European Commission Officials Encourage Engagement with Ukraine; Will the Rest of the West Follow?

Events in the Middle East have, as is often the case, taken center-stage lately, but Europe’s future and long-term security are being decided just outside of the spotlight. Prominent members of the European Commission are giving the green light to closer engagement with Ukraine even as Russia moves to end its former satellite’s drive to the West. The question now is whether a distracted Europe and America can see the opportunity before them.

In his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament on Wednesday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso gave a vote of support for the “Eastern Partnership” countries, those former Soviet states who are widely seen as the next likely targets for EU expansion and with whom the EU has been working toward closer ties for almost a decade.

With Russia’s recent crackdown on trade with Ukraine (and Lithuania when the latter objected to the treatment of Ukraine), and the Russian pressure that led to Armenia announcing it would join the Customs Union and therefore forsake EU membership, speculation abounded over the likely EU response. For the first time since NATO expansion halted, Russia was drawing a clear line; the question was whether the EU would retreat or advance.

Barroso at least is signaling that the advance is on. Referring to the large waves of EU enlargement nearly ten years ago, Barroso noted that those such as Ukraine are trying to “be closer to us.”

“We cannot turn our backs on them,” he added.

Reacting to the bipartisan passage of further reforms to the Criminal Enforcement Code of Ukraine (including allowing limited cell phone use by inmates) and authorizing reruns of the handful of parliamentary elections declared invalid in the wake of the 2012 elections, both European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle and EU Ambassador to Ukraine Jan Tombiński hailed the results, focusing on both the progress the reforms showed and the surprisingly high bipartisanship in the effort. (In a nod to modern sensibilities, Füle tweeted his approval.)

“A very important step towards the signature of the Association Agreement in Vilnius at the end of November has been made, although an equal mobilisation is needed in coming weeks in order to do a remaining work,” Tombiński said in a statement. The Association Agreement is intended to open trade and travel between the EU and Ukraine, and is one of the most important substantive steps in Ukraine’s move Westward.

It therefore appears that both Ukraine’s hard work and the increasingly obvious pressure from Russia have sharpened the focus on the stakes in Ukraine’s westward turn. The open issue now is whether Europe as a whole understands what is at stake, and whether the US does as well.

American and European foreign policy are quite clearly going through what could euphemistically be called a powerful transition. (Less euphemistically, no one is at the helm and there are no helmsmen in sight.) The Syria episode is not so much a case of powerful Russian diplomacy as Vladimir Putin understanding how to take advantage of Western cluelessness. Ukraine’s bid to sign the Association Agreement — which now carries with it the threat of a Russian trade war — is yet another test of the state and strength of Western diplomacy.

Signing the Association Agreement will remind Vladimir Putin that there is still some strength left in the free West, and will encourage Ukraine in its drive for reform. Failing here will encourage Russian empire-building, to everyone’s detriment but Moscow’s.

Much of Europe’s political establishment now understands the dangers, if not necessarily the rewards, of engagement with Ukraine. Washington and Brussels (and Berlin) must seize this chance to win back some momentum, for their sakes and for Ukraine’s.

Matthew Lina contributed to this piece.

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