Euro League: EU vs Russia
For the past decade Ukraine has been in the midst of a political tussle, or metaphorically a 'Geopolitical Football Championship'. Though, in all fairness, it is hard to see it as a unified team. As it appears more like a political trophy for two major sides. On one side, the EU aims to win Ukraine to make sure its gas is supposedly more secured and to continue its enlargement policy for both rational and questionable reasons. On the other, Russia aims to make sure it achieves its goal of restoring 80% of the defunct USSR’s market for likewise a myriad of reasons; with Ukraine being the final element in the formation, as Kazakhstan and Belarus are already sitting in the dugout. In this post we will explore this contest with fresh insight from this week’s MGIMO experts’ discussion, which could not be timelier as next month we could see a key playoff at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. In all, Please Enjoy & Feel Free to Comment!
------- Personal Note -------
A Pleasant Surprise:
I want to begin by outlining my own stance in this contest. I am not in favour of Ukraine joining the EU for several reasons, with most of them outlined by the experts that participated in this meeting. However, I will limit my own views as I grasp this is a controversial issue that may daunt a portion of my readers and colleagues. Also, my reference to Ukraine being essentially a match ball in a geopolitical game is not unfounded as it reflects much of the media and what now appears as academic opinion. I do wish to stress that although a lot of jokes about the Ukrainian dilemma can be made (as at least after this prolonged political football contest it will be more ready for the World Cup play-off against France), but in reality my metaphors serve a creative purpose and bid to entice feelings. It is well and true that political elites see this as a compelling game, but the Ukrainian people have bore the burden and they are tired of feeling like a trophy.
I also wish to give a word of thanks to MGIMO as it ran a very professional debate with an excellent panel. I must be honest my hopes were not optimistic at first. As upon arriving I had a very strange parking experience. I am not a 'LADA' type driver, but MGIMO’s car park would not be embarrassed if it was in Monaco. After parking next to a very serious looking madam in a Range Rover to my left and to the right a G-Wagon full of burly blokes [with my hunch saying they were not students], I made my way into the debate hall. As I walked into the room I was greeted by «The Ukrainian Week» magazine that is co-jointly published with «The Economist». As I flicked through the pages snippets like “Kremlin’s Bluff”, “New Attack from Russia” and “Neo-Imperial Rus” struck me. I was naturally apprehensive as it showed the bitter debate that encircled this topic. But, as the event started one of the speakers, Dr. Andreas Umland, outlined that he intentionally brought this 'mag' to stress the extreme nationalistic tendencies manifesting in parts of Ukraine; with much of it being exaggerated by vested interests. At that point I felt more assured that this meeting will not end up a one sided affair of bashing either party.
------- Dr. Andreas Umland (Kiev-Mohyla Academy) -------
Association Agreement – A Mere “Associative Membership”
If we recall the push for Ukraine’s integration into the EU begun in 2008, due to a string of events like the UEFA Football Championship in Ukraine, its WTO entry and the Russo-Georgian War. Then pro-West President Viktor Yushchenko believed that these events would endow real impetus. Since '08 Ukrainian diplomats even tried to include a written membership clause into the agreement, but rhetoric aside, EU has resisted as the feeling of momentum was not mutual. Umland did not wish to sound insultive, but he outlined that the EU just does not see Ukraine as a vital enough player to pull for its entry. In fact, EU does not even view the association agreement as that critical, it is mostly the mass media that has exaggerated the gravitas of November's meeting. Even if signatures strike the paper there will be a long ratification process by all the EU members and Ukraine - which will likely see new elections beforehand. In essence, there are a lot of likely decisions or calls in the coming years that could derail the process. Also 90% of all free trade benefits and 50% of political concessions, what ever these are in the vague EU system, will only kick in after all members ratify the Vilnius documents. Even then, it will not mean membership as that will require EU’s Article 49 to be met. Still, this agreement is more vigorous than others of the same type signed previously by the EU. If we look at the Balkan's association agreements they did not go as far nor have as many preconditions. Moreover, these also did not include membership clauses yet many states from the area joined the EU meaning that it is a stepping stone towards entry if all goes uninterrupted.
