besides a diplomatic one.

Balsam for the neighbours, or a return to harsh geopolitical realities in Riga?

The EU’s member states demonstrated strong unity on sanctions against Moscow in the year following Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea. However, with the conclusion of the ceasefire deal in Minsk in February 2015, deep divisions have arisen between the member states. In this light, the question of which commitments the EU should make, and which signals it should send to the eastern neighbours at the Riga Summit, are crucial ones that require firms answers. For Sweden, it is clear that a positive signal must be sent to the eastern neighbours. It is also clear that a strong message must be conveyed to Russia that its continued aggression with its hybrid methods of warfare against the EaP countries and even EU member states will not be tolerated.

Sweden will also keep its foot firmly planted in the doorway to EU membership, and will not back down and allow the door to close. During his visit to Ukraine in March 2015, Prime Minister Löfven made his government’s view crystal clear: that once Ukraine has fulfilled all of its commitments under the AA and DCFTA, the logical step will be to prepare an application for EU membership. “Sweden stands fully behind Ukraine's vision of an ever closer relation with the European Union”, he said, because “for Sweden there is no doubt that Ukraine is a part of Europe and has a clear place in Europe”. On the back of this newfound clarity, Sweden’s representatives in Brussels are continuing to do everything they can to turn the tide of the EU’s internal debate and fight the increasingly popular view that the EU should keep its head down on the membership question. Along with its Baltic partners, Stockholm has insisted that, at the very least, the language of the Vilnius Summit declaration must be included in the Riga Summit declaration too – namely the “acknowledgement of the European aspirations and the European choice of some partners” (as well as “their commitment to build deep and sustainable democracy”).

From Riga towards a new realism: appeasement as the new normal?

A major concern for Sweden – one shared by its Baltic, Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian partners – is the creeping normalisation of the status quo: that an acquiescent acceptance of the simmering war in Ukraine has become the new “normal” in Brussels, and in many other national capitals. It may seem as if Sweden itself is a guilty party in that respect, but a distinction must be made between the almost non-existent public debate in Sweden and the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s and diplomatic corps’ strong and active engagement in Brussels and in the EaP region. While the latter continue their work in different EU capitals and on the ground in the EaP countries, the Swedish public pays scant attention to the Eastern Neighbourhood because of “conflict fatigue” and the “normalisation” of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Coverage of developments in the EaP region by the Swedish media is neither systematic nor consistent. While reports of Russia’s territorial violations in the Baltic Sea and airspace regularly appear in the news, Ukraine and even the precarious position of the Baltic states receives little coverage. Neither has much attention been paid to Wallström’s hectic shuttle diplomacy during the weeks leading up to the Riga Summit. Meanwhile, Sweden’s embassies and ambassadors continue to work hard in the Eastern Partnership countries. They also lend active support to civil society actors and political leaders to help their efforts to implement necessary, but difficult and painful, reforms.

In the run-up to the European Council meeting in June 2015, when leaders will decide whether to extend the package of sanctions against Russia, Sweden stands firmly alongside those who advocate the continuation of a principled sanctions policy. It is likely that the Council will approve the extension of current EU sanctions against Russia until 31 December 2015. The question is what will happen after that? It is implausible that on 1 January 2016 peace will break out in Ukraine or that Europe’s unsettled security order will be restored. The manner in which the Kremlin orchestrated the 9 May victory celebrations in Moscow left little doubt that Russia is continuing to scale up its readiness to engage in full-scale war.

Looking ahead, there is no doubt that Stockholm will continue to condemn the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine. It is also Sweden’s firm view that Russia must not be given a veto on the implementation of the EU’s DCFTA with Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia. Stockholm is also keen on developing better relations with Minsk, but not at any cost. Following the emerging consensus in Brussels that greater emphasis in the EaP policy must be put on fundamental state-building, Sweden will continue its longstanding tradition of supporting its partners with technical expertise. With the recent appointment of economist Anders Aslund and Carl Bildt to the advisory team that will guide Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko through difficult state-building reforms, a substantial Swedish influence in Kyiv is guaranteed. At the same time, Stockholm will also devote its attention to the other five eastern partners and will, without doubt, do more than its fair share in the EU to help develop a more effective policy towards the neighbours, in order to gradually help restore stability and security in the Eastern Neighbourhood.

Anke Schmidt-Felzmann is a Research Fellow in the Europe Programme of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.


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


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