Can Europe Make It?

Russia, Ukraine and the European Union: a way forward?

In order to secure long-term peace and prosperity in Europe and potentially beyond, a mutually beneficial arrangement between the European Union and Russia is needed.

Dražen Šimić
29 September 2015

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany and Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, in Moscow. Art Widak/Demotix. All rights reserved.The European Union and Russia have drifted apart dangerously over the war in Ukraine. Although resolving the situation should be a top priority in EU capitals, Moscow and beyond, it has been allowed to continue and fester. Its importance has been relegated because of other international events such as the refugee crisis and the Greek financial meltdown.

Things may seem to be under control, but this illusion can change with a single incident, as shown by the MH17 disaster and subsequent fallout. We must deal with Ukraine and ultimately find a solution acceptable to all parts of Ukrainian society.

In order to secure long-term peace and prosperity in Europe and potentially beyond, a mutually beneficial arrangement between the European Union and Russia is needed. For obvious reasons, in mid-2015 this seems virtually impossible. 

The reasons behind Russia’s actions in Ukraine can be found seemingly within the regime’s pride and prestige. If true, this is rather a shortsighted view. Whatever its motives, Russia has managed to alienate yet another nation. A great number of Ukrainians now fear and despise their giant neighbour. We have seen it before, during the times of the Soviet Union, and to see it again represents a striking historical and moral defeat for Russia.  

It is difficult to see sense in the Ukrainian disaster from the point of view of Russia’s long-term interests, unless Mr. Putin and his government believe that they lie in having hostile, potentially volatile former friends and allies as neighbours. They may also confuse fear with respect.

In any case, understanding Russia’s geopolitical objectives requires serious dedication. We must, however, also find a way to engage in the future. There have been some sensible views on how to proceed but more needs to be done, in both Russia and the EU, to devise viable policies and implement them.   

Russia does not appear to have a coherent strategy towards the EU or the West in general. From a presumably common European perspective, the Russian leader’s views on sovereignty seem archaic, as well as confusing given his country’s integrationist drive in the ex-Soviet neighbourhood.

Moreover, Russia apparently developed a desire to see some sort of payback for what they see as the injustice and humiliation that occurred in the 1990s, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

While there has been some talk of cooperation and recent platitudes on Ukraine, they have not been backed by action. What Russia ostensibly craves is a return to it self-perceived former glory, to be achieved by a variety of means; from the aggressive stance on neighbouring countries like Ukraine and Georgia, to establishing organisations such as the Eurasian Economic Union - apparently to rival the EU.

Time will tell how successful these strategies turn out, but it won’t change the fact that Russia and the European Union will always be better off as partners. Russia’s grievances, in Ukraine or otherwise, must be carefully assessed and dealt with if relevant. Some truths, however, need to be communicated to Russia.

Russia has assisted in bringing disaster to Ukraine and has endangered European security and thus Russia needs to think carefully about its subsequent actions for the sake of its own people and the wider international community. Whatever Russia chooses, it should do it in a rational manner and with a long-term vision. Essentially, Russia must do what is best for ordinary Russians.  

The current state of affairs may suit Moscow for a while because Russia has shown its teeth to the West, but it came at a terrible cost to Ukraine. Moreover, Russia and her policies have been roundly rejected and the country isolated by what is still the most liberal and prosperous part of the world; this may eventually resonate with a significant section of the Russian society. The war in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions have naturally caused a backlash.

While many Russians may feel a renewed sense of national pride and support their president for now, this is likely going to be a short-term high. Once normal life fully returns, the reality of their position as pawns and victims, will dawn on the ordinary people. Given the choice, they may then abandon their leaders at the ballot box, or worse. The best and the most rational course of action for Russia, therefore, is to commence on a process of full reconciliation with the European Union and the West. 

As for the European Union, there is a good framework in place for dealing with Russia; what is missing are unity and vision. The EU supports the Four Common Spaces and Partnership for Modernisation, which are decent and substantial objectives but which have been at least put on hold, and probably made obsolete by the current crisis.

In any case, they need to go further than, for example, visa-free travel, environmental concerns, an energy roadmap and so on. 

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has offered a free trade deal but this is not enough either. We have seen by now that none of these approaches have worked. They cannot secure peace and prosperity for future generations, which must be the principal objective of any serious attempt to deal with future political, economic and security issues. What Russia should be offered is an aspirational overhaul of the relationship.

The best course of action for the EU under the current circumstances is to maintain sanctions against Russia until an outcome acceptable to all sides in Ukraine has been reached. The sanctions will provide an important incentive to Russia to bring the rebels in Ukraine to heel. Continuing sanctions will furthermore send a message to Russian authorities that some things simply won’t be tolerated.

