As tensions between Ukraine and Russia are at their highest in years, EU leaders and their Eastern Partnership counterparts met on Wednesday (15 December) for a summit aimed to reaffirm the strategic importance of the region.
The EU summit with its Eastern neighbours – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – comes as the West is seeking options to deter what it says may be Russian preparations for a new attack on Ukrainian territory.
“Our very first call is on Russia to de-escalate but we are also prepared for any increasing aggression from Russia side,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said after the talks.
“Sanctions are in place, those sanctions could be tightened but of course there are also sanctions prepared that are additional and coming on top in all the different fields you might think of,” she added.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in Brussels Ukraine was ready for any format of talks with Russia but would prefer sanctions to be imposed immediately as a pre-emptive measure of deterring any potential military attack.
On the sidelines of the official summit talks, leaders of France and Germany sought to revive talks under the so-called “Normandy Format” that also includes Russia and is aimed at implementing the Minsk II peace accords to end the war in Ukraine’s East.
New German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron each met individually with Zelenskiy as well as all together in a group.
“The three leaders reaffirmed their commitment to this format of negotiations in order to find a lasting solution for the conflict and to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Macron’s office said.
Zelenskiy said on Twitter he was hoping for Macron’s support in countering Russia’s “hybrid aggression” in Europe as Paris assumes the rotating EU presidency for six months in January.
He also invited Scholz to Ukraine and wished to deepen cooperation with Berlin in energy, security and defence, a veiled criticism of Nord Stream 2 and a follow-up to earlier accusations Germany had been blocking weapons shipments to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s president, however, did imply he finds the support for the West to be insufficient to protect it from its far larger escalation.
“Some leaders are proposing a format to respond to a possible escalation after a possible escalation,” Zelenskiy said.
“To be honest, no one is particularly interested in the sanctions policy after that. Our state is interested in a powerful sanctions policy before a possible escalation,” he added.
It was the first physical meeting between both sides since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first official summit between the bloc and its eastern neighbours since 2017.
Producing a joint political declaration has been especially politically sensitive after such an attempt had failed in 2019 and been downgraded into a chairperson statement signed only by then-top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini.
Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in Brussels sought support for their recent initiative of cooperation in yet another attempt to convince the EU to start negotiations to join the bloc, a push that is unlikely to bring results any time soon.
The self-ascribed “Associated Trio” has signed association agreements that deepen their trade and political ties with the EU in exchange for reforms.
“Our goal is full membership in the EU,” Zelenskiy had stated in Brussels.
While acknowledging the initiative, EU leaders continued “to stress the importance of the principle of inclusivity, providing equal access to opportunities and resources to all interested partners.”
Nevertheless, the final summit joint declaration said cooperation could be deepened in several ways, “including, but not limited to, the areas of the twin green and digital transitions, connectivity, energy security, justice and home affairs, strategic communication and healthcare.”
Although the majority of EU member states publicly reject the idea of a Russian veto or ‘sphere of influence’ over the former Soviet republics, insisting they would be free to choose their own strategic alignments, several EU diplomats and senior government officials admit that no one in Brussels currently can envisage Ukraine or Georgia joining the bloc.
“We stress that this is a constructive partnership, which is not directed against anyone, but is designed to contribute to peace and prosperity for all countries in the neighbourhood”, the final summit communiqué reads.
The EU will “acknowledge the European aspirations and the European choice” of the five countries concerned, the final communiqué noted, falling short of concrete assurances.
The leaders of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova adopted separately a Joint Statement, to hammer out their bigger ambitions.
Belarus’ empty chair
Minsk was represented by an empty chair after Belarusian strongman Lukashenko said he would leave the partnership last summer.
“We disputed this idea, since … essentially, it’s a recognition that this suspension [by Lukashenko] of the participation in the Eastern Partnership initiative is actually legitimate”, Valery Kavaleuski, head of opposition leader Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya’s cabinet said at an event last week.
What they envisioned was “a side event during the summit, sort of adjacent to the summit itself”. Instead, Tsikhanouskaya held a meeting with Michel and the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell.
“That empty chair does not mean we have withdrawn our commitment to the population of Belarus,” Michel told reporters after the summit talks.
Asked by EURACTIV in the run-up to the summit, Tsikhanouskaya also said Western sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime need to be better coordinated to fill the currently existing loopholes.
Pressed by reporters whether the EU is ready to heed these calls, von der Leyen committed to taking a closed look.
“So loopholes should not be in sanctions and, of course, we are willing to look into if those are there”, the EU executive’s chief said.
“But I also think that in the Belarus situation, we saw how effective we can be when the EU acts united and rapidly, [which is] what we exactly did”, she added.
According to Von der Leyen, “it was good to see a consensus among us, the 27 member states, and the five Eastern partners. We unanimously condemn Lukashenko’s behaviour, and we all stand with the Belarusian people.”