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An Association Agreement with a state that may soon cease to exist?

By Richard Howitt MEP.

Two weeks ago European leaders threatened 'three step' sanctions if Russian forces were not withdrawn from Ukraine, first stopping negotiations with Russia on bilateral matters, then imposing travel bans and asset freezes on named individuals and finally taking economic sanctions.

Today EU leaders are back in Brussels. It is now fourteen days later. Russian forces are not only on the streets but Crimea has also been annexed. But the European Union looks fundamentally unable to carry out its threat. The rhetoric from London, Brussels and Washington may have been of 'costs' and 'consequences'.

But the more relevant language may be that coming from Russia 'laughing' at the restrictive measures already announced, calling the European Union 'all bark and no bite' and even 'the Wizard of Oz'. Ukraine has labelled our response 'a mosquito bite'.

It is right for the European Union to look beyond the war of words. Each step at a very dangerous moment in European history should be calibrated on the likelihood of it provoking or deterring a further escalation of the crisis. It is possible but impossible to know that the steps taken so far may have contributed to Moscow hesitating to send its troops in to Eastern Ukraine already.

It may be that Vladimir Putin's chosen alternative is to foment discontent amongst Russian minorities in the region's other frozen conflict areas. This has already seen Transnistria apply to join the Russian Federation. What started with Crimea may also extend to Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia in coming days or weeks.

Europe has rightly been cautious in not wanting to portray its Eastern neighbourhood policy to strengthen its relations with former Soviet states as a 'tug of war' with Russia. The problem for Brussels is that it may indeed suit Putin to treat it as such - as his personal popularity soars to record levels at home in a trial of strength he believes he can win.

The European Parliament in a resolution I co-sponsored already referred to a Russian 'invasion' and not the 'incursion' preferred by our Governmental colleagues, and voted in favour of actions against Russian companies and their subsidiaries. The argument for EU economic sanctions is that they could have sufficient impact on Putin's inner circle and on the oligarchs who yield real influence in the Kremlin, to genuinely start to curtail Russia's behaviour.

But negotiations before and after Monday's EU Foreign Affairs Council leave no sign that Europe has the political will to take the 'third step' it pronounced. Talk of unity can't disguise Europe's failure to achieve a unified position. Although names of further political and military figures are expected to be added to the list, I do not expect the 'restrictive measures' to be extended to business figures such as the Chief Executive of Gazprom. These were completely excluded by the Foreign Ministers who whittled down a proposed list of 120 names to just 21 earlier this week and the dinner table in Brussels is set to see EU leaders do exactly the same. Nevertheless, at their last meeting the leaders showed a degree more incisiveness than their own Foreign Ministers, and it is possible they will do so again today.

So what can they do?

First, it is sensible to take further diplomatic moves to indicate Russia is isolating itself, including confirming action to block Russian participation in international institutions such as the OECD, IAEA and the G8.

Second, even if there is no stomach for economic sanctions at present, the military situation could quickly alter the balance of argument, and it may be possible for detail on specific trade measures being considered to be specified now which could have a significant deterrent effect.

In any case, EU leaders must mandate urgent work if sanctions are to be agreed, on the consequent impact on Europe's trade if reciprocal measures are taken. Fear of the 'consequences' not on Russia but on ourselves, symbolised by the embarrassing leak from a Downing Street official, appear to have prevented such work from even beginning in earnest. The results should be used to plan mitigating measures, not to add to the argument against taking the measures in the first place.

And I find it very surprising that EU member states at least say they are discussing economic sanctions, but have yet to announce an arms embargo against Moscow. Surely an obvious step is to avoid supplying arms to a country which in short shrift may use them to carry out more aggressive military actions, which we deem to be illegitimate and illegal?

However, I do expect today's meeting to be specific on announcing energy diversification measures, to send a long-term message that Europe will not let itself be held hostage by dependence on Russian gas. Informed opinion in Brussels is that alternative sources are and will exist. Europe has used the time since Russia turned off the gas taps in 2009 to build up its reserves, in much the same way that Britain's Thatcher Government did after the first miners' strike all those years ago.

The most persuasive argument in favour of Europe's approach is that Putin's grand vision for a Greater Russia may best be challenged by showing Europe's own long-term resolve for a different future. However, in the short-term that is today, the pictures on the TV screens will be of the European leaders signing the association agreement with Ukraine, whose rejection by Yanukovich sparked the crisis in the first place. It is being carefully choreographed to include political not trade elements only, but it is an open question how the same pictures will be greeted in Moscow?

It is to be hoped that we are not signing an agreement with a state that very quickly ceases to exist.

Richard Howitt MEP is Labour Foreign Affairs Spokesperson in the European Parliament and a member of the Socialist and Democrat Group Ukraine Task Force.

March 2014