Russia against EU-Moldova, Ukraine association treaties: Will it backfire on Kremlin?

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said if Moldova signs an Association Agreement with the European Union it could complicate efforts to resolve the conflict over the breakaway Transdniester region.

Questions:

1. After Russia repeatedly warned Ukraine over signing the Association Agreement a similar rhetoric is aimed toward Moldova. Would you say that this is still first of all about some rhetoric or it could escalate into something more concrete (e. g. escalation of trade war, etc…)

2. Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk jokingly said that Putin ‘deserves medal’ for pushing Ukraine towards EU. It was a joke but still may this rhetoric backfire on Russia?

Answers:

Jörg Forbrig, Senior Program Officer for Central and Eastern Europe, Director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy, German Marshall Fund

1. It seems that Russia has long underestimated the probability of Ukraine, in particular, but also Moldova actually signing Association Agreements and DCFTA’s with the EU. Now that this prospect seems more real than ever, the Kremlin responds with increasing nervousness and aggressiveness. Russian anger is also fueled by the fact that its own plans for a Eurasian integration, basically its own anti-EU for the post-Soviet space, is hitting some bumps, as both Belarus and Kazakhstan have come to discover some of the downsides of the Russian-led Eurasian Union. With these founding members disgruntled and possible new entrants, like Ukraine and Moldova, moving in the opposite direction, Vladimir Putin’s central foreign policy ambition is in jeopardy. And he will surely move heaven and earth to salvage his Eurasian project.

2. It seems indeed that Russia has gone too far with its pressure on Ukraine. This is in a way astonishing because it appears that the Kremlin has all too quickly forgotten how its overt interference with the Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004, on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych, only reinforced the Orange revolution. In this light, Moscow should not be surprised if it declares a full-out trade war on Ukraine, just to see it moving even closer to the EU and away from Russia. The real problem, in my opinion, is elsewhere. A good part of the Ukrainian elite, including the current president and government, finds it very beneficial and profitable to manoeuver between the EU and Russia. If one of those pushes too hard, the country’s politics swing in the opposite direction. At the moment, it is Russia that pushes too hard, so Ukraine moves towards the EU. But what happens once the EU presents demands for deeper reforms that may come at the expense of the country’s elites? Will the pendulum then swing back towards Russia? Surely this is not what the EU has in mind when possibly signing an Association Agreement and DCFTA.

Janusz Bugajski, Senior Associate in the Europe Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

1. Moscow does not want any post-Soviet state to move toward EU membership for three reasons. First, it would undermine the project of Eurasian reunification under a Russian umbrella. Second, it would better defend these countries against Russian political and economic pressures. And third, it would challenge the Kremlin’s opaque business interests which are undergirded by corruption and criminality. For these reasons, Moscow’s rhetorical pressure against Chisinau could escalate toward economic and energy sanctions and even outright support for Transnistria’s independence and the formal partition of Moldova.

2. Yatsenyuk makes a good point. Moscow’s trade war against Kyiv, designed to cajole it into joining the Russian-led Customs Union and desist from a closer association with the EU, places the Yanukovych government in a very vulnerable position. If Yanukovych backtracks from the EU free trade accord he will be seen as a weak leader bending to Russian interests. Conversely, given the growing authoritarianism in Russia, the EU itself may decide to soften the conditions for the Association Agreement with Kyiv to prevent Ukraine from following the Russian model.

Florent Parmentier, Programme Director chez Sciences Po

1. My personal view is that it is rhetoric… There will be no steps forward for the Transnistrian conflict, but Russia has never done such a thing before. There may be some targeted sanctions from Russia on wine export, as it has been done in 2006, but it will contribute to reorientate Moldovan actors towards the EU market in the medium term. Here, Russia crucially lacks incentives to attract Moldova in its economic project; while in 2001, Moldovan leadership wanted to join Russia-Belarus Union, this position is less popular nowadays.

2. It is clearly self-damaging; as when UK leaders pretend they should withdraw from the EU whereas it is where they get their influence…

Maksym Bugriy, Economist and International Affairs Analyst, Institute for Euro- Atlantic Cooperation

1. Of course, trade sanctions are possible. No wonder that Russia’s geo-economic ‘Rambo’ Gennadiy Onishchenko raised concerns about the quality of Moldovan wine imported to Russia on 3 september. The Russian official statistics state that this country accounts for 60% Moldovan exports share. Moldova follows Ukraine’s path trying to diversify its natural gas supply, having inaugurated recently the pipeline link to Romania with expectations to supply up to a third of natural gas imports. Yet, unlike Ukraine, Russia to date has military, energy and political stronghold in Transdniestria that serves as a powerful leverage that could make Moldova’s EU integration a long and complex process.

2. I believe Vladimir Putin’s administration takes into account for the pro-EU stance of the main opposition parties: Batkivshchyna and UDAR. Kyiv entering the EU Association Agreement may have both positive and negative political consequences for Vladimir Putin’s government. Without doubt, there would be issues and problems between the EU and the Ukrainian government and the oligarchs. The mainstream strategy is probably to build a powerful pro-Russian lobby in Ukraine. Even though, there is a ‘black swan’ element and Russia may move full speed ahead at some point to ‘pull back’ Ukraine to ints influence. It is important how the Russian economy and internal politics develop as they will shape Putin’s ‘freedom of action’ towards Ukraine.

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