Slicing & Dicing Ukraine:
It is dangerous to talk about state's sovereignty or notions of splitting it. However, as Kiev based Umland points out there are a lot of people in the West that either see Ukraine as just a part of Russia or as too internally divided. Even some Ukranians call for a split, so that the perpetual problem of two souls in one body can be resolved. But even hypothetically, this is problematic as there are no clear boundaries. The lack of boarders increases the chance of civil war that will unevenly divide Ukraine into two if events in the future unfold unfavourably. For example, if Russia squashes the association or the more progressive membership talks by imposing economic sanctions, which will make pro-Russia citizens take up arms. Umland sees Russia’s control over Ukraine as too strong as it can “suffocate” its smaller brother via its economic might. At this point he sensed a rise of tension in the room, so he remarked that he was not russophobic, but he did publish a report on this issue to his colleagues in Brussels so that the EU can create contingency plans. He believes that by having such plans it could avert a serious and devastating crisis. In response to these views a person from a state ministry and an ex-European Council affiliate, took to the microphone from the midst of the hall. He gave a long and interesting speech, but lambasted Umland by a phrase that clearly hit a nerve - as comments about sanctions were deemed as “academic propaganda”. I will leave my readers to decide whether you agree, but I tend to swing towards the notion that Umland’s comments were incorrect as Russia would not shoot itself in the foot in such a way as to undermine its overall trade with the West. Also, by writing to Brussels it only further pushed EU-Russian relations in opposite directions. I would encourage all to refer to my post on social sciences, as this is an example of what I talked about.
Open Buffet or "New Model":
The current agreement could serve as a model for Moldavian, Georgian and even Armenian aspirations to join the EU. Umland believes that Armenia may not be entirely lost to the Russian Customs Union, even after it rejected moves from the EU (See: Euractiv, 2013). It could even be a model for Central Asia. I have to come in at this stage and say this is getting somewhat absurd as we know that this area has always been a burden on the USSR, so why the EU or EU taxpayers will want such enlargement is very questionable. No gas prowess of the Central Asia, which as my earlier post outlines is owned by China anyway, makes up for the huge issues that will be incurred by the union. On the other hand, if Moscow's Central Asian populace will flock to the EU instead and free up some of the traffic problems and high apartmental prices, I may reconsider my stance.
Is Turkey On The Table?
Still, participation of Central Asian states in the EU may not be as radical as Turkey’s, which Umland sees bearing fruits after original attempts all the way back to the 1960s. He does anticipate that such membership will result in huge changes in the EU’s structure, mentality and in fact nature. As Turkey is both an Islamic and Asian state, plus it will be the biggest member in the EU with a huge population and quickly growing economy. Thus, if Turkey joins the EU, the union will need a new agreement in place as reforms will be needed, which is admittedly risky, but EU’s integration has always been about political risk and crisis as this academic points out. If we recall the union has been built in crisis, as one took place, reforms occured and that is how the body has moved forward.
What About Russia Behind the Table?
Umland says that although this seems utopian now we could see Russia joining the EU in the next 20 to 30 years. At the end of the day, if EU adapts to Turkey, why not to Russia? I will add here personally, I think this is incredibly utopian and if Turkey does join it will only push Russia further away, that is if the EU still continues to exist as we know it today. A further reason why I think Russia will not join the EU is because of the sovereignty issue. Umland does not connect the dots, but he agrees that every EU member voluntarily and unavoidably looses some of their sovereignty upon joining as it is a result of any union participation. For instance, if Ukraine ratifies this accord it will need to create a new council where 50% of the members will need to be from the EU. If we now think about Russia, it has always prided on being an independent state. If we reach a time when Russia asks for a EU membership, quite frankly a civil war seems more likely then, than in the Ukraine’s case discussed earlier.
------- Dr. Oleg Barabanov (MGIMO) -------
Presidential Legacy Factor & A Trojan Horse:
All presidents, especially in the 2nd term, aim to leave a mark on history by doing something that will be remembered and in the case of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, the situation is no different. As Barabanov recalls, Putin has famously once described the collapse of USSR as the biggest geopolitical incident of the 20th century and it is his ambition to restore the positive aspects of that union. Still, it is crucial to stress that Ukraine is not a unique aim according to Barabanov, as Russia’s geopolitical aims are vast - as with most great powers. As a result, Barabanov adds that Russia’s goal insofar as Ukraine is geopolitical, but we still should not forget that it would not be pursued unless it also made economic sense. Interestingly, according to Barabanov it would be a welcoming sign for those advocating equality and more fairness if Ukraine actually joined the Eurasian Union, as Russia’s power will be more diluted with a new member. It would essentially be a trojan horse in the direct dominance of Russia, but it will make the union more progressive. In all, Barabanov argues that as closer Ukraine will move towards the EU, the more of a rift there will be with Russia, but it will never get to an extent of explosive Georgian-Russian relations.
