Judy Asks: Is the EU Doing Enough for Eastern Europe?

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EU has stepped up its engagement in Eastern Europe. But it must now go beyond providing soft power support and become a security player in the region.

Since Russia’s war in Ukraine began in February 2022, we have seen a different EU in Eastern Europe. Strong support for Ukraine, consensus on sanctions against Russia, a revived enlargement process with candidacy offers to Ukraine and Moldova, and a conditional offer to Georgia. And the EU has a leading role in a new Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process, plus the first ever EU monitoring mission in Armenia—a country formally allied to Russia.

It’s impressive, but whether it’s “enough” will of course only be measured in the longer term. Is this a systemic shift or just a flickering geopolitical moment? The greatest challenge will be making the accession process for Moldova and Ukraine deliver results. Georgia is another big headache: how to thread the needle of keeping Georgia’s conditional offer alive without giving the Georgian government a free pass for its retreat from democracy?

If the EU is serious about deeper integration of Eastern Europe it also needs to find the funds and words to win over new societal constituencies: the Georgian farmer who fears losing out Russia as an export market or the Moldovan pensioner who is worried about her gas bills shooting up thanks to the war in Ukraine. There is still a long way to go.
Martin EhlChief analyst at Hospodářské Noviny

No, the EU is not doing enough for Ukraine, which is at war, and thus is not doing enough for other countries where Russia flexes its muscles, seeing if they are still fit to keep the empire together. There is a certain atrophy damaging these muscles, but they are still there—while those of the EU were not present before the Russian war in Ukraine and are not present now, either.

The EU is weak in great power bodybuilding. Its muscular strength consists of words and papers and a little bit of money, but not hard power, which today is more necessary than soft power. Look at the sanctions regime against Russia. It is becoming a joke how countries like Armenia or Kazakhstan are being used to circumvent sanctions.

The EU is weak in hard power and its soft power is not enough for Eastern Europe. Russia is weaker than before but still strong enough to use its coercive power to squeeze those countries. So there is a dangerous buffer zone being created between Russia and the EU over which there will be a fight in the future. And the EU is not prepared for such a fight. With a weak Russia, instability will probably be around for the long term.
Elżbieta KacaSenior research fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs

The EU is doing too little to stop Russia’s imperialistic policy. Even if the union has strengthened its actions in Eastern Europe, it is still hesitant about the level of its ambition.

Ukraine and Moldova got EU candidate status, but the real prospect of their accession is uncertain. The EU and its member states have been delivering military and financial aid to Ukraine—ranking second after the United States in terms of support—but this is a painful and lengthy process in some capitals. Sanctions bite Russia, but the transition periods, loopholes, and their weak enforcement by member states give the Russian economy time to adjust.

The EU helped Moldova manage its energy crisis caused by Russia and it made an attempt to mediate in 2021, during Georgia’s political crisis. But security cooperation is limited. After years of inaction toward the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the EU stepped in with its recent civilian mission (EUMA) to help stabilize the situation in border areas between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The EU also helps Belarusian civil society, but the member states have different views as to what extent they can squeeze the Alexander Lukashenko regime with further sanctions.

To change Russian calculations, the EU should do everything to enable Ukraine to win this war, including retaking Crimea. This could give EU the time to strengthen the resilience of its Eastern partners.
Alena KudzkoDirector of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava

The EU has done much right on Eastern Europe. The bloc, for instance, has granted EU candidate status to Moldova and provided the country with swift financial aid, assistance in coordinating alternative energy supplies, and help with resisting various hybrid threats. The EU has also stepped up its mediation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan and maintained pressure on Georgia to stay the course on reform.

However, these activities only constitute the very basic groundwork for the types of engagement needed. If the region is to advance, the EU needs to more rapidly deliver on its commitments. Rules and mechanisms for international support and donor engagement designed for peacetime are not sufficient during times of war. Any engagement the EU pursues in the region this year, moreover, will be squandered if the bloc fails to demonstrate its staying power and prepare for a protracted conflict in Ukraine. The EU must invest considerably more in the region—and do so consistently—and deliver on its political commitments on enlargement.

