May 21, 2015 | 09:22 GMT

9 mins read

With Ukraine in Crisis, EU Courts Russia's Periphery

With Ukraine in Crisis, EU Courts Russia's Periphery
(JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

The Eastern Partnership, the grouping that since 2008 has represented the European Union's challenge to Russia's influence in the former Soviet periphery, is preparing to meet May 21-22 in Riga, Latvia. The summit, the partnership's fourth, comes amid the ongoing standoff in Ukraine between Russia and the West — a standoff precipitated by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's late 2013 decision to suspend EU association and free trade agreement talks stemming from the Eastern Partnership. Since the partnership's inception, some states have shifted toward the West while others have moved closer to Moscow. 

The Riga summit is unlikely to yield major agreements or dramatically alter the balance between Russia and the West. The ongoing European crisis and Russia's interventions in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will keep EU integration out of reach for the three states. However, the Eastern Partnership program will continue to serve as Europe's main tool to politically and economically integrate these nations and test Russia's influence in its periphery.

Poland proposed the Eastern Partnership in 2008 as a platform for the European Union to build closer ties with six former Soviet states along its eastern periphery: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Poland then convinced Sweden to formally initiate the program and give it greater heft within the European Union. The Eastern Partnership launched its inaugural summit in Prague in May 2009.


The Eastern Partnership officially intended to enhance economic and political ties between the six target states and the European Union, specifically in areas such as trade and visa liberalization. The partnership's implicit goal, however, was to prevent Russia from gaining the upper hand in these countries. The launch of the initiative coincided with Russia's resurgence as a regional power. Many of the partnership's target states were already coming under Russia's renewed influence, and several EU members, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe that were more directly threatened by Russia, such as Poland, hoped to counteract this process.

During its first few years, the Eastern Partnership made little progress. Neither the initial Prague summit nor the second meeting, held in Warsaw in 2011, garnered much attention. They produced few concrete agreements, and several leaders of the target states chose not to participate. Despite this lackluster performance, the partnership's first years did advance negotiations between the European Union and several Eastern Partnership nations on association and free trade agreements. Such agreements are meant to align the legal, judicial and economic systems of the target states with EU norms, a process underwritten by EU financial assistance. Moldova, Georgia and especially Ukraine made significant progress. By the third Eastern Partnership summit, held in Vilnius in November 2013, Ukraine had completed the work necessary to sign the agreement. Moldova and Georgia were also ready to take the preparatory step of initialing their respective agreements.

Shortly before the Vilnius summit, however, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich announced the suspension of Ukraine's negotiations on the EU association and free trade agreement, opting instead to build closer ties with Russia. Yanukovich's last-minute decision sparked pro-EU protests in Kiev, which transformed into the Euromaidan movement after a police crackdown. The movement then led to Yanukovich's February 2014 ouster and the formation of a pro-West government. Russia reacted by annexing Crimea and fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine. At the root of this turmoil, which has been the greatest crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War, was the Eastern Partnership's symbolic challenge to Russia's position in the former Soviet periphery.

Developments in Ukraine over the past year have heightened the Eastern Partnership's profile, much to Russia's chagrin. In June 2014, the new Ukrainian government reversed Yanukovich's decision by signing the EU association and free trade agreement. Moldova and Georgia also completed talks and signed their agreements. Other Eastern Partnership target states, including Armenia and Belarus, have been reluctant to move toward the European Union and instead have joined Moscow's Eurasian Economic Union. Only Azerbaijan has avoided meaningful alignment or integration with either EU or Russian initiatives. The European Union has pushed for closer energy ties with Azerbaijan to diversify the bloc's energy sources away from Russia.

The Ukraine crisis has had major consequences for the region. The Eastern Partnership helped precipitate the Ukraine conflict and now serves as a durable platform for the European Union to counter Russia's projection of power. What started as a relatively ignored Polish and Swedish initiative has now garnered the support of EU heavyweights such as Germany as a platform to deny Russian dominance along Europe's eastern periphery.

Key Issues at the Riga Summit

Despite the Eastern Partnership program's current significance, EU divisions and target countries' internal constraints will limit progress at the upcoming Riga summit. In the months leading up the summit, EU member states and Eastern Partnership members have negotiated the wording of the statement to be adopted at the end of the summit. Countries including Poland have lobbied to include criticism for Russia's support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. Others in Western and Southern Europe have opposed any language that would antagonize Russia or support the EU membership aspirations of Eastern Partnership states. Many of these opposition voices come from countries such as Germany that support using the initiative to counter Russia's influence in the borderlands but do not want to expand the European Union during its time of crisis.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova also have domestic issues that limit their ability to integrate further with European institutions. All three countries have breakaway territories in which Russia has a military presence. They are also in the midst of an economic and currency crisis that spread across the former Soviet Union as a result of the Ukraine crisis and Russia's economic downturn. The governments of Moldova and Georgia are weak and struggling to remain in power. Ukraine's ruling coalition of pro-West factions has remained relatively united, but it is under pressure because of the country's ongoing conflict and economic troubles. European governments hesitate to integrate with countries beset by such significant domestic and security problems.

