A Roundup on European Union Responses to the Ukraine Crisis

The European Union (EU) has taken various kinds of action in response to the Ukraine crisis, mostly in the form of general support for the new Ukraine government and targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for the violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Within the past few weeks, the EU has published a fact sheet on EU/Ukraine relations, issued press releases discussing actions taken in response to Russia’s aggression, and has been involved in the March 17th, 2014 Geneva Agreements. Ongoing escalation of violence in Eastern Ukraine, however, calls into question the effectiveness of the Geneva Agreements and the leaves uncertainty as to next steps for all engaged parties.

EU Action

A recent speech by Štefan Füle, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, outlined the EU responses to the Russian action in Ukraine.

Diplomatic efforts. The EU is engaged in quadrilateral talks with Ukraine, Russia, and the US, aimed at underscoring the sovereignty of the Ukraine. These efforts culminated in the Geneva Agreements reached on April 17th between the four parties (see further below). The EU has supported an OSCE monitoring mission, pledging assistance to the OSCE monitors on the ground.

Opposition to Russian annexing of Crimea.
The EU has enacted sanctions, including asset freezing and visa bans, on a relatively small group of individual leaders responsible for the violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty. More wide ranging economic sanctions are threatened if Russia continues to destabilize the region.

Refusal to recognize the annexation of Crimea.
In addition to the official non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation, the EU is in the process of establishing the “practical parameters” of the policy.

Committed political and financial support to Ukraine.

The EU already signed the political chapters of the Association Agreement on March 21st, 2014, and adopted trade arraignments that will allow Ukrainian exports access to EU markets. This Agreement is supposed to be finalized shortly after the elections on May 25th, 2014.

Energy security.

The EU recognizes its dependence on Russian oil, but claims that Russia is also dependent on the EU economically. The European Commission is currently conducting a study on EU energy, aiming to reduce dependence on Russia.

The April 17th 2014 Fact Sheet on EU/UK relations highlights some actions taken by the EU in addition to those noted above. The EU has consistently condemned Russian action as violating Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and has commended the measured Ukrainian response. The EU has suspended bilateral talks with Russia on a number of ongoing issues of bilateral interest. It also called on Russia to pull its troops away from the Ukrainian border and condemn criminal actions taking place in Eastern Ukraine. In terms of support and cooperation, the EU has stated its intention to invest 15 billion euros over the next few years and temporarily remove customs duties on Ukrainian exports to the EU. They also will assist authorities with political and economic reforms, provide a EU crisis response team, and allow a more liberalized Visa process for Ukrainians.

Geneva Agreements
The April 17th meeting between the EU, US, Ukraine, and Russia led to a series of agreements with the aim of de-escalation the brewing conflict. These initial steps included a commitment by all sides to avoid “any violence, intimidation or provocative actions.” The agreement calls for the disarmament of all illegal groups, and the return of all illegally seized buildings and public places, with the grant of amnesty to those who abide by these terms. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission was to take the lead in de-escalation, with US, EU, and Russian support. The Agreements also include a commitment to an “inclusive, transparent and accountable” constitutional process. Interestingly, the Agreements do not specifically reference Crimea, the actual process of constitutional change, the upcoming May election, or any mention of Russian demands that the new constitution allow for increased autonomy of individual regions.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, made a public statement in response to the Geneva Agreements. She has emphasized the importance of free and fair elections. She also stressed that the number one priority is de-escalation, and that the OSCE monitoring mission will be valuable in this regard. Ashton confirmed the EU’s commitment to the “unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” as well as to a stable Ukrainian economy.

Ongoing and Uncertain Escalation

Recent violence in Eastern Ukraine between security forces and armed rebels in Slavyansk undermine the effectiveness of the Geneva Agreements. Ukrainian forces continue to claim their actions are in response to killings and occupation of public buildings by rebels. Russia has condemned attacks and deaths waring that there would be “consequences.” Russia also initiated military drills on the Ukrainian border in response. The US has blamed Russia for not abiding by the Geneva Agreements in escalating tensions through military posturing. In recent days, the Ukraine has taken more decisive military action to  dislodge pro-Russian rebels from several towns in the Donetsk region.  Catherine Ashton’s spokesperson, Michael Mann, stated that while the EU continues to urge all parties to de-escalate, it recognizes Ukraine’s right to take lawful actions to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Ashton also issued a statement in response to the incidents in Eastern Ukraine, particularly the “reported kidnappings, torture and killings, including the cases of Volodymyr Rybak and Pavel Kovelko,” describing them as “a cause of grave concern.” She called for an “independent and transparent investigation” in order to “bring the perpetrators to justice,” and urged all sides to put pressure on illegal armed groups to cease the escalation of violence.

Conclusion

Some European policy makers have criticized EU and US responses as being weak and shortsighted.  The concern with enacting stronger sanctions, or attempting to isolate Russia further, reverts back to the EU’s current dependence on Russian resources. This cogent reality poses challenges for any stronger actions taken by the EU; despite the fact that positive results from EU action taken thus far appear tenuous at best. The current strategy appears to consist of averting immediate conflict, awaiting the elections in May, increasing pressure on Russia through support of Ukraine’s governance and economic stability, and continued multilateral diplomacy. 

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About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).