Mark Demesmaeker on EU-Russia relations – don’t forget about Ukraine

Feb 09, 2017


When the European Parliament discusses EU-Russia relations as being one of the major challenges of 2017, let us not forget to put Ukraine as the focus point. The situation in Ukraine is the main reason why the EU’s relationship with Russia has crumbled in recent years.
The discussion should focus on the serious breach on democratic values. The breach that Russia made aggressively towards Ukraine’s sovereignty, when it annexed Crimea in 2014.
We should discuss EU-Russia relations keeping this in mind of why we need to stay firm against Russia.
In order to show Putin that there are consequences from his actions, the EU needs to step up its dedication to support and help Ukraine towards achieving democracy. If we fail to play this role, we risk an increased threat to European security when Ukrainians might lose hope and fall under Russian influence.
This week the ECR Group shows its support to Ukraine by reminding people of the crisis from which the country still suffers on a high scale.

There is no doubt that the EU needs to show strength towards Putin. He does not intend to stop his aggressions. Based on Putin’s own comments alone, we should be worried.
Among many disturbing statements, he has said that Russia’s borders “do not end anywhere”, and also he promises to “defend ethnic Russians wherever they live” and “using the entire range of available means…”.
There is no doubt as regards Putin’s intentions overall as well as Russia’s aggressions in Ukraine.
The EU needs to stay firm towards Putin, and strength is the only thing that will keep him in check. The sanctions that we have already put in place and renewed need to continue to have an impact. They have already seriously damaged the Russian economy showing Putin that there is a consequence to his actions. Second, NATO cooperation plays a strong role in matching Russian military strength. Third, supporting Ukraine shows Russia that the EU does not tolerate the breaking of international laws and it shows that we stay true to our democratic values.

Regrettably, we are now seeing steps towards lack of engagement in Ukraine from the EU side.
A full ratification of the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine has been stalling since 2014 despite the great need for quick progress in Ukraine. Only specific parts of the agreement have been applied provisionally since 2014, and according to Dutch minister of foreign affairs, Bert Koenders, the majority of these parts cover exclusive competence of the European Union.
The rejection of the agreement in the Netherlands in April 2016 has stalled the process even further, and now the agreement is not expected to be fully ratified until weeks or even months into the new year of 2017.
The association agreement offers many benefits not only for Ukraine, but also for the EU, as regards for example free trade and visa free travel for Ukrainians.
The Dutch rejection has to do especially with the promised visa liberalisation to Ukraine. Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, had to ease the concerns of his voters by warning that he would scupper the agreement if he did not get the guarantee that the visa free travel agreement is not a step towards EU membership for Ukraine.
European Union leaders agreed in December to address Dutch concerns and decided that the association agreement did not make Ukraine a candidate for EU membership. Neither should it give Ukrainians right to live and work in the 28-nation union.
The agreement will become void without the endorsement of the Netherlands, and we now await the approval by the Dutch parliament.
Fortunately, the European Parliament agreed in December last year that Ukraine and Georgia are to be granted visa free travel. Ukraine has waited for years for this to happen, so it was a very important move to make from EU side in order to maintain the trust of the Ukrainian people.
However, Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, recently reminded us that the reached agreement on visa waivers for Ukraine has yet to come into effect.
He is worried that Ukrainians risk becoming disappointed with Ukraine’s pro-European path if there are further delays towards closer integration with the European Union.

Ukraine is our friend and ally and has fought for many decades to become part of the EU, and it is only fair to respond to Ukraine’s enormous efforts. Ukraine feels it has held its side of the bargain.
The association agreement commits Ukraine to economic and judicial reforms to fight corruption, and the country has already made significant changes in these areas. For example, the most recent judicial reform marks a significant change in Ukraine as it means that the country now has a more or less independent judiciary. The reform makes sure that judges will have to pass the lustration and assessment of their qualifications.
Ukraine has also reformed its energy sector attempting to limit its dependence on Russian gas.
It is true that Ukraine still has a long way to go to eradicate the endemic plague of corruption. Huge efforts are being made, but it will take time, and if we stall our promises in the association agreement for too long, we risk that Ukrainians will lose trust in the EU. If we continue to not show any faith in Ukraine, Ukrainians will lose hope of a better future, and we furthermore risk that Ukraine will fall under Russian influence and increase the threat to European security.

Putin has a very detailed plan of how to conduct hybrid warfare and attract the post-soviet regions. Putin tries to promote the concept of the “Russian World” to influence the regions using “soft power” tools like propaganda and so-called proxy groups working for the Kremlin to spread the concept of the “Russian World”.
To face the challenge of Russia, the EU needs to fight back with “soft power”, improve military strength and retain sanctions.
First, as a “soft power” tool, we should try to engage more with the citizens in the regions and create greater transparency in independent civil society organisations. This could help bridge opposing views and counter the challenge of Russian influence. It is also important to understand the network of the Russian proxy groups to counter their potential threat to state integrity and sovereignty.
Western pro-democracy foundations should also seek to involve citizens more in their programmes, which will help improve the protection of democracy and reinforce open society in the regions.

Second, we should step up the military capacity to prove that we can match Russian military strength.
In cooperation with NATO, we ensure a close tie with our greatest ally in the West, the United States.
Europe cannot defend itself against Russia without help from the United States. European defence investments are not efficient enough, and the European military is slow to mobilize because of the sovereign decision-making mechanisms of the different national armies.
Lastly, there is a lack of political will to use military force, and the European countries most often would not agree on when to use it. This is the reason why a European Defence Union with a new EU military headquarters -which was recently discussed in the EU- would never work.
In contrast, NATO is unaffected by the internal disputes among European countries, which makes it more efficient and more capable of taking immediate action when needed.
We should therefore focus on strengthening cooperation with NATO. It is a fact that the United States for a long time has wanted their European allies to contribute more to defence and to be reliable security partners. We should live up to these expectations since the United States is the strongest and most important ally we have.
This means that all countries ought to reach the minimum requirement of 2% of its GDP on defence spending.
Furthermore, the EU should develop new military capabilities as well as a more innovative and competitive defence market which will lead to cheaper and better equipment.
Third, sanctions against Russia should stay in place until Russia fulfil its part of the Minsk peace agreement with Ukraine and withdraws its troops.

The situation in Ukraine is not getting better, and Putin is not being less aggressive.
Latest numbers from United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in a report from November 2016 shows a severe humanitarian situation in Ukraine. 4.4 million people are affected by the conflict from which 600.000 people are in direct need of food assistance. Twice as many as the number stated in the report from April 2016.
We have to keep an even firmer stand towards Putin by stepping up in our engagement in Ukraine. The country is in great need of our assistance at all levels.