How much should the EU talk to Russia about Ukraine?

Is it possible Russia and the EU can act together helping to solve the situation or we are basically on “different planets” in terms of our approaches toward Ukraine? Read few comments.

Ulrich Speck, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Europe

At the EU-Russia summit, both sides certainly will and need to talk about Ukraine. It is important to both sides to clarify in a personal dialogue what the positions are. Both sides are currently wishing the other side away, but the geographical reality is that Ukraine has borders with Russia and borders with EU member states. And the political and economical reality in Ukraine is that there are strong bonds to both sides. Russia won’t be able to bring the country into it’s sphere of influence, as the current protest in Ukraine clearly show. But on the other side, there are many in Ukraine who want to keep their bonds to Russia, for economic reasons but also because of the long shared history of both countries.

Talking about Ukraine of course should not and does not mean that Russia has a veto on EU-Ukrainian relations. But for the EU it is important to explore where there is room for compromise, because the Kremlin can spoil any political solution to the current crisis in Ukraine. If the EU wants to take on a negotiating role in the current conflict in Ukraine, it needs to talk with Russia, as the Kremlin is an important backer of Ukrainian President Yanukovych. And if the EU wants to support Ukraine’s desire to associate with the EU, Brussels needs to know what can be done to address concerns of those who fear Russian retaliation.

So yes, there is great need for a dialogue between Russia and the EU. They may just agree to disagree. But this alone also helps to clarify the situation. And there is a chance that current developments in Ukraine lead to a more realistic acknowledgment that the other side is an important player too. Not because of any grand imperial design, but because Ukrainians themselves have bonds to both sides.

David CadierFellow in International Strategy and Diplomacy, Department of International Relations. London School of Economics and Political Science

In normal times, I believe the EU should avoid discussing the fate of Ukraine with Russia. Decisions regarding the future orientation of the country are matters of internal Ukrainian politics and should be discussed through these frameworks. The trilateral format Russia-Ukraine-EU suggested by Vladimir Putin before the crisis is probably not one that the EU should embrace, especially if the rationale is just to establish a symbolic and institutionalized structure rather than to discuss substantive and specific dossiers. Such format would not only give the impression that the EU has to go through Moscow to talk to Kiev but in addition it would comfort Viktor Yanukovych in the balancing games it has been playing between the EU and Russia. More broadly, the EU should strive keep as separated as possible its policies towards the Eastern Neighborhood from its policies towards Russia, staying firm on its values (as well as interests) in both.

All that being said, right now, the EU and Russia ought to talk to each other about Ukraine and try to contribute together to a way out of the current stalemate. The priority now is de-escalation, avoiding further violent clash and facilitating the dialogue between the political leadership and the opposition. Some might consider that the involvement of these two actors in the mediation process would be counter-productive as they played important roles in the context that led to this situation and as they both appear impartially in favor of one of the two parties. Yet, without necessarily taking the first roles, the EU and Russia could agree to support together the mediation effort of a third-party, which could be the OSCE. More generally, I wonder whether the media are not exaggerating the importance of the pro-European and pro-Russian sentiments and of their binary opposition. Several reports of experts from (or on) Ukraine stress that the current political crisis is less about the EU or Russia than about how the country is run.

Sean Roberts, Senior Research Fellow, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs

It’s a difficult question to comment on, as an element of ‘closed negotiations’ is creeping back into EU-Russia relations. This can be seen with the release of Mikhail Khordokovsky in December after high-level German intervention and, presumably, some fairly extensive behind the scenes German-Russian talks that were not made public.

Of course, Ukraine should be top of the agenda, as the combination of political and economic problems make the situation volatile and potentially destabilizing for the region as a whole. Ukraine is a flashpoint that needs a diplomatic solution to prevent the worst case scenarios from happening: Russian military intervention and/or a territorial split in Ukraine.

Both Russia and the EU appear to have diametrically opposed objectives, offering Ukraine mutually exclusive integration options in what resembles a zero sum game. But, there is perhaps a bit more common ground than first appears, although neither Russia nor the EU have publicly suggested they are willing to compromise and switch support.

For Russia, there is little appetite to see the situation in Ukraine deteriorate further. The Russian authorities are very nervous with the Ukrainian protests, as it was not too long ago that the Putin regime faced its own domestic ‘nightmare’ of tens of thousands of protestors in Moscow. The Kremlin is worried by any kind of street protests and the possibility of them spreading or being imitated by domestic opposition groups at a later date.

However, there is little appetite for prolonged protests in Ukraine among EU member states either. The EU has its own problems in Greece, Spain, Portugal, etc. and so Brussels will also be uncomfortable with the idea of aggressive, anti-government protests, when they too could trigger a demonstration effect within EU member states. There is also the possibility of large numbers of people leaving Ukraine, if the situation deteriorates. As the EU is also unable/unwilling to match Russia’s offer to Ukraine, the calculation may be to let Russia bail out Ukraine now, and then hope for a change in the country’s leadership following next year’s presidential election.

The planets are the same, but for me, Russia’s objectives and approach are clear. The EU, however, has always had some degree of ambiguity in its relationship with Ukraine and other states in the Eastern Neighborhood and what exactly they want to achieve in the region.

Stefan Meister, Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

The EU-Russia summit tomorrow will have a new format. It will be shorter and the main topic will be the future of the EU Russia relations, what is the fundament. Both cannot ignore the situation in Ukraine and that the common neighborhood and especially the Ukraine have become the key are of conflict between EU and Russia. So they have to talk about this topic. The questions is, which result it will bring, because both have different positions, compete for the region and blame the other for intervention in domestic politics of Ukraine. I think the EU should make clear its position, should be aware of this competition with Russia, but should also try to find a solution with Russia on this conflict. If that is not possible, than we have to accept the reality. On the other hand, the main conflict is between society and power in Ukraine and in the end the problems have to be solved in and with Ukraine and not with Russia. Russia follows very clear its interests, the EU first of all has to find out, what its interests are.

The situation is so politicized and emotional between both sides, that I don’t think, that both can agree. EU needs do stay in contact with Russia on the issue of Ukraine, but has also recognize, that Moscow sees EU’s policy as the main competitor. There is not change for a common approach on Ukraine and EU has to accept that but this should not lead to less activity but more.

Andrey Makarychev, Guest Professor, Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu

Actually it was Yanukovich’s proposal, immediately supported by Putin, to start a trilateral dialogue on Ukraine as soon as the crisis began. The EU rebuffed this idea as allegedly conducive to giving Moscow a veto right on the negotiations between Brussels and Ukraine, which is not necessarily the case. In fact, the EU itself put aside multilateral diplomacy, one of its key international brands. It is not likely that nowadays the Kremlin would reiterate its proposal – the time for it has gone.

Yet ultimately it is Russia – not the EU – who is in the most vulnerable position. The likely decomposition of the Yanukovich reign – either due to the growing brutality of the police, or because of the progressing weakness of the authorities – will much stronger reverberate in Russia than in the EU. By too closely identifying Russia with Ukraine (politically, socially, culturally, historically), Putin may found himself trapped, since nowadays all negative scenarios in Ukraine will bear obvious symbolic meaning for his own rule. It is his fellow ally who faces the revolutionary scenario. And since the Kremlin associated itself with Kyiv, the degradation of the Ukrainian regime will certainly be interpreted by many as heralding hard times for Putin’s rule.

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