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Sep 6, 2013 | 18:01 GMT

3 mins read

Limits on EU Overtures to Ukraine

Limits on EU Overtures to Ukraine
(JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Breaking a trend of recent strategic setbacks for the European Union in Russia's periphery, the Ukrainian parliament on Sept. 5 passed legislation considered necessary if the country is to sign an association agreement with the European Union in November. The evolution of bilateral ties between the European Union and Ukraine is part of the larger struggle between the European Union and Russia for influence in Europe's and Russia's borderlands. The European Union is under greater pressure to make concessions to Eastern Partnership countries in order to make alignment with the European Union more attractive to them. While the Ukrainian vote is a positive sign for EU efforts to woo Eastern Partnership countries into its orbit, the European Union will now likely be expected to soften some of its demands on Ukraine if the two are to broaden political and economic ties, but these moves will be limited by EU members' fears of offending Moscow and current priorities of dealing with the European Union's internal struggles.

As an important player in the European Union's Eastern Partnership program, Brussels for a number of years has been trying to improve political and economic ties with Ukraine.

In March 2012, an association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine was initialed, though the actual signing of the agreement has been stalled because of Yanukovich's treatment of the political opposition and insufficient reforms.

The legislation just approved by the Ukrainian parliament, which includes measures to strengthen the independence of the country's judicial system, is just a part of what will need to be ratified in order to meet other EU requirements. While Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovich succeeded in convincing the pro-Russian wing of his Party of Regions, mostly businessmen, to support the necessary legislation this time, it is unclear if other legislation demanded by the European Union, such as electoral reform, will enjoy similar success.

In light of Armenia's decision this week to join the Russian-led Customs Union, along with indications from Georgia that it may also seek to align more closely with Moscow, the European Union is now under pressure to offer better incentives for Eastern Partnership countries to align with the West.

Countries such as Lithuania and Poland have great strategic interest in limiting Russia's area of influence by drawing further countries toward the European Union. Over the coming weeks, they will likely argue that the European Union should take steps to facilitate cooperation with Ukraine even if the country does not meet the EU institutional standards.

For Germany, however, the closer alignment with Ukraine has to be weighed against the cost of a potentially souring relationship with Russia, with which Germany has close commercial ties, especially in the energy sector. Germany faces the dilemma of having two somewhat conflicting national interests. Berlin is interested in expanding its sphere of influence through the European Union and therefore contests Russian influence in Europe's borderlands. However, Berlin also needs to maintain a good relationship with Russia for a stable supply of energy resources.

From Russia's point of view a close political and economic relationship with Ukraine is key to have a buffer against the influence of Western European powers. Russia considers Ukraine to be a key part of its natural sphere of influence, so any attempt by Brussels to court Kiev is viewed with suspicion by Moscow. Germany has shown understanding of Russia's fear to preserve the bilateral relationship and for example, in 2008, was opposed to Ukraine and Georgia forging closer ties with NATO.

However, Germany's Deutsche Bank recently approved a loan to upgrade elements of Ukraine's gas infrastructure, while German energy company RWE facilitates imports of natural gas into Ukraine. Both efforts somewhat undermine Russia's pressure tactics on Ukraine, indicating German concerns about Russia having too much influence in countries bordering the European Union.

Germany over the past months has intensified its efforts to find a solution regarding the situation surrounding former Ukrainian Prime Minister and opposition leader Yulia Timoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2011. Brussels is demanding more favorable treatment for her, and as part of this, Berlin has offered to take Timoshenko to Germany for medical treatment as a way to get the opposition leader out of jail. Timoshenko's fate will likely determine whether Ukraine will sign the association agreement with the European Union in November and show Berlin's commitment to challenging Russia. Whether German concerns about offending Russia can be overcome will greatly affect the European Union's overtures to Ukraine.

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