|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
Russia's aggression against Ukraine continues, causing enormous damage to the Ukrainian state. Moscow has intensified its military attacks in the direction of Kyiv and Kharikiv, but also throughout the southern part of Ukraine up to the Odesa region. Russia's actions are aimed at two main goals: to persuade Kyiv to capitulate and to occupy the southern territories in order to cut off Ukraine's access to the Black Sea. This would reduce the current size of the Ukrainian economy by at least half, with dramatic territorial and demographic consequences. Therefore, the main interest of the Ukrainian authorities is to survive and retaliate against Russian aggression, with the military help of NATO and the EU. Due to the lack of viable alternatives, Kyiv is trying to persuade NATO to introduce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would involve attacking Russian military airspace in Ukrainian airspace. This has not been endorsed in the US legislature (NYT, February 2022), as this risks drawing NATO into war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin warned that such a move would directly mean the extension of the war from Ukraine to Euro-Atlantic countries (Aljazeera, February 2022).
Russia's destructive policy in the region and the lack of a clear opportunity for NATO membership have intensified Ukraine's aspirations to join the European Union (EU). From Ukraine's perspective, the opening of the European door could have an additional positive impact on increasing the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people. In this regard, Ukraine submitted to the EU the application for candidate status, urging for a "fast-track" procedure, which is not provided for in the European treaties. The Ukrainian approach has generated a chain reaction among the other states associated with the EU - Georgia and Moldova. However, their decision to apply for EU membership was mainly based on reasoning related to internal political dynamics. Building on the EU's political and moral commitment to help Ukraine in the context of the Russian invasion, there are high expectations that Brussels will offer Kyiv a clear prospect of membership. For Georgia and Moldova to benefit from the Ukrainian precedent, they had to apply for EU membership immediately after Ukraine. Taking the example of Ukraine has caused some antagonism in the relationship with Kyiv, which through the voice of Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba was dissatisfied with the fact that Georgia and Moldova would like to take advantage of the Ukrainian approach.
Putin's dilemma: between capitulating to Kiev at all costs and avoiding a Russian "Euromaidan"
The war launched by Vladimir Putin is aimed at the territorial redesign of Ukraine and the limitation of the sovereignty of the territories that remain with its composition in long-term. In this unfortunate context, Ukraine's population and economy are experiencing a cascade of multidimensional shocks. In addition to human casualties and exodus (up to 2 million refugees in the first 11 days of the Russian invasion), Ukraine faces the destruction of urban, economic and military infrastructures and the occupation of strategic infrastructures. The most conclusive example is the establishment of Russian control over the largest nuclear power plant in Europe (with six active reactors), located in Zaporozhzhye, the eastern region of the country.
Although in the second round of negotiations Kyiv called on Russia to open "green corridors" for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the population in the south of the country, President Volodymir Zelensky ruled out capitulation or abandoning the country. Zelensky's resistance has led Russia to resort to drastic measures, such as the attempt to assassinate Zelensky by the mercenaries of the Wagner Group, who have military experience in the conflicts in Libya, Syria, etc. Some 300 mercenaries were reportedly deployed to Ukraine (NYT, February 2022) at the end of February following the recognition of the independence of Ukraine's breakaway regions (February 21, 2022). If Zelensky keeps staying in the equation, it is difficult for Russia to pressure Kyiv to capitulate. Meanwhile, Zelensky's daily patriotism fuels heroism among the armed forces and strengthens the remaining population's morale around the goal of resistance against Russian occupation.
In other words, the prolongation of the Russian invasion not only generates political and economic costs never before seen by the Vladimir Putin regime (weakening of the ruble, withdrawal of foreign investors, reduced access to affordable credit, etc.). It can also provoke a Russian "Euromaidan", with the collapse of the "vertical of power". The probability of this scenario is directly proportional to the Ukrainian resistance (prolongation of the war) and, respectively, to the consequences of Western sanctions. Only together can these elements align Russian public discontent with the worsening socio-economic situation and disapproval of Russia's war against Ukraine, which is seen as inhumane on the one hand and fratricidal (between two very close peoples) on the other. Even if anti-war protests are being effectively suppressed for the time being, declining purchasing power and other socio-economic problems could destabilize the Putin regime. Criticisms against the war voiced by at least six Russian oligarchs add to the pressure felt by the Kremlin. The survival of the regime depends on the "balance" between the interests pursued by the secret services, the oligarchs and the central and local state apparatus, all watched over by Putin. Given these risks, Moscow wants the war to end as soon as possible, but only if the end result is comparable to capitulation. In the first rounds of negotiations, Ukraine flatly refused.
At present, three important issues give Putin confidence. On the economic side, the Russian Central Bank has made impressive advance reserves. At the end of 2021, they amounted to some 630 billion dollars, of which about 40% were affected in whole or in part by Western sanctions. At the same time, legal restrictions have been created to curb the flight of foreign capital and prevent the withdrawal of foreign currency abroad by the population. The suspension of international flights from March 8, 2022 creates additional obstacles for the population and economic agents to transfer their savings from Russian banks abroad. In relation to the population, although anti-war protests are on the rise, the anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western propaganda inoculated into Russian citizens, since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, is now bearing fruit. Most of Russia's public opinion seems to be disoriented, tacitly endorsing military aggression against Ukraine. According to the latest sociological data, almost a week after Ukraine's invasion of Russia (started on February 24), Putin's support amounted to 71% in early February (Levada, February 2022). 71% of the population also support Russia's war against Ukraine, referring to it as a "special military operation". In addition, Putin's political apparatus has criminalized attempts to physically and virtually exercise freedom of expression and association. The Western platforms for information, communication and mobilization (Twitter, Facebook) have been blocked, and those who question Moscow's version of the Ukraine war (on the Internet) risk up to 15 years in prison. From a geopolitical point of view, despite massive sanctions, global markets will need costly efforts to replace Russian extractive industry exports (oil, gas, semi-precious metals, etc.) and other strategic export categories, such as grains, which has a direct impact on global food security. The political will of most EU countries is determined to limit Russia's energy dependency as much as possible after 2022. However, the heart of the matter is that Putin can use other dependencies (besides energy) to deal with to limit the effects of Western sanctions, which Putin calls "declaration of war". In other words, Russia, led by Putin, is capable of anything, but to limit its moves, the West must continue to isolate Russia and make any association with it toxic.
