There is widespread fear of an escalation of the current Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict into a large and prolonged inter-state war in Europe. This could lead West European governments to agree to Putin’s key demand of reneging on NATO’s future inclusion pledge for Ukraine and Georgia. Should this happen, the West needs to compensate the two countries for the de facto broken 2008 Bucharest NATO summit promise. Ukraine and Georgia as well as Moldova can be provided with official EU membership perspectives and an assurance that Brussels will start accession negotiations once the three republics’ Association Agreements have been implemented.
In his yearly large press conference on 23 December 2021, Vladimir Putin has raised the stakes of Russia’s current confrontation with the West. In barely coded language, the Russian President has announced that Moscow will increase its military posture in Europe, and extend its current covert military invasion of Ukraine: “We must think about the prospects of our own security. We have to keep an eye on what is happening in Ukraine, and on when they might attack.” Putin is threatening Europe with a major war in its east, if Moscow’s demand for “security guarantees” from the West is not met.
This request is as ridiculous as Russia’s alleged worries about a Ukrainian offensive. Russia controls the world’s largest territory, is one of the two supreme nuclear-weapons states, and has one of the three biggest conventional armies. It is thus one of the militarily most secure countries in the world. The Kremlin recently extended Russia’s territory and has the capacity to erase the whole of humanity several times. Yet, Putin and his assistants represent Russia as a beleaguered underdog in fear of deadly assault from outside.
Russian government officials and propaganda outlets are, on a daily basis, hammering into national and world public opinion the message that the Russian state is under an existential threat. Allegedly, NATO’s current cooperation programs and possible further enlargement in Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus are posing fundamental risks to the future of the Russian nation. They are nothing less than “a matter of life and death for us,” in the words of the Kremlin’s official spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
To be sure, few people outside Russia are buying into the Kremlin’s paranoid narratives. It is not the tale about NATO, however, but its deep resentment that the Russian leadership is communicating. Putin is purposefully signaling that he may be losing his mind, could snap, and might press the button if provoked. In 2018, the Russian president said: “An aggressor should know that vengeance is inevitable, that he will be annihilated, and we would be the victims of the aggression. We will go to heaven as martyrs, and they will just drop dead.”
Having had to deal with Russian imperialism for centuries, most East Europeans will see through the calculation behind the Kremlin’s warmongering. The US and UK too may not be impressed by Putin’s arguments. They might instead note the risks emanating from Russia’s continued undermining of the worldwide regime to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Russia is an official nuclear-weapons state, legal successor of the USSR, and, as such, together with the US and UK, a founder of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Despite far-reaching obligations emerging from this status, Moscow has, since 2014, put the purpose of the NPT on its head. Rather than providing security for non-nuclear weapons states, such as Ukraine, the NPT’s provisions have been transmuted into an advantage of an official nuclear-weapons state. The NPT guarantor Russia has increased its territory at the expense of a country forbidden to acquire atomic arms, under this ratified treaty. Moreover, Ukraine had, in the early 1990s, the world’s third larges nuclear warheads arsenal, but chose to give it not only partially, but fully up, in exchange for US, UK, and Russian security assurances, in the now infamous 1994 Budapest Memorandum, attached to the NPT.
The fundamental incoherence and blatant contradictions in Russia’s current stand may not impede its psychological effectiveness in Western Europe, however. Among continental European political and intellectual elites, geopolitical naivety about the functioning of international affairs and simplistic pacifism oblivious of the reasons for war and peace are widespread. It is thus likely that various West European publics, above all the German, will eventually succumb to Russia’s shrill demands.
The German Predisposition
Germany is neither a nuclear-weapons state, nor a member of the UN Security Council, nor a signatory of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the NPT, nor an exporter of any weapons to Ukraine. The German government has thus little contributed in the past and little to offer in the future to increase Ukrainian hard security. Instead, Berlin has, during NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008, prevented the start of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s accession to the North-Atlantic alliance.
The opening of the first Russian-German Nord Stream pipeline in 2011-2012 lowered Russian dependence on Ukraine’s gas transportation system. Nord Stream as well as Turk Stream, a new pipeline through the Black Sea that started operation in 2020, have deprived Kyiv of one of its key instruments of leverage vis-à-vis Moscow. The Nord Stream-2 pipeline scheduled to become operational in 2022-2023 would end any Russian future need for Ukrainian gas transportation capacity and fully free Putin’s hands regarding the recalcitrant “brother nation.”
