'Time is on our side', says EU in showdown over Ukraine

BRUSSELS Wed Feb 5, 2014 1:14pm EST

A pitchfork is seen behind anti-government protesters at the barricades in Kiev February 4, 2014. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

A pitchfork is seen behind anti-government protesters at the barricades in Kiev February 4, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko

Related Topics

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - If there is a consistent message the European Union has tried to send since Ukraine rejected a trade deal last November in favor of stronger ties with Moscow, it is that it does not want to end up in a tug-of-war with Russia.

But whether the EU likes it or not, that is precisely what has come to pass and the future of Ukraine - its 46 million people and its faltering economy - hangs in the balance.

In a speech to a security conference in Munich last weekend, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy laid out the nature of the struggle in simple terms.

The EU, he said, had offered Ukraine a free trade and association agreement to help it build bridges with its neighbors to the west. That offer still stood, as long as the conditions agreed between Kiev and Brussels were met.

"Some people think Europeans are naive, that we prefer carrots to sticks," Van Rompuy told the conference, whose delegates included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a leader of Ukraine's opposition movement.

"Now I am not saying that we cannot sometimes play our hand more strongly. But surely it is a bad idea to let foul play undercut the very values that constitute our power of attraction in the first place - a power of attraction that brought down the Berlin Wall," he said.

"Our biggest carrot is our way of life; our biggest stick: a closed door."

ARM WRESTLE

The targets of Van Rompuy's words, without being named, were Russia's Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who sparked the crisis by abruptly turning his back on an EU free trade deal and throwing his lot in with Moscow.

Yanukovich's security forces have cracked down on pro-EU demonstrators - at least five protesters have been killed - while Russia has enticed Kiev away from the EU with the promise of $15 billion in cheap loans and cut-price gas.

Some diplomats expected the EU to wash its hands and walk away. It cannot match Russia's inducements on either the financial or energy-security front. Instead, it appears to be playing a long game.

After EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was quoted as saying Brussels and Washington were working on assistance for Kiev, EU officials were quick to say there was no new plan apart from the promise of financial help that Brussels had held out if it signed the trade agreement.

Even without the impact of the last four years of financial crisis, EU leaders are not about to open their coffers and disburse huge sums to Ukraine. It was hard enough to do so for Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

And, dependent on Russian energy themselves, EU member states cannot hope to provide Kiev with the gas it needs, especially as much of it flows to them via Ukraine.

What Europe has to offer is more conceptual: rule of law, democratic accountability, civil liberties and long-term trade and investment, as long as certain objectives are met.

Next to the sugar rush of money and cheap gas, it may not seem particularly attractive, especially given the costs Ukraine faces if it is ever to meet EU standards on judicial, industrial and environmental reform.

But as Van Rompuy pointed out, the course of history is not decided in a matter of weeks or months. The Berlin Wall may have collapsed almost overnight and the Soviet Union crumbled quickly, but those moments were years in the making.

"Sometimes in the heat of events, in the stream of declarations and tweets, we lose sight of the time factor," he told the Munich conference.

"We frantically look at hours and days, forgetting the years and decades. We lose sight of slow evolutions, of subtle trends. Subtler than the 'decline of the West' or the 'rise of the Rest'."

Moscow views Ukraine as a heartland of Russian culture and identity, a country that should never have left the Soviet Union. Russia remains Ukraine's biggest trading partner.

Putin wants Ukraine to join his Eurasian Union, a new economic and trade bloc he hopes will some day rival the EU. In that regard, he sees Brussels' overtures to Kiev as a threat.

In an arm-wrestle with the EU, Russia has the muscle. But in a long-run contest involving a way of life and integration with the global economy, the EU hopes it has a persuasive case - and one it says is not to the detriment of Russia.

"The offer is still there," Van Rompuy said of the agreement Yanukovich rejected last year. "We know time is on our side. The future of Ukraine belongs with the European Union."

(Editing by Mike Peacock)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (10)
Tiu wrote:
The “way of life” Van Rompuy refers to is loosing its luster, and is on its way to complete ruin, thanks to the Van Rompuy’s of the world, and his behind the curtains friends who have screwed democracy.

Feb 05, 2014 7:47am EST  --  Report as abuse
Tyshkevich wrote:
Van Rompuy, Ashton, Kerry, McCain – these people try very hard to portray the conflict in Ukraine as a struggle for Europe. This either speaks volumes of their ignorance or shows their deliberate efforts to frame the conflict in such a way due to a broader geo-political agenda. Here is an eye-opener: the majority of people in Ukraine are protesting against the thieving regime of President Yanukovich. The EU association debacle, and specifically the police response to the pro-EU protests, was just a trigger. Political demands of the people on the street have long since moved on to real issues: re-election of the parliament and the president, and a constitutional reform. To be more precise, people want to chase the Oligarchs out of power. This has absolutely nothing to do with the nonsense about “attractiveness of Europe” diligently pushed by the Western media. As a matter of fact, all Ukrainian Oligarchs live and play in Europe using it as a safe haven for their ill-gotten gains from bloody capital formation of the 90’s. So if Europe had to “offer rule of law, democratic accountability, civil liberties” it could have done so a long time ago by prosecuting the very people who define the thieving regime of Yanukovich.
The fact of the matter is that Europe has absolutely nothing to offer safe demagoguery, menial jobs and trade on conditions that would suffocate most of Ukraine’s remaining industry and agriculture.

Feb 05, 2014 10:15am EST  --  Report as abuse
Danram wrote:
Time won’t be on the EU’s side if Vladimir Putin decides to drop his nice guy routine after the Sochi Olympics are done in two weeks and send his tanks and paratroopers into Ukraine. I sincerely hope that the west realizes that this is a serious possibility and is preparing counter-measures if Russia starts massing forces along the Ukrainain border. These would include immediate expulsion from the G8, a total lockdown on all capital flows into Russia, the freezing of assets now held by Putin and his cronies in western banks, and a full-blown trade embargo.

In addition, the west should be preparing to confront Russia militarily as well. If Barack Obama were to move a couple of US aircraft carrier battle groups into the Black Sea, it would most certainly give Putin pause. Also, if we haven’t already done so, we should be putting US, British, and German special ops teams on the ground in Ukraine so that they can act as “force multipliers”, helping the Ukrainian military find, fix and destroy Russian armor should Putin decide to send his tanks across the border to crush the Euromaidan movement.

The uncomfortable but undeniable fact is this: Vladimir Putin is “old school” KGB from his head to his toes. The only thing he understands and respects is strength. There’s no possibility of “constructive engagement” with the likes of Putin. Even Barack Obama should, by now, have realized the utter futility of his attempt at a “reset in relations” with Russia as long as Putin and his “siloviki” are calling the shots in Moscow.

And to those who will predictably cry “Ukraine isn’t our problem!”, just remember this: If we allow Putin to grab Ukraine by force, he will have reconstituted the bulk of the former Soviet Union and we will be looking at another “Cold War”. I think it is in our interests to prevent that.

Feb 05, 2014 2:09pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.