Translated from French by Tom Winter
Meeting in Brussels Thursday, the 28 heads of state and of government of the EU remained very nuanced on the subject of a new strategy vis-a-vis Putin.
The Europeans have not reached agreement about a new strategy towards Russia in the crisis in Ukraine. It’s no longer a matter of being “event-driven.” The Europeans must develop a “strategy that is appropriate, consistent, and united” toward Russia, declared the new chief of the European Council, Donald Tusk, in the course of his first European Summit on December 18th. At stake: finding a long-term solution for the independence of Ukraine. But the discussion on strategy — which took place at dinner time — provoked a lively debate. Though the states may be a largely in accord on the principle, they remain divided about the bottom line.
Maintain the Cap on Sanctions
For the upcoming months, the Europeans wish to “maintain the cap” on sanctions, but they remain ready to take “any supplementary measures, if necessary.” The 28 have six months to either lift or renew the sanctions taken against Russia, which are scheduled to expire at the end of July. In either case — France and Germany insist on this point — the decision will still be made on the basis of unanimity. “This has been a good thing, that the European Council has always taken unanimous decisions when it is a matter of sanctions,” said Angela Merkel at the close of the summit. And these sanctions are judged sufficient, or even excessive, according to some.
“We knew that they would have an impact, on Russia, and on Europe,” declared François Hollande at the opening of the summit. But, in the hallways, they stressed more the relative good health of the Russian financial system, which, with two sovereign funds, and with four hundred billion in financial reserves, should succeed in keeping its head above water. For his part, Alexander Stubb, Prime Minister of Finland, observed “The sanctions are just one reason among others for the ill health of the Russian economy.” For him it is also the non-modernization of the Russian market, still dependent on reserves of gas and oil, plus the crisis that runs across the worldwide economy. In the background, there is a matter of countering the line of Vladimir Putin, ready to blame all Russia’s troubles on the western sanctions. [This is not true – during his 3-hour press conference, Putin said the sanctions account only for 25-30% of the problem – tr.]
Some Strict Conditions for Ukraine
The new European strategy must be based on “a Ukraine independent, modern, and egalitarian,” insisted the new Council president in a press conference. But in spite of a provisory implementation of an agreement of association with Ukraine, the Europeans maintain a very cautious position about a country whose economic and political situation still remains unstable.
Publicly, the Europeans unanimously support increasing humanitarian aid toward Ukraine, settled by the European Commission, and the 500 million Euro disbursement of macro-economic help. But behind the scenes, it is firmly clear: It is not a question of the states digging into their own pockets to help Kiev surmount its economic difficulties.
One diplomatic source affirms “It’s on the European budget to pay.” And they speak of 15 billion Euros. “A sum much too important,” maintained the Commission president Jean-Claude Junker. Nor is it any question of giving it to Ukraine without conditions. The implementation of structural reforms, notably in the struggle against corruption, will be necessary, said one European source.
Towards a New Regional Strategy?
Another key discussion was the strategy towards the states neighboring Ukraine. Since the Eurasian Economic Union, linking Kazakhstan, Belorus and Russia, is slated to start January 1, 2015, the Europeans should for their part, revise theirs. I.e, after associations concluded with Moldavia and Georgia, what relations should there be with countries of Central Asia, or the Caucasus? Armenia, which was part of the Oriental Partnership, has announced its wish to be part of the Eurasian Economic Union.
Revision therefore proves to be necessary, but the Europeans part ways on the essential: If the Baltic countries will be more favorable to strengthen ties with Central Asia, philosophical questions will arise: “Is it self-determination of the peoples that counts, or is it spheres of influence that count? If a country is situated in a sphere of influence, is it impossible to decide? This war would never have been if Ukraine had been in favor of the Eurasian Union,” thus Angela Merkel declared in a press conference [hmm, how about acknowledging the referendums in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Mrs. Merkel? – tr].
Next meeting, the summit of Riga, is next May.