NOVEMBER 22, 2010, WAS an inauspicious day to hold a summit in Brussels between the European Union and Ukraine. Officials were still straggling back from Lisbon after the previous weekend's NATO and EU summits, and they were dreading the looming financial crisis in Ireland and the possibility of conflict in Korea.
Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych showed up for the event, accompanied by a small delegation of ministers. The twin European Union presidents, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso and Herman Achille Van Rompuy, were there too, as were Catherine Ashton, the new head of the unfortunately named External Action Service, and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule. Only eight or at most ten officials had the energy to actually reach the summit. And yet by Monday evening, the European Union had taken the first real step in a new policy towards its eastern neighbors. As a part of the obscure Eastern Partnership, the EU agreed to give Ukraine an action plan for visa liberalization, a promise to accelerate comprehensive free trade talks, and a renewed commitment to invest billions of euros in the gas transit system of Ukraine.
To put these technical agreements in perspective, one must think back to the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008 when NATO'S modest Membership Action Plan was vehemently denied to both Ukraine and Georgia. At the Bucharest meeting, NATO and to a considerable extent the United States abdicated responsibility for the engagement and integration in Europe of the new democracies in Europe's east. A few months later, in August 2008, war between Russia and Georgia underlined the obvious point: NATO and the United States had no policy or even good ideas about how post-Soviet democracies would overcome their pasts and go about drawing closer to Europe.
Moscow, on the other hand, had lots of ideas. Immediately after his election as President of Ukraine in February 2010, Victor Yanukovych was visited repeatedly by Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. These visits resulted in, to name but a few of the immediate Russia-Ukrainian bilateral agreements, deals on gas prices, nuclear power, military transport, and an extended lease on Russia's Crimean naval base. Weeks after the Russian-Ukrainian agreements had been signed in Kharkiv, Washington finally dispatched an assistant secretary to Ukraine to suggest that America could help with energy exploration or, perhaps, election reform. By June 2010, otherwise sensible think tanks in Washington and Brussels were seriously debating whether Ukraine might have departed the Euro-Atlantic world entirely and returned to some trade association of Slavic tribes on the Russian steppe.
And this is what makes the November 22nd meeting so remarkable: A roomful of unelected officials unexpectedly launched a policy aimed at the comprehensive engagement of Europe's east. With a single communique, a handful of European bureaucrats in Brussels brought Kiev into a closer association with European institutions than it has had in hundreds of years, if ever.
What is the EU up to in Europe's east?
TO ANSWER THIS question, we must look at how Europe's east and relations between Europe and Russia have been changing in the past twenty years and how incremental change has now produced a different political structure which, in turn, necessitates new policy in Brussels. Since 1989, the relatively stable geopolitical competition in and for Eastern Europe which lasted for most of the 20th century has given way to a more ambiguous geoeconomic problem. The traditional instruments of Western power--NATO first and foremost, but also OSCE, the UN, and the Minsk Group process--have proven to have little or no influence in the post-Soviet countries nearest to classical Europe in the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. (1)
In a nutshell, those soft powers in which the European Union has long and annoyingly claimed a comparative advantage (if not a complete monopoly) appear to have finally supplanted the harder power of the United States, which protected Western Europe from 1945 to 1989. …