Back in the Brussels bubble after the summer recess what strikes most is the changed mood vis-à-vis Ukraine. Before, many had doubts as to the real intentions of the Ukrainian leadership. The President Viktor Yanukovich had long cultivated ambiguity. But now Yanukovich, the government, to oligarchs, everybody unequivocally say that the choice of the Ukrainians is the European orientation, not the Russian-sponsored Customs Union.
I also find that the Brussels institutions and the EU countries look at Ukraine differently today. In particular, the European Peoples’ Party has taken a U-turn. For long EPP has played the Big Inquisition with Kyiv, now it looks eager to help remove all obstacles for signing the landmark Association Agreement (AA) at the Vilnius Summit on 28-29 November.
What happened? As Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a leader of the Ukrainian opposition told me, Putin “deserved a medal” for boosting Kyiv’s chances of signing the AA in Vilnius. He referred to the unprecedented pressure by Russia with respect to Ukraine, but also Moldova and Armenia. The latter reportedly bowed to the pressure and would join Russia’s geopolitical project.
But the real turning point I think was the way Russia treated Belarus, already member of its Customs Union. A giant Russia-Belarus potash cartel collapsed after Russia pulled out of it, saying it would produce and sell more than the agreement allowed. Potash, used in the fertilizer industry, is the main resource of Belarus. In response Belarus arrested the CEO of the Russian partner company, and Moscow resorted to the usual retaliation – bans and threats of bans for the agricultural exports of Belarus to Russia. What kind of Customs Union is this? And what kind of relations between Presidents and oligarchs are those?
It looks like the AA would be signed, as Yanukovich and his Party of Regions have committed to pass the legislation required by the EU. Regarding the most sensitive issue – the jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, it looks like she would be sent for treatment in Germany. But what will happen after the signature?
The signature of the AA appears to be the biggest geopolitical achievement of the EU since the 2004-2007 enlargement. It could also be the biggest legacy of the present generation of EU leaders.
It looks like Russia has accepted that it would lose the first half-time, but not the match. A full-fledged trade war on Ukraine could bring the country to its knees, while Kremlin money would strengthen the camp of pro-Russian candidate Viktor Medvedchuk at the 2015 presidential election.
Vilnius is not an end to an effort, it’s a beginning. EU officials like to say that EU enlargement and EU association is not a zero-sum game vis-à-vis Russia. When Putin says he doesn’t buy this, actually he has a point.