Mihai Karausch (Sputnik via AFP)

Can the EU be a security provider for the Eastern neighborhood states?

Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă, Georgiana-Ștefania Ambruș

9 mins - 25 de Abril de 2022, 13:56

The war in Ukraine that started abruptly on the 24th of February did not take the specialists in the Eastern neighbourhood completely by surprise. But the level of atrocities and illegal means of warfare waged by Russia on Ukrainian occupied territories were indeed shocking for everyone, specialists and citizens alike. Russia's invasion was felt as a domino effect, as it does not limit only to Ukraine's territory, but has profound implications for the neighboring ex-Soviet states like Moldova and Georgia and for Europe as a whole. The swift intervention and drastic measures imposed by Western countries, the US and other like-minded partners such as Australia and Japan had immediate effects on Russia's economy and stability. They were meant to force Moscow's hand to stop the current military operations, yet Russia continues to move forward with its military and tactical objectives, which may lead to an escalation of the conflict, that can spill into the neighboring countries. In reaction, in the first week of March first Ukraine and then Moldova and Georgia have applied for EU membership. The rapidly changing security landscape must force the EU to swiftly consider their membership bids and this decision is expected as an illustration of EU’s geopolitical awakening. In this context is the EU seen as a security provider for the three countries?

The bid for EU membership, a security guarantee?
Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are three of the six countries included in the 'Eastern Partnership' initiative that was launched in 2009, as part of EU's neighbourhood policy. Beyond Ukraine, where Russia's aggressive position became evident even before the 2014 Annexation of Crimea and support for the secessionist claims in Donbass, should Moldova and Georgia fear for their own territorial integrity? Russia's National Security Strategy from 2021 and the so-called Putin's Memorandum' made it clear that it is looking to maintain control in an area which it considers its "legitimate sphere of influence".  Therefore, in spite of the deceiving assurances from Russian diplomats, there is a feeling of unease and distrust felt by Moldova and Georgia. That is why in the context of the  whole uncertainty around Russia's future intentions, the possibility of an escalation of the conflict remains a major concern for the two countries that already have on their territories secessionist entities such as Transnistria in the Republic of Moldova and Abhazia and Ossetia in Georgia. In this context, Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia, have realized that they do not have a proper reaction strategy in case of Russian aggression, the only accessible security provider option being the EU. Thus, all three countries have forwarded requests to join the EU, hoping for a more dynamic cooperation with the EU when it comes to securing their borders and territorial integrity. These requests come as a follow up after the countries expressed their intentions of wanting to join the EU during the Eastern Partnership Summit in 2021, which ended with the formalizing of the Associated Trio of Ukraine, Republic of Moldova and Georgia and consolidating their cooperation with the EU. The countries are aware that they are still far from achieving EU membership, but their requests have a strong geopolitical symbolism.

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In spite all of their efforts to speed up their applications to join the EU, their requests for the EU to include them in the group of candidate countries were met with the cold technocratic response from the officials: the EU will be unequivocally committed to their integration, and the aid provided must not be military. The most recent EU summits held in Warsaw and Brussels brought together the conclusions of the main EU states on the impossibility of opening the EU joining procedures due to the current war, in the case of Ukraine, and the separatist conflicts in the case of the Republic of Moldova and Georgia.  Moreover,
the EU can not duplicate NATO's actions. Its role is rather more important as a normative power that backs up the Eastern neighbouring countries’ sovereign decisions in foreign policy. 

Red Alert for the Republic of Moldova?
Soon after the two Donbas republics in Ukraine were recognised as independent, on 5th March 2022 the separatist authorities in Tiraspol announced in a press release that they disagree with Moldova's request to join the European Union. Moreover, in the same press release they also demanded the recognition of Transnistria's independence. In this context, the war in Ukraine might provide the pro-Russian elites in Tiraspol with the opportunity for a future annexation by Russia and this motivated Moldova (a country that has military neutrality embedded in its constitution) to be in high security alert. 

Even if the Chisinau administration, now led by a strong pro-European figure, is willing to take radical measures to speed up procedures and catch up with the EU accession train, Transnistria remains the main obstacle for Moldova on its path. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, was very cautious on the subject, saying that she supported the move, but that the Member states will have the last say in the matter, which are already known to be reluctant to Moldova's application in the current conditions. Thus, there are little hopes for a realistic fast-track admission of the three Associated Trio states as candidates. It is to be expected that all three countries and especially the Republic of Moldova to be negatively impacted by the development of the current war in Ukraine, especially as the Kremlin administration increasingly perceives the Western approach to support the former Soviet republics and counteract its influence in the region as a direct threat to its security.

Indeed the three countries expect the EU to be an indirect security provider for them, as their potential EU candidacy status could protect them at least symbolically against the Russian aggression. A country’s accession negotiations with the EU is fundamentally different than accession negotiations with NATO, a military alliance that was specifically identified by Russia as a security threat at its borders. Despite Von der Leyen's gesture to hand the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy a questionnaire which will form a starting point for the EU to decide on Ukraine's membership, during its most recent visit in Kyiv, there is still a long road ahead for the costly to receive the candidate status. 

Overall, the EU is currently in an unfavourable geopolitical position, as the open conflict in Ukraine  does not give it the opportunity to act decisively on the acceptance of the applicant States' requests for membership. The process takes time and it is very complex and bureaucratic. The rules of opening an enlargement perspective with new countries are very strict and depend on the political decisions of the European Council, thus of all 27 member states.

Moreover, in addition to the inability of becoming an immediate security provider for the Eastern Neighborhood countries, the EU needs to find quick solutions to provide economic and social support to them. Sanctions imposed on Russia have had major economic implications for these countries, particularly affecting the energy/gas and banking sectors (Moldova and Georgia have seen a deterioration in bank flows from remittances from citizens working in Russia and commercial entities with connections to Russia have encountered problems in transactions). In addition, the Russian side has taken retaliatory measures (restricting exports, especially in the agriculture and food sector to countries traditionally served by Russian producers), which amplifies the negative effects on their economies and the supply of raw materials.

Thus, despite the openness of all European leaders to provide support to Ukraine and the other two Eastern Neighborhood states in other forms (political and financial assistance, support for managing the refugee crisis, intensification of the sanctions regime imposed on Russia), until there are solid assurances, these States remain currently vulnerable to Russian influence, and the risk of them being drawn into the war in Ukraine persists.

Taking all of these aspects into consideration, it becomes clear that the pressure on the EU is increasing at the same time from the three states (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) which consider that "the road to the EU has been set in motion", and accession is no longer a matter of if, but of when/how soon. A lot of pressure comes also from Russia and its aggressive actions in the region. If the Russian side does not give in and regroups its military forces towards other states from Eastern Europe (Moldova/Transnistria), we can expect future EU-Russia negotiations to end in a worst case scenario for the Eastern Neighbourhood states, with significant EU concessions, that will be giving Russia a place in the future European security architecture, by keeping these states under its influence, by settling separatist conflicts on favorable terms, and by the EU's informal promise that these states will not join the EU and NATO. In other words, the EU will no longer be a potential provider of security, and the Eastern Neighborhood states will need to find other solutions to potential future Russian acts of aggression. Let us consider this scenario a black swan, but like any such scenario it needs to be seriously taken in consideration.
(Here, the Spanish version)
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