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The promise of the Eastern Partnership is not dead yet

In the context of the current crisis with Russia, can the European Union’s Eastern Partnership be able to recover some of the promise it had at the time of its founding? To what extent can it change without change inside the EU itself? Certainly, what the EU needs is not hard power but a hard edge.

In the midst of the greatest security crisis to engulf Europe since the height of the Cold War, the sixth summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership on December 15th last year might easily be dismissed as a non-event. Whilst relations between Russia and the six members are a matter of high drama across Europe, the partnership attracts no more attention than a non-speaking part in a play. Provocative and discordant on most subjects, the international commentariat has no difficulty agreeing on one thing: the partnership’s irrelevance.

February 15, 2022 - James Sherr - Hot TopicsIssue 1-2 2022Magazine

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission with Charles Michel, President of the European Council, during the Eastern Partnership Summit on December 15th 2021. Photo: Dati Bendo / European Union

The truth is appreciably different, but this probably is the worst time to make that case. However the current crisis develops, we find ourselves approaching a moment where, in Hobbes’s words, “clubs are trumps”. This is a new reality, but it is not entirely new. For the greater part of its history, Russia’s schéma of security has been predicated on the insecurity of others. When the then foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden, Radosław Sikorski and Carl Bildt, respectively, tabled their initiative to establish what became the Eastern Partnership, they knew this perfectly well. They also judged, correctly at the time, that the “instruments” provided by the partnership had the potential to make Russia’s European neighbours less vulnerable, more self-confident and more tightly bound to Europe.

Russian suspicions

For Russia, the launch of the Eastern Partnership in 2009 was the climactic point in a re-evaluation of the EU that had been underway since the EU’s 1997 Luxembourg Council. By the turn of the century, Moscow understood that the EU was not constructing a counterpoise to the United States, but a normative jurisdiction at cross purposes to that which was emerging in Russia. The EU enlargement of 2004 – which fatefully coincided with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution – therefore persuaded Vladimir Putin that the EU was determined to export its “civilisational model” to Russia’s “zone of historic interest”.

The establishment of the Eastern Partnership and its analogues, the Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, removed all doubt. Far from being a foil to NATO, the EU in Russian eyes had emerged as its other half: the soft, civilisational component to the hard expansion of US and western power. One cannot state too often that the Russia-Ukraine crisis of 2013-2014 did not arise over NATO enlargement but over the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

What Russia feared was the mirror image of what several partnership countries hoped: that, like NATO’s Partnership for Peace, the Eastern Partnership would become the preparatory school for EU membership. But the European Union never set itself that expectation, and the founding goals of the project of “increasing the stability, prosperity and resilience of the EU’s neighbours in line with the EU policies” fall well short of them. Nevertheless, the point so often obscured by the focus on membership is that these goals are both ambitious in their own right and highly relevant to national security.

Consider the case of Ukraine in 2014. The conventional wisdom is that Russia’s “hybrid war” in Donbas was facilitated by the Russophile sentiments of the population. But this widely shared premise is flawed on two counts. After 1991 it was never the case that a majority of inhabitants in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts supported either independence or secession – though pluralities did support one or another form of “federalism” or autonomy. According to the Pew Research Centre, following the victory of the Maidan protesters, dissatisfaction with Kyiv in the east rose to 67 per cent; nevertheless, Pew recorded only 27 per cent support for secession in eastern oblasts in May 2014.

The other side of the coin is that majorities also had an abiding distrust of the authorities in Kyiv; rarely, however, did they trust their own local authorities, their institutional emanations (notably courts and police) or regarded the term “rule of law” with anything other than derision. In these conditions, it was all too easy for Russian special services, Russian businesses and their local allies in politics, business and organised crime to penetrate and sabotage structures of power. For months before Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster, the salaries of local law enforcement and security officials were covertly subsidised by Russian entities through the Russian banking system, and not even Yanukovych’s people knew about it.[1] In a well governed state, these signature enablers of hybrid war would readily be discovered. In Finland, they would not exist.