Image – You Just Ain’t Got It:
Barabanov makes an interesting argument, which actually mirrors what has been said recently by the “PR guru” of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich (WR Forum, 2013). Basically, Ukraine’s choice has not been mostly about political or economic factors, but it was based on image and PR. Russia is loosing the PR battle to EU and NATO in most cases as our PR is not 'sexy'. In 20 years Russia has not been able to turn around and wipe off its USSR’s stains. I am going to personally add here by saying that it will be interesting to see if Russia’s recent approach to the Syrian crisis has helped its image, as we cannot deny that its less hawkish conduct could have struck with many. As certain powers from the West have lost touch with wars that have been deemed illegitimate.
EU’s Motive – Politics, Politics & Politics + 'Glowing' Economics:
Barabanov argues bluntly, that if we abandon our political alignments and look at reality, then we must admit that Brussels wants Ukraine for almost entirely political reasons. If it attains its goal, it will be a sizeable diplomatic coup which will undermine Russian diplomats in what has been seen as their part of the woods. At the end, EU has always keenly jumped on criticism of what in their eyes was a berry picking bear, but this could be the biggest jump yet.
To a distant secondary degree the EU is motivated by economical factors as Ukraine does have a large market with nearly 45 million people. However, it will be specifically the Poles who will see the biggest returns due to their heavy vested interests in this country – a view which was supported by one of the polish visiting speakers. Unfortunately, for Ukraine, association agreement and even full entry will open up the floodgates to much more competitive and mature EU businesses that could easily take on their weaker counterparts. For example, Ukrainian metallurgy will take the biggest hit. The nuclear industry will also see a lot of development as the association agreement will allow EU to increase its presence in Ukraine’s nuclear waste disposal industry. The Chernobyl Zone may once again grip the headlines as the EU is considering an option of dumping its nuclear waste in this area. Again, this will be a political blow to Russia, as one of the major nuclear players in Europe, Rosatom, will be less likely to enter the market with more preferential terms being granted to French companies; as we all know that business is conducted via formal, but also less formal mechanisms that can facilitate this. At least lightning never strikes twice in the same place, so a bit more waste cannot hurt Chernobyl, but I shall leave that for my readers to decide!
Future Membership Uncertainty is Risky Business by the EU:
It was a risky calculation not including a clause in the association agreement about the potential Ukrainian membership. If we recall when EU made a remark about it ending its expansion after the Croatian entry, it stirred regional political turmoil. The entire Balkans split into EU and Non-EU members, with the latter being cherry picked up by other major regional powers. Turkey, which then also felt mistreated about its party invite, even spoke about restoring its regional area of influence in neo-imperial style with Ottoman boarders – as its Foreign Minister said. So today we are still faced with a major question: who is more dominant in the Balkans, Brussels or Ankara? Also, we may see a similar situation with Brussels and Moscow.
Oh, Almost Forgot…
The fate of Tymoshenko according to Barabanov and Umland depends on the EU and Ukrainian deal, as to sign the agreement she will need to be freed. In all, both Umland and Barabanov predict that all will be signed in November and Tymoshenko will get a get out of jail card. However, the former scholar expands by adding that Tymoshenko will also become a viable contender in the 2015 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. Also, perhaps to no surprise if there was an election now Russia would not back Yanukovich, who it previously pinned its hope to restore the two nations’ relationship. In essence, what we will see is Yanukovich being marginalised as he will not see support from either Russia or the West, as Tymoshenko will pick up the battle standard to push for EU.
------- Concluding Remarks – Cheeky Smile Says It All -------
In the opening first few minutes MGIMO's head-chair, Tamara Shashikhina, said that everyone hopes for cooperation between the EU, Ukraine and Russia, however as she said the words I could not ignore seeing the pacing smile across the faces of the panel. I think everyone on the panel and the audience in the hall had their reservations and this tournament is far from over. If we will see this agreement signed next month, this will not be the final game, by a long shot. However, unlike in a game of football, the Ukranian audience are unlikely to enjoy watching any more of the action, they are tired and hope for a solution, which ever way it goes.
In all, there are many opinions surrounding Ukraine and many of them are conflicting, but we must be rational and calm without intense nationalistic tendencies like the ones exhibited in the magazine mentioned at the start, as it only ruins the entire game. At this point I would suggest having a look at my older post over at Oil&Gas Eurasia, which was also based on this issue and with similar style, but it focused more on the energy aspects, which unfortunately and surprisingly were not discussed this week. I want to also recommend having a look at other RIAC bloggers, although we may not all agree politically, we must still be objective, which is why I recommend looking at Martin Lukac’s and Andras Radnoti’s analysis.
Thank You for Reading & I hope You've Enjoyed this Post!
M.A. University of Kent & Higher School of Economics, Oil/Diesel Broker and RIAC Blogger.