Putin’s Rockets Pave Way for EU Enlargement

Kiev Getting Longed-for Financial, Military Assistance
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting on the road construction development via video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia June 2, 2022. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via REUTERS

One of the many ironies of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was its pretext - to rid the country of a Nazi administration, despite the head of that administration being Jewish. Another was Russia’s insistence that this was not an invasion but a “special military operation” that Moscow thought would be over in a week. That was in February.

Yet, few ironies can match those of the Russian gameplan gone so horribly wrong. In a bid to isolate Ukraine, Russia has isolated itself. Having assumed that the West would fracture and fold, Russian actions have coalesced and invigorated the free world. And while trying to push its opponents back from its borders, Russia has attracted thousands of heavily armed NATO forces to its eastern boundary and led the allies to spend unprecedented sums on defense. 

Sun Tzu said the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. Russia has galvanised the enemy by fighting nearby and not winning.

 

A tank of the Ukrainian Armed Forces its seen in the industrial area of the city of Sievierodonetsk, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, Ukraine June 20, 2022. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak

 

To add to Kremlin woes, last week Russia managed to turbocharge European enlargement, leading the West’s biggest bloc to open its arms to states that Vladimir Putin undoubtedly sees as being in Russia’s orbit. If this is Putin’s masterplan, one wonders if he thinks it is going well. Indeed, if Russia’s battleplan for conquering Ukraine could be said to have taken some unexpectedly heavy hits, its diplomatic strategy with regards to Europe and the West has been left hospitalised with shell-shock. 

There is no doubt that Putin’s rockets have led to rocketing food and energy prices around the world, something the Russian leader may well have anticipated. What he may not have expected was the knock-on effect this had of expedited policies in dozens of capitals to wean their countries off a reliance on Russian exports in both industries. If Putin thought the need for Russian grain and gas would quell Western anger, he has witnessed the opposite. 

Back in February, which seems like a lifetime ago, Putin sought to justify Moscow’s aggression by saying that Ukraine had become overly militarised and was now too closely allied with NATO and the West. He argued that Ukraine was in Europe’s “pocket”, acting in Europe’s interests only, allowing the United States and NATO to gain a strategic foothold in Russia’s backyard. Neither argument was fair or accurate. Truth be told, Western support to Ukraine before the war was limited. Many in Kyiv felt, with some justification, that they were fighting the Russians on their own.

Moscow’s aggression in 2014 carved out Crimea and areas in Ukraine’s east with little blowback, following a wholly underwhelming Western reaction. Analysts bemoaned the lack of a coherent Western policy when it came to Russia, Ukraine, and the Black Sea, and traced the lukewarm military response eight years ago to this year’s full-scale invasion. Based on the West’s past timidity, they said, Putin simply did not fear the consequences. Yet consequences this year there have most certainly been, with ripples reaching far beyond sanctions.

 

Destroyed Russian tanks and military vehicles are seen dumped in Bucha amid Russia's invasion in Ukraine, May 16, 2022. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

An aspiring member of both EU and NATO, Ukraine had previously been given only ambiguous promises of eventual membership for each. Both groups kept engaging Ukraine and kept their ‘open door’ policies but kept the door on the chain, just in case. Both the EU’s eastern enlargement and further NATO expansion were on the backburner. Today, the picture is very different.

The security landscape of Europe has already changed greatly and is still in a state of flux. Most recently, Turkey’s acquiescence has allowed NATO to welcome Finland and Sweden, two states that have been religiously neutral for decades. More may join. With every day that passes, with every Russian missile that obliterates a school or a shopping mall or a theatre, NATO’s Article 5 – that famous and iron-clad duty to ride to the aid of other members - looks like an increasingly useful insurance policy. 

While Ukraine’s NATO prospects are still long-term, Kyiv is now getting the kind of military and financial aid its leaders have long yearned for. A policy aim on both sides of the Atlantic is now to “arm the Ukrainians to the teeth”. Beyond that, there are new NATO bases forming along the EU’s eastern flank, with pre-existing bases being bolstered by troops and air defence systems. In short, the Alliance is gearing up.

For military planners, these are heady days. For years, there has been little or no Western appetite for provoking Russia. American and European leaders have proceeded with extreme caution when it came to the Kremlin, almost to the point of undermining NATO’s reputation and purpose. War has changed all that. “Allies are stepping up and increasing defense spending,” said U.S. President Joe Biden this week. Germany, for instance, has created a special military fund of more than $100 billion. More importantly, NATO now knows that deterrence means physically containing Russia through enlargement all the way along Russia’s border. This is Putin’s worst nightmare.

What would EU enlargement look like? Of the states along Russia’s edges, three are ‘EU Eastern Partnership Policy’ countries, these being Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. When tanks marked with ‘Z’ rolled over the Ukrainian border in February, they asked the EU to accelerate their membership application processes. On 23 June, the EU agreed, so ending their purgatory and placing them on a path to membership.