The Russian invasion and the pro-EU aspirations of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova - three different motivations?
The intensification of European accession has become the main response of the states associated with the EU to Russian aggression in the region. Following Russia's military aggression against Ukraine, NATO's eastward enlargement is postponed indefinitely and Moldova has a status of constitutional neutrality. Even if EU membership does not imply NATO protection (i.e. the collective defense clause), this is the only geopolitical alternative to integration into Western space that Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. However, the motivations of the three countries to submit applications to join the EU contrast.
In the case of Ukraine, the claim to EU candidate status seems to be dominated by the goal of projecting optimism in society. Specifically, a clear prospect of EU membership can energize the spirit of the Ukrainian military and strengthen national cohesion. This will also promote European solidarity with the Ukrainian cause against the Russian invasion. Previously, pro-EU aspirations have been a driving force behind the "Euromaidan" (2013-2014), which resulted in the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, the first advance in the democratization of the country and the fight against corruption. Kiyv's proposal to establish a "fast track" accession regime for Ukraine was not echoed in the European Parliament resolution (March 2022). Although the European legislature asked the EU institutions to grant Ukraine candidate status, it did not request to speed things up. The EU does not apply a fast-track regime to examine Ukraine's request, even if Kyiv expects a clear response in the near future. At the moment, the applications from Ukraine have been discussed by the representatives of the EU states to Brussels (Council of the EU), along with those from Georgia and Moldova, being forwarded to the European Commission. The EU's "package" approach annoys Kyiv, which instead wants all EU politico-diplomatic procedures to focus exclusively on Ukraine, separate from the other two countries.
Georgia's reasons for applying for EU membership differ from Ukraine's circumstances. Faced with anti-government protests over reluctance over Western sanctions against Russia, authorities in Tbilisi sought EU candidate status two days after Ukraine and before the earlier promise to apply for EU membership only in 2024. This way, the government managed to throw the ball in the field of the EU (responsibility of the European vector of the country) and relaunch the competition with the opposition for the title of the main pro-EU political force. Even if the Tbilisi government wants to jump on the same bandwagon as Ukraine, the facts indicate things contrary to the EU's rapprochement. Only in 2021, the ruling "Georgian Dream" party unilaterally canceled Charles Michel's agreement to overcome the political crisis, failed to protect protesters and the media, negatively influenced local elections, and promoted Eurosceptic rhetoric. Therefore, even if Ukraine sets a positive precedent, Georgia's candidacy is at risk, due to the stagnation of the reform process and the crisis of democratic institutions, which have worsened in recent years.
Moldova has had the most remarkable change in its attitude towards applying for EU membership. Although relations with the EU have been on the rise since the elections in early 2021, the government had reservations about setting a timetable for applying for candidate status. It claimed that European integration implies the modernization of the country, reforms and the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU. Neither the fact that Ukraine submitted the request to the EU (on February 28) nor the Russian aggression convinced the representatives of the government in Chisinau to ask from Brussels the candidate status. Rather, the decision of the Moldovan authorities was influenced by another factor, namely Georgia's decision to apply immediately after Ukraine. Therefore, Moldova did not want to remain the only country of the "Associated Trio", which has not yet submitted an application for membership. This would have hampered the ruling Action and Solidarity Party, which has already been criticized for not aligning itself with sanctions against Russia. Therefore, Moldova signed the application for membership after Georgia on March 3. This decision was condemned by the pro-Russian forces in Moldova, who called for a referendum on the matter. At the same time, the Transnistria region took advantage of this event to reiterate its demand for independence from Moldova.
In lieu of conclusions…
Ukraine is determined to fight Russian aggression to the end, without giving up its territorial integrity or capitulating. While Kyiv and the northeast hold out, the south and east gradually fall under Russian occupation. Although the West supports Ukraine financially and militarily, it does not want to be drawn into the war. The Ukrainian refugee crisis at Ukraine's external borders and the humanitarian crisis inside the country require greater efforts on the part of the US and the EU, which must turn to international humanitarian organizations, whose diplomatic contacts with Moscow do not seem affected.
Although Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova had different motivations that led to the EU application, they did not synchronize their steps, using the "Associated Trio" platform. However, it is in the EU's interest to rethink its strategy towards these countries and look at them separately from the rest of the Eastern Partnership. Following the model of the countries of the Western Balkans, the EU can adopt a sharp political position that provides a clear accession perspective for the associated countries of the Eastern Neighborhood. The offer of candidate status may be conditional on sufficient compliance with the provisions of the Association Agreement, by introducing clear performance evaluation criteria, carried out in a few rounds. At the end of this exercise, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova should be eligible for candidate status. In any case, until candidate status is obtained, the three countries can start implementing reforms inspired by the experience of the Western Balkan countries, in parallel to the implementation of the Association Agreement. However, first of all, the EU must eliminate the animosities in the relationship between Ukraine, on the one hand, and Georgia and Moldova, on the other. Ukraine needs to receive guarantees from the EU that the "package" approach does not affect its chances of obtaining candidate status. Finally, it should be clarified that Georgia and Moldova have rights similar to those of the Ukrainian side with regard to seeking the prospect of EU membership.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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