Security gap

This is where the security gap in the Eastern Partnership countries lay in 2009 and 2014, as it does to a significant extent today. The gap can be found in the nexus between politics, business and crime, in the scale of the shadow economy, in the prevalence of concealed ownership structures, the opacity of economic transactions, in convoluted and sclerotic modes of administration, the venality of judicial authorities, in the petty repression of civil society and in salaries for police and public officials that make corruption inevitable. This gap did not arise yesterday. It was described clinically but clearly in Ukraine’s first National Security Concept (1997).

What was done between 1997 and 2014 to address this gap? As many have documented, far too little. Thus, the goals defined by the Eastern Partnership are not abstractions; nor are they remote from the lives of ordinary people. But they cannot possibly achieve their purpose if articulated in incomprehensible language and pursued by technocratic and formulaic methods.

If the trump of clubs is played, the Eastern Partnership and its relatively soft tools will provide limited defence. But let us make the heroic assumption that the danger of war recedes. Could the Eastern Partnership be able to recover some of the promise it had at the time of its founding? To what extent can it change without change inside the EU itself? What will not change is the fact that the EU is not NATO. It is not a hard power animal, and for reasons that fall outside the scope of this discussion, there is no harm in this. What the EU needs is not hard power but a hard edge.

Despite repeated demonstrations by Russia of the ability of military force to change political facts, the greater part of the EU regards “military solutions” with impotent disapproval. Even after the territorial fragmentation of Georgia, the annexation and invasion of Ukrainian territory and the subversion of democracy in Moldova and Armenia, the “isolation” and “provoking” of Russia continues to arouse principled apprehension. The EU has every reason to regard with lament its exclusion from the top negotiating tables – the US-Russia bilateral talks; the NATO-Russia Council; and the OSCE meetings of 10-13 January – but it should neither be indignant nor surprised. If the EU cannot rise to the challenges we face, it would be far-fetched to suppose that the Eastern Partnership can do so.

Towards a new approach

 Nevertheless, even without an intellectual revolution on the EU’s part, it ought to be possible for us to change the conversation and raise our game. If this is to occur, then, as Gwendolyn Sasse has argued, the Eastern Partnership will have to be recognised as an “EU-wide priority” and resourced accordingly. Second, it will need to be reinforced by a corps of experts with extensive in-country experience. These experts should be encouraged to “go native” to the extent that they earn the respect of local civil society as well as government and provide a counterpoise to headquarters cultures remote from field conditions and unaccustomed to intellectual challenge. Third, bureaucratic answers to bureaucratic problems should be distrusted. Introducing class distinctions in the partnership, as some propose – e.g. distinguishing between the Association Trio and the others – will only repackage existing problems and create fresh resentments on top of them. What is needed is not a new set of categories, but a country-specific approach. As a case in point, how can Armenia, with its Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement – but also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union as well as the CSTO – be put into a category when its predicaments and expectations are so very specific?

Finally, professionals who work inside the Eastern Partnership, and the EU itself, must learn to become constructively adversarial in an adversarial world. In the relatively benign setting of 2004, the authoritative Russian adviser and commentator, Dmitry Trenin, described Russia’s aim in its neighbourhood as: “long-term and painstaking work to create and promote … groups of influence orientated towards Moscow and a gradual weakening and neutralisation of pro-Western circles.”

At that time, the EU faced more favourable conditions. “Groups of influence”, indeed large constituencies supporting the European trajectory existed, though “long-term and painstaking work” was (and remains) required to overcome deeply entrenched forces that oppose it.

Today, the challenge is more stark and more dangerous. In the words of a younger but increasingly influential expert, Dmitry Suslov: “It is necessary to declare forthrightly and openly that Russia and NATO are adversaries and will remain so for a long time, whilst attempts to establish a partnership with the “Greater Europe” … in the near future are moot; hence, post-Cold War principles and institutions must be consigned to the past.” If the Eastern Partnership cannot confront that challenge, it will lose its relevance and its purpose.

James Sherr is a senior fellow with the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn. He is also an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.

[1] Based on confidential discussions with Ukrainian oligarchs and officials. For a full discussion see James Sherr, “A War of Narratives and Arms” (pp 23-32) in Chatham House Report, The Russian Challenge, June 2015.

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