Midway into her term, Federica Mogherini found herself in Moscow. The high representative had wanted to go to Moscow for some time to establish a dialogue with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. But there had been little enthusiasm for this idea among member states because of frosty relations with Russia and, in particular, Russia’s continued failure to deliver on the Minsk agreements. Scepticism about the high representative going to Moscow stemmed from a fear that such a visit could be interpreted – or spun – as a drive to normalise relations with Russia.
Ultimately, however, the visit only highlighted the minor role played by the high representative in dealing with the conflict in Ukraine. It is true that European Union member states have taken a firm stance against Russia’s action in Ukraine by imposing sanctions and taking other restrictive measures. The European Commission and a few member states have also provided substantial assistance for reform in Ukraine. Germany and France have taken it upon themselves to lead the diplomatic efforts on Ukraine. But the EU as such is not part of the diplomatic negotiations, nor has it used any crisis-management mechanisms to deal with the conflict.
The EU is not part of the Normandy Format or the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk. Neither is the EU present on the ground in the Donbas. The EU launched a Common Security and Defence Policy mission – the Ukraine Assistance Mission – in late 2014 to advise on reforming Ukraine’s security sector, but this mission has been blocked from having a role in the east. Instead, the OSCE has been given the lead in monitoring the security situation in the Donbas.
The EU’s absence from resolving this conflict stands in stark contrast to its role in dealing with the conflict between Russia and Georgia following the war in 2008. In that crisis, an EU special representative was appointed to facilitate the talks between the parties, and a ‘non-recognition and engagement policy’ was developed to deal with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The EU also deployed a CSDP mission to Georgia that monitors the situation and facilitates the resolution of incidents with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In Ukraine, the EU has done none of this. It has also been shy in taking positions on the Minsk agreements – besides calling for their implementation. These agreements are ambiguous, and Moscow and Kyiv interpret key provisions in different and incompatible ways. But the EU has been largely agnostic on how it sees the implementation of the agreements, such as the sequencing of security and political provisions, and key steps, such as the holding of elections in the Donbas. The EU has largely outsourced the task of interpretation to Germany and France but in doing so has diminished its own role and leverage vis-à-vis the parties to the conflict.
While it is hard to argue with calls for de-escalation, this even-handedness is misguided, since it draws equivalence between the sides when it is Ukraine that is fighting a defensive war against an external aggressor and its local proxies. By not naming Russia but instead calling on “all sides”, the EU tacitly accepts the Russian narrative that it is not a party to the conflict. This messaging is incongruous with the underlying rationale of the sanctions, namely that it is Russia that violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity.The EU’s lack of a role in dealing with the conflict in Donbas is also reflected in the even-handed approach the high representative and European External Action Service have taken in their declaratory diplomacy on Ukraine. Statements systematically avoid naming Russia as being responsible for the fighting or for supporting its proxy separatists in eastern Ukraine. Instead, the question of responsibility is side-stepped and fudged by calling on “all sides” to de-escalate and to implement the Minsk agreements. Even the recent statement on the killing of an OSCE monitor by a landmine in Donbas did not name Russia and the separatist authorities as controlling the territory where the monitor was killed. Instead, it skirted around the issue by using the linguistically imaginative “non-government controlled part of eastern Ukraine”.
Lavrov himself pointed to this inconsistency during the press conference with Mogherini when he asked why the EU had sanctions on Russia when the high representative suggested everyone was responsible for implementing the Minsk agreements. Lavrov is right in his analysis but wrong in his conclusion. The conclusion should be that the EU needs to be clearer on the question of Russia’s responsibility. This clarity would lead to the EU being more credible and taken more seriously over Ukraine. It is a mistake to believe that the even-handed approach can carve out space for a facilitation role in resolving this conflict. Rather, even-handedness is only seen as weakness by Russia, and confirms that Moscow’s obfuscation tactics in the Donbas are effective.
Three years after the start of the crisis, the EU’s absence from the efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine is remarkable. Russia continues to undermine and destabilise Ukraine. This poses a direct challenge to Europe’s security order and stability in its neighbourhood. There is considerable risk of spillover into the EU if Ukraine were to collapse under Russian pressure. As this is an issue that concerns all Europeans, the EU should have a seat at the table and be present on the ground.
Giving the EU a greater role is of course not the panacea that will unblock the negotiations and stop the fighting. Fundamentally, the lack of progress on Minsk has to do with Moscow’s objectives, which run counter to the obligations set out in the Minsk agreements. But it would provide more legitimacy to the diplomatic efforts and buy-in among member states. The high representative’s trip to Moscow accomplished neither.
By Fredrik Wesslau, European Council on Foreign Relations
Related materials: Russian aggression against Ukraine