The EU remains most at a loss, though, on Belarus. The union has been unable to identify fresh ideas to respond to a government severely repressing its population and actively aiding and abetting Russia. While the EU has continued to apply economic and political pressure, it appears to have quietly resigned itself to the fact that it will not be able to achieve much in Belarus until Russia is defeated. This leaves many worried about whether Belarus could be offered as a consolation prize to Putin in any peace settlement. Any such outcome would be a grave mistake.
Bidzina LebanidzeSenior analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU corrected many of its past mistakes, including opening a European perspective to the countries willing to join, cutting energy dependence on Russia, and supplying Ukraine with military equipment, even if reluctantly and at a slow pace. However, the EU needs to realize that even if the Russia-Ukraine war is paused by a temporary ceasefire, its geopolitical and normative rivalry with Russia and China is going to be a long game, with the Eastern Europe and Black Sea area playing the role of the EU’s most important frontline.

Ukraine’s somewhat unexpected resilience against Russia and U.S. leadership in coordinating the Western response to Russia’s war of attrition helped the EU find its geopolitical identity. However, the union needs to invest many more resources and develop its own long-term vision for how to stabilize the Eastern Partnership (EaP) region, neutralize Russia’s malign influence and anchor the region into its own orbit. In so doing, and given that the EaP as a policy framework is becoming irrelevant, the EU needs a dual-track strategic approach: a conditionality-based policy following the enlargement toolbox toward countries willing to join and a more pragmatic and tailor-made approach toward those EaP states who prefer to stay outside the union.
Nona MikhelidzeSenior Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)

The European Union has been actively providing support to the countries of the Eastern Partnership, particularly to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, as well as Armenia, in order to enhance their state and societal resilience. While there have been numerous critiques of the EU’s democracy promotion, recent developments in these countries suggest that the union’s efforts have been effective.

Ukraine’s civic resistance in the face of Russian aggression, the resilience of the Moldovan government against Russian hybrid warfare, Georgian society’s determination to defend their European future despite the government’s alignment with the Kremlin, and Armenia’s efforts to reduce Russian influence in the country while developing closer relations with Brussels all point to the effectiveness of the EU’s policy to strengthen societal resilience in the recipient countries. Our neighbors are committed to European values and view the EU as a symbol of freedom and human liberty.

However, there are still challenges Brussels needs to address. One of the major criticisms of the EU’s democracy support is that it has placed too much emphasis on procedural democracy, primarily through technical assistance and legal reforms. This approach has overlooked the social dynamics that can undermine democracy, necessitating a shift toward promoting substantive democracy that prioritizes accountability and participation, while actively engaging with grassroots movements.

Furthermore, the EU’s democracy support has often been driven by short-term political considerations, leading to a preoccupation with stability and security issues. While these concerns are significant, the EU should adopt a longer-term perspective in its support for democratic reform. This would involve addressing the underlying causes of political instability and authoritarianism instead of only focusing on immediate security concerns. By adopting such an approach, the EU can foster a sustainable and enduring democratic transformation in its partner countries.
John O’BrennanJean Monnet professor of European integration at Maynooth University

The European Union needs to do much more to insulate itself against the variegated pathologies emanating from Moscow. It needs to reinstitute an Iron Curtain to cut Russia entirely out of economics and politics across the continent while stepping up the integration of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine into EU structures.

The three jurisdictions are different with pro-EU governments in Chisinău and Kyiv, and a Russian influenced administration in Tbilisi. Civil society and public opinion in all three countries, however, look to the EU as a geopolitical anchor and constitute allies against Russian influence operations.

The EU should offer significantly enhanced economic and educational links to all three countries, as well as accelerating the enlargement timetable via administrative support in implementing the acquis communautaire. Help with building energy resilience also needs to be more targeted and extensive with the aim of substantive and irreversible diversification from Russia.

Existing free trade agreements should be supplemented with mechanisms to properly facilitate enhanced participation in the single market. And much more help should be provided to counter Russian agents of influence and disruption, in particular muscular sanctions against domestic oligarchies with ties to Moscow and stronger support against cyberwar threats.
Anton RadniankouDirector of the Center for New Ideas, Minsk

The European Union is struggling to develop a strategy for Eastern Europe, and Russia’s attack on Ukraine has only complicated the situation further. However, problems were already emerging before February 2022. The Eastern Partnership project needs to be rethought, as there has been less stability and more fragmentation in the region over the past fourteen years. The Associated Trio of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have made progress in their relations with the EU and do not want to slow down their bilateral contacts due to Belarus and Azerbaijan lagging behind.