Sanctions will also benefit Russian democracy in the sense that, in time, ordinary people will come to appreciate that their leaders’ actions can have dire consequences for themselves, and perhaps vote accordingly.  

The most important matters to consider are: 

1.      EU maintenance of visa requirements for Russian citizens who wish to travel to or do business in the EU, until a suitable peace deal in Ukraine has been reached.  

2.      EU and individual member states reduction of dependence on Russian gas.  

3.      Allocation of funds, short to mid-term, to alleviate hardship for businesses affected by Russian counter-sanctions. 

4.      Establishment or expansion of alternative sources of information in Russian language, by trusted broadcasters such as the BBC, should be supported. They will provide much-needed competition to state-run media outlets.   

5.      Encouragement of Ukraine, subject to acceptance by all sides, to pursue further integration, and potential full membership of the European Union. However, the country should relinquish designs to join NATO, as this is clearly an issue on which there can be no agreement within.

These policies are needed to manage the present situation, but what of the future for EU/Russia relations? As already mentioned, there should be a major leap forwards. Some profound changes will have to happen first, in terms of the legal framework, democracy and human rights in Russia, with the intention of bringing them significantly closer to EU standards. If this does not happen then Russian citizens will remain unequal to their EU counterparts, which would defeat the idea of a close partnership.  

Russia and the EU need to come up with a treaty for closer integration. Firstly, the two economies should come together along free-trade lines. Exceptions and opt-outs would be allowed if seen as vital by either party, but they should be discouraged as they might lead to tit-for-tat measures, which could stifle negotiations and progress.  

Most significantly, the plan would introduce freedom of movement. All EU and Russian citizens would be able to live and work in any part of either territory. They would have the same rights as citizens of host countries, except for mutually agreed measures such as the right to vote in national elections, equal entitlement to social-security benefits and so on. Some existing arrangements should be studied, such as the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangements between Australia and New Zealand, but with a formal agreement in place. 

Furthermore, EU citizens residing in Russia would be afforded the same legal protection as in the EU itself. While Russians resident in the EU would be protected by EU laws, host countries would ultimately have the right to deport non-citizens for serious offences.

The final deal would have to exclude defence, as there is no trust or love lost between Russia and NATO which ha many European states as members. In security matters, the central role of the United Nations should be respected but realistically, the two sides will probably need an additional, bilateral agreement.    

Russia and EU member states will remain sovereign. As part of the deal, there should be regular joint EU/Russia government sessions, at least annually. Both sides should expect an inevitable occasional, frustrating failure.

Finally, provisions for a ‘divorce’ should be made, in the unlikely case that such an arrangement, after a period of success, became untenable. Even if the agreement failed to materialise at a particular time, the idea must be returned to, because it can work.  

Mutual benefits of the partnership are obvious in terms of political stability and economic opportunity. Most importantly, the deal would provide a genuine, realistic opportunity for peace and prosperity for future generations. Russians and EU citizens would benefit from endless opportunities that freedom of movement over a vast territory could offer.

Russia would be ‘accepted’ into the European family of nations. For their part, the EU and its citizens would not have a country of nearly a hundred and fifty million people, and a nuclear power, as a hostile neighbour. This alone should be motivation enough.

As for technicalities, the treaty should be a joint project. If this is not possible, the EU may offer it as a long-term plan. To alleviate any suspicions and to underline the voluntary nature of the arrangement, both Russia and EU could offer their citizens referendums on the issue.

The negotiations would probably be painstaking and frustrating, but the sight of the long-term objectives must never be lost. It is unfortunately difficult to envisage progress under the current Russian regime, but the circumstances will inevitably change. 

There are other factors to consider. The countries of the former Warsaw Pact might be particularly reluctant to committing to a treaty with Russia; in that case it would be up to Russia to implement trust-building measures.

There is also the important question of how the United States, China and other big powers would react - this may call for more difficult talks - but if the proposed partnership between Russia and EU were a success it is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that one day other countries would want to have similar arrangements. We must also consider the fate of small European states currently outside the EU, as well as other countries, for example those on the borders of Europe and Russia, which may be affected. They should not be left adrift.  

Finally, there is no doubt that it would require time and effort on a massive scale to make this idea into reality. Things are always easier said then done, especially in politics. This project may seem impossible now, however it would be irresponsible not to try. If we do not, then we risk seeing a long period of instability, with the potential of new local wars and a corrosive effect over the economy and security of the region and beyond. Relevant institutions of the EU and Russia should work towards such a treaty if there is broad agreement that the concept is not nly well meant but that the outcomes explained here are attainable and desirable. 

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