WORLD AFFAIRS.  The European Union is often depicted as a feckless, bumbling institution with lots of sex appeal but little capacity to act and talk tough, even when it’s in the EU’s direct interest to do so. As Europe watchers know, the argument is not without merit, especially when Europeans need to consider policy measures that risk alienating influential states.

Here’s a case in point. It’s clearly in the EU’s direct interest to integrate Ukraine through association and accession talks, and it’s clearly in the EU’s interest to do so swiftly and decisively, especially now, as Russia has just ramped up pressure on Ukraine over gas. And yet, Europe appears unwilling to act and talk tough vis-à-vis Moscow, on which it is, to be sure, dependent for gas, even though it would be in its interest to do so. Is such behavior unavoidable?

Not necessarily so, says Jonas Grätz, a researcher with the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, Switzerland—and especially when it comes to Russia and Ukraine, where the EU can act decisively and strongly in the very gas sector that many perceive as its weakness.

In a nutshell, Grätz makes the following argument (pdf):

Russia’s and the EU’s development models for their neighborhood diverge increasingly, taking on the character of a zero-sum game. Moscow’s assertive actions against Ukraine have opened a window of opportunity for the EU. The EU should ensure that the Association Agreement with Ukraine will finally be signed at the Vilnius summit [in November]. Yet, the EU has to do more to take the edge off Russian pressure. Ironically, Brussels can do this … exactly where Moscow is deemed strong: in the natural gas sector.

Russian elites want Ukraine because, according to Grätz, “it serves to underpin their own concept of Russia as the center of a ‘civilization’ distinct from the West.” The European Union, meanwhile, needs Ukraine, both because it “is important both as a symbol of its success model of peaceful reform of governance and as a strategic energy hub.” As a result, Europe’s future is directly connected to Ukraine’s:

Ukraine possesses the largest gas transit system and gas storage sites on the European continent, which could well be turned into a vibrant hub for gas trading. Russian control over this vast infrastructure would substantially increase Moscow’s capacities to manipulate vital industries in Ukraine, as well as the liberalized gas market of the EU. Thus, Brussels’ energetic efforts to diversify and reduce its energy dependency, and gain geopolitical freedom of action, stand or fall with Kyiv’s choices.

Grätz’s views on Ukraine’s importance to Russia accord with those of James Sherr, associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House in London (pdf): “Russia will treat Ukraine’s new status [as an associate of the EU] as a threat to its primary interests. Association is more likely to be seen as the start of an accession process than a substitute for it … What matters to Russia is loss of control over Ukraine’s development model.” But the two experts differ in terms of what they believe the EU can do. Sherr prefers that the EU adopt a wait-and-see attitude and places the burden of initiative on Ukraine:

The reality is that Russia will play a role in the process whether it is accorded one or not. The significance of that role will depend in large part upon the strength of Ukraine: the competence of the state authorities, the professionalism of its institutions, and the ability of state and society, pace former President Leonid Kuchma, to “pull together at a crucial moment.” It will also depend upon Ukraine’s standing in Europe. At present, its standing is low, and its state is not fit for purpose. To the extent that Ukraine implements the reforms defined in the Association Agenda, both of these realities will change, and Russia’s opportunities will diminish. Today they are considerable. Threats to the longevity of Russia’s power only magnify Moscow’s incentive to exploit the advantage that it enjoys today. Despite and indeed because of this, the future will also depend upon the ability of the EU to alter its programmatic approach and articulate an ecumenical perspective of its role in Europe.

Calls for an “ecumenical perspective” are policy wonk jargon for doing nothing to alienate or annoy Russia.

Grätz disagrees with this proposal, adopting a more hawkish perspective that derives from his view that relations between Europe and Russia now approximate a “zero-sum game” with clear winners and losers. Grätz therefore argues that, although “signing the Association Agreement is crucial—it will, however, not be a panacea. The EU will have to take concrete measures to curtail Russia’s traditionally strong position in Ukraine’s gas sector. Ironically, it is precisely in the gas sector that the EU is stronger than it thinks—if it plays its cards swiftly and decisively.”

Grätz proposes four steps:

  • “First, the EU should work swiftly to remove internal obstacles for reverse flow of gas to Ukraine.”
  • “Second, with the carrot of enhanced supplies in hand, the EU should push Kyiv toward swift implementation of its obligations under the Energy Community Treaty.” 
  • “Third, the EU should give full support to the modernization of Ukraine’s pipeline system, as had been stipulated in 2009. The EU should try to get Gazprom on board—but only as a financial investor.”
  • “Fourth, the EU and its member states should coordinate with Washington and rapidly conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. This would make exports of Liquefied Natural Gas from the US possible without further action from the respective governments.”

Grätz’s conclusion shows an important divergence from Sherr’s somewhat qualified observation that “Russia will play a role in the process whether it is accorded one or not.” As the following paragraph makes clear, the EU can, and should, make all the difference in wresting Ukraine from the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, precisely because Ukraine will have to turn toward Russia if Europe chooses to be weak:

Brussels’ structural difficulties in conceiving and implementing a coherent foreign policy are well known; yet, if the EU wants to shape its critical Eastern neighborhood, it has to seize the opportunity and take swift and concrete policy steps. The looming alternative is that Kyiv will have no choice but to bend to Moscow’s pressure. This would lead to a loss of political plurality and to economic instability in Ukraine, and would jeopardize the EU’s energy security. However, the implementation of the four steps detailed above, built on the momentum of a signed Association Agreement, could decisively tip the balance in Brussels’ favor, at a reasonable effort and with acceptable uncertainty. By doing so, the EU would stay in the game, lower the pressure on Ukraine and make a big step toward being a geopolitical power to be reckoned with.

Interestingly, the German analyst Ulrich Speck, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, prefers the views of the Swiss hawk to those of the British dove:

The way the EU asserts its interests and principles in the East in the coming weeks will define its future role in the region. The EU has two main interests in its East. One is long-term stability, which is most likely if the Eastern neighbors move toward the kind of liberal democracy the EU stands for and promotes through the Eastern Partnership.

The other interest is to make Russia understand that it has to accept the full sovereignty of those countries that once took their orders from Moscow. This is first and foremost a matter of principle, as the UN order is based on the sovereignty of states.

But it is also a matter of interest, as Russian interference in its neighborhood often increases tensions. Accepting its external borders as defining the limits of Moscow’s direct influence will help Russia to get past its imperialist history and morph into a modern nation-state that can focus on the overdue rebuilding of its own governance structures.


How will Vladimir Putin respond to an EU decision to stiffen its backbone? With respect, and with grudging acceptance. If there’s one thing the ex-KGB officer trained in the school of tough talk and direct action detests more than President Yanukovych of Ukraine, it’s obsequious Europeans who don’t understand their own strength.

Alexander J. Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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