Therefore, even though officially Minsk has withdrawn from the Eastern Partnership, this framework remains crucial for civil society to build relations and contacts with the EU and other countries in the region.

The European Union lacks a clear vision for the region’s future and needs a proactive stance to respond to the Kremlin’s attempts to destabilize the countries in the region. In the case of Belarus, the EU’s approach of the last two years has not been very successful. If this strategy continues, Belarus may remain an outpost of Russia, posing a threat to both Ukraine and EU countries themselves.

As the Lukashenko regime prepares for its own transition, the EU should consider this and try to separate Lukashenko and Putin along the way. The EU should rely on civil society and independent media, support pro-European sentiments, offer a positive agenda, and strengthen its image.
Kristi RaikDeputy director of the International Centre for Defense and Security, Tallinn

The most important thing the EU can do for Eastern Europe is help Ukraine win the war and achieve EU membership. In the meantime, however, other Eastern European countries, notably Moldova and Georgia, also require EU support to cope with the impact of war and Russia’s destabilization efforts. The fate of Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, as well as Belarus will be shaped by the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Ukraine’s victory will be crucial for the possibility of democratic, European-oriented development of these countries.

Europe is now paying the price for years of neglect of security problems in the “common neighborhood” with Russia. Up until February 2022, the EU was in denial about the tightening geopolitical conflict with Russia over this region and more broadly the European security order. Over the past year, the EU’s approach has radically changed, not only in terms of its strong support to Ukraine, but also giving Moldova more security assistance than ever before, in addition to EU candidate status.

Georgia is a more complicated case, but the strong European orientation of the Georgian people gives the EU leverage. Furthermore, Russia’s focus on Ukraine has created a new opening to deepen EU-Armenia relations. The EU has started to do more, but whether it is enough is too early to tell.
Sinikukka SaariResearch director at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Not yet, but the EU is learning from its past mistakes and adapting to a new European reality.

The track record of EU engagement through its Eastern Partnership framework is bleak. While it brought some tangible benefits for the states in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, it ignored their pressing security concerns. The EU’s vision of overlapping circles of Russian and European influence turned out to be a mirage. Geopolitical reality hit the EU in the face when Russia relaunched its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine.

The Eastern Partnership framework seems outdated. Today, the region consists of two EU candidate states, an aspiring one, two Russian allies, and one non-democratic state that uses military force to achieve its goals in the region. One issue that unites the states along the spectrum, is the fear that next time Russia’s coercion—military or of other type—could be directed against their country.

The EU’s engagement in wider Europe should be focused on halting Russia’s predatory practices and building preparedness, resilience, deterrence, and defense capabilities in Europe. Essentially, the EU needs to rethink what a European peace project means in today’s world. Anything less is not enough—for the whole Europe.
Andriy TyushkaSenior research fellow in the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair at the College of Europe in Natolin

The European Union is doing a lot and more than expected. Whether this is “enough” is another question. The EU also has to deal with how it sees Eastern Europe—as an inseparable part of it or a fenced-off neighbor.

The post-2022 moment of hard truth saw an incredible boost in the EU’s engagement in Eastern Europe, from covering Ukraine’s back with unprecedented—albeit delayed, piecemeal, and reactionary—military assistance, including the deployment of the European Peace Facility, unwavering political support, humanitarian protection and over €67 billion worth of overall assistance mobilized by the EU and its member states.

It finally launched a two-year EU Military Assistance Mission (EUMAM) in Ukraine as well as yet another—monitoring—civilian mission on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, aiming to reengage in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement. It provided Moldova with an electric energy connectivity and €20 million for helping Moldova cope with the inflow of Ukrainian refugees. It is closely watching the struggle in Georgia over its future political direction.

In geostrategic terms, the 2022 awards of EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova—with Georgia’s bid still pending a determined EU “yes”—also demonstrated that the union was ready to embrace its newly inaugurated geopolitical course. Yet, the EU’s mission with regard to Eastern Europe is far from complete: as the center of gravity in European power is unexpectedly shifting eastward, it is there that the future of the EU, its stability, security, and prosperity is being decided.

It is striking that one year into this war in Europe, the EU and the West at large still fail to see themselves as a party to the conflict and realize what goals they pursue in this war. Once this realization comes, it will be much easier to see whether what the EU is doing in Eastern Europe—rather than just for Eastern Europe—is enough.

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