The Riga summit talks with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will focus on three key areas: trade agreements, visa liberalization and financial assistance. Of these, trade is the most likely to see concrete progress. On May 18, Russian officials reportedly ended their opposition to the EU-Ukraine deep and comprehensive free trade agreement in a meeting with Ukrainian and EU representatives. The trade agreement had been of particular concern to Moscow because it would mark a significant step in Ukraine's economic integration with the European Union and a reduction of its economic ties with Russia. The full implementation of the agreement, which was signed in June 2014 as part of the EU association agreement with Ukraine, was delayed in response to Russian opposition and fears of Russian retaliation. The European Union, and particularly Germany, did not wish to implement the trade deal by the scheduled date in early 2015 without Russian consent. With Moscow's consent secured through trilateral negotiations, the European Union can now allow the trade deal to come into effect in January 2016.

Unlike trade negotiations, talks on visa liberalization are unlikely to see progress at the Riga summit. Moldova managed to liberalize its visa regime with the European Union in April 2014, allowing Moldovan citizens to freely travel to EU countries. However, with Ukraine facing an active conflict and unable to access parts of its border with Russia, the European Union is unlikely to grant Ukrainians similar visa-free travel. Moreover, the European Union has demanded that both Ukraine and Georgia implement more reforms related to issues such as document security and border and migration management before visa liberalization would be seriously considered.

Since the launch of the Eastern Partnership, target countries' biggest demand has been for financial assistance, which the European Union has generally awarded based on the progress of political and economic reforms. Over the course of the Ukraine crisis, the European Union's financial commitment to the Eastern Partnership program has increased. Georgia is expected to receive 410 million euros ($456 million) at the summit, nearly twice the level of assistance it received under the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument between 2011 and 2013. Ukraine is set to sign a memorandum of understanding with the European Commission for a 1.8 billion-euro aid package. The European Commission has already granted a total of 1.6 billion euros in aid to Ukraine since the fall of the Yanukovich government. These aid packages are part of the European Union's plan to provide Ukraine's struggling government with a total of 11 billion euros in aid over the next few years. As of late April, however, only 6 billion euros had been secured for the country.

If the European Union delivers on its promised levels of assistance, its aid package, coupled with loan guarantees by the United States, will significantly improve Ukraine's financial position. Nevertheless, Ukraine is currently embroiled in difficult talks with its bondholders. The country will save $15.3 billion through debt restructuring to meet the requirements of its current International Monetary Fund aid package. While the debt talks will likely result in a deal by late summer, uncertainty over the final terms will push Ukraine to request more aid from Western governments.

Another important issue at the summit will be the state of the European Union's relationship with Belarus. Of the Eastern Partnership's target nations, Belarus has cooperated the least with the European Union. Relations worsened when the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and other key officials over the disputed 2010 presidential election and subsequent security crackdown. Since the ouster of Yanukovich — a leader the West also saw as overly authoritarian — Lukashenko has adjusted his position toward the European Union and the United States. Belarus became a key mediator between Russia and the West over Ukraine, and it has opened political dialogue with many Western countries, leading to an uptick in economic deals with EU member states. The summit will offer the European Union an opportunity to further advance its economic relationship with Belarus. However, it is unlikely that any major economic deals or high levels of financial assistance comparable to that Moscow has provided will materialize at this summit. Belarus is likely to maintain its alignment with Russia on a strategic level, and the Belarusian Foreign Affairs Ministry warned that the country's participation at the Riga summit could be its last if "anti-Russia sentiment prevails at the summit."

The summit will also see discussion about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Ukraine crisis has affected the balance in Nagorno-Karabakh by giving Azerbaijan greater leverage, both because Russia is distracted and because Baku's energy resources have become more sought after. Armenia, meanwhile, joined Moscow's Eurasian Economic Union at the beginning of 2015 because it feared that it would be vulnerable without Moscow's political and security backing. The European Union, however, has continued to pursue closer ties with Armenia through the Eastern Partnership program by offering limited financial assistance and making Nagorno-Karabakh a topic of discussion at the Riga summit. However, EU officials have admitted that the normal format of the resolution of the conflict, which is the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France, will not change.

The Riga summit will thus provide an opportunity to gauge the status of relations between the European Union and the Eastern Partnership countries and how ties have evolved since the Ukraine crisis. However, the summit itself is unlikely to produce any game-changing agreements.

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