Ukraine and Moldova were granted formal ‘candidate’ status. Georgia, with its current pro-Russia government and signs of democratic backsliding, was promised the same if it undertook several reforms first. All three were granted visa-free travel to the Schengen Zone and signed Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) with the EU five years ago. Difficult political and economic reforms remain but the EU is now sending aid and spending time to help them. 

The benefits are already being felt. Moldova, for instance, has made significant strides towards combating rampant corruption. In the capital Chisinau, the pro-Russian, Communist Party-affiliated President Igor Dodon was replaced with the dynamic, pro-European government of President Maia Sandu. Before the war, Ukraine under President Zelensky sought similar transformations – in both government and society - and the admirable strength and conviction of the Ukrainian people has been on full display for the last five months. The feeling in Europe that Ukraine is “one of us” has never been more palpable. The shelter and safe passage through Europe of millions of Ukrainian refugees provides further testimony, if any were needed. Interestingly, Moldova under Sandu has acted as a bridge between Ukraine and the EU.

The idea that these states may soon be EU members is not one that most political analysts would have given much credence until recently. Yet obstacles still lie ahead, not least in the ‘Copenhagen Criteria’, a daunting set of political, economic, and administrative capacity requirements for candidates. The EU Commission will want to see stable institutions, democratic guarantees, the rule of law, human rights, a respect for - and protection of – minorities, a functioning market economy, and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces, to name but a few. Putin will be banking on these ex-Soviet states’ inability to deliver. For the states themselves, Russian tanks on their doorsteps provide a very good motivation to get those boxes ticked.

Membership would change everything. In his address to the EU parliament on 23 June, Zelensky described this milestone moment for both his country and the continent. “I believe this is what will always be the starting point of Europe’s new history,” he said. “Europe without division, Europe without grey zones, Europe that is truly united and knows how to defend itself, its values, its future. Today you have adopted one of the most important decisions for Ukraine in all 30 years of independence of our state. However, I believe this decision is not only for Ukraine. This is the biggest step towards strengthening Europe that could be taken right now, in our time, and in such difficult conditions, when the Russian war is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity.”

European flags have “been in the hands of our people in the trenches since 2014,” he said, adding that Ukrainian and European flags would fly alongside one another once again “when we rebuild our state after this war together”. President of the European Council Charles Michel agreed. “Our future is together,” he said.

On the other side of the Black Sea, in Georgia, sceptics say that future suddenly looks less European. Just a few years ago, Georgia was the frontrunner of the three, boasting democratic reforms, dynamic political leadership, and an unwavering pro-Western stance. In the past decade, however, there have been setbacks. Most attribute these to the influence of pro-Russia oligarch Bidzini Ivanishvili, widely acknowledged as the power behind the Georgian throne. Alas, to the EU, news of Russian interests in Georgian politics, claims of vote-rigging, continued political crises, government incompetence and corruption, and debilitating political polarisation, all bode ill.

Before Ivanishvili bestrode Georgia’s political scene, bilateral relations with Kyiv were good. Today, they are poor. When Russia invaded, Georgia not only declined to participate in sanctions but became a ‘safe-haven’ for Russian money and Russian citizens, just as Moscow’s list of friendly nations shrank by the hour. To add insult to injury, Georgian ministers openly feuded with Ukrainian counterparts, touting Russian propaganda, even accusing Kyiv of trying to “open a second front” by dragging Tbilisi into the war. Things got so bad that Zelensky recalled the Ukrainian ambassador. Today, Georgians are displeased with their government’s criticism of Ukraine and its failure to progress as ‘official EU candidate’. Protests have already begun and look set to continue.

Russian service members march during a parade on Victory Day, which marks the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo

Whether to Russia’s south or west, to its frontline in the Donbas or backline in Red Square, a world that was meant to open up with the conquering of Ukraine and the splintering of the Western alliance has suddenly coming piling in, a united transatlantic front marching towards the Kremlin’s door.

Russia’s military prowess, its reputed qualitative edge, was supposed to have been demonstrated in Ukraine. It was supposed to have won the battle by now, and to have deterred the West’s supply of weaponry. It has not. Russia’s ace card - its gas and the threat of withholding this - was supposed to have warned the Europeans off. It has not. Attacking Ukraine was supposed to have pushed the West back, yet it has prompted the West to tackle Moscow’s crude adventurism in a way that it has not dared do since the Cold War. Far from being subdued, Russia’s enemy is energised and motivated. The art of war has rarely been less supreme.

 

*Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). She is co-editor of FPRI’s 2017 Democracy Matter? The United States and Global Democracy Support. Her research interests include the geopolitics of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, the post-Communist CEEE countries, EU’s eastern enlargement policies, and Russian foreign policy. Maia is a regular contributor for the Majalla Magazine. She holds an M.A. in Globalization, Development and Transition from the University of Westminster in London. Maia is currently pursuing her PhD at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, researching the post-Soviet conflicts of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.


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