Despite its ambivalent role in Eastern Europe, Germany has taken in the past and may also in the future assume a lead in the EU’s relations with Russia. Traditionally conciliatory German and other continental West European approaches to Russian imperialism could thus again trump more consistent and principled Western approaches towards Moscow. We might soon see a replay of the scandalous Germany- and France-promoted re-admission of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). This controversial 2019 decision was an embarrassing reversal of the initial position that PACE had taken after the start of Russia’s military attack on Ukraine. The Russian PACE delegation had been banned from the Assembly in 2014, and none of the conditions for Russia’s readmission had been met five years later. Yet the delegation again became a full part of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in summer 2019.
A similarly awkward West European backtracking could now be in the wings concerning the April 2008 NATO Bucharest summit declaration, in which the North-Atlantic alliance had announced that Ukraine and Georgia “will become” its members. NATO’s enlargement decisions are taken by full consensus meaning that each member country has the possibility to veto the accession of a new state to the alliance. Against the background of their 2019 behavior in the Council of Europe, it is possible that countries like Germany and France will, regarding NATO’s position toward Kyiv and Tbilisi, show now inconsistency similar to that about Russia’s membership in PACE.
Berlin, Paris, Rome, or/and other West European capitals may start sending public signals that Ukraine’s and Georgia’s future accession to NATO is conditional upon Russia’s agreement, or that the Alliance’s 2008 promise to them was not meant seriously, or even that the crucial message of the Bucharest declaration is null and void. Such a signal would cause disappointment throughout Eastern Europe and constitute a blow to the credibility of NATO. Still, such a course of events seems entirely plausible in view of Putin’s manifest determination to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit, and against the backdrop of earlier West European dovishness vis-à-vis the Kremlin.
The EU as an Alternative to NATO
If it indeed comes to a new self-denigration of the West and its fundamental values, it would be important that Western Europe does, at least, some reputation repair in Europe’s East. Regarding an im- or even explicit reversal of the North-Atlantic alliance’s 2008 entry promise to Ukraine and Georgia, various forms of bi- or multilateral damage control could be imagined. One can consist of a replacement of a serious NATO accession prospect with an official and written EU membership perspective for Ukraine and Georgia. The offer could be extended to Moldova which is also part of these three countries’ so-called Association Trio within the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, and has, like the other two, undesired Russian troops on its territory. An explicit EU membership perspective could especially smoothen Ukraine’s already third betrayal by the West, in the form of the devaluation of the 1994 NPT founders’ Budapest Memorandum, 2008 NATO members’ Bucharest Declaration, and 2014 demonstrative exclusion of Russia from PACE.
The announcement of an official EU membership perspective for Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova would not be a big step, in fact. The three countries already possess fully ratified and especially far-reaching EU Association Agreements (AAs). The complicated multi-year implementation of the three AAs de facto constitutes a veiled preparation of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova for accession to the Union. A principal inconsistency of the three Agreements signed in 2014 has always been their lack of a membership prospect. The exceptional depth of the integration of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, via the AAs, into the EU’s economic and legal space, is in contradiction to the absence of a statement on the eventual aim of the vast approximation program that these three Agreements are meant to bring about.
Moreover, the EU’s unofficial constitution, the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, already states, in its Article 49: “Any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 [respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities] and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union.” There can be no doubt that Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova are European countries. Georgia, for instance, has one of the oldest Christian churches in Europe.
An official announcement that the three associated countries have the opportunity to become full members of the EU would thus be little more than explicating an already promulgated general provision. In substance, it would change little in the Union’s future relations with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Sooner or later, the three countries would have — in case they implement their AAs successfully — received official EU membership perspectives, in any way.
Symbolically, however, an official and written confirmation by Brussels of the EU accession prospect for the Association Trio already today would be important. It will constitute an especially appropriate gesture to Ukraine and Georgia once various West European countries start to soften, subvert, or sneak away from, NATO’s 2008 membership promise. A public commitment by the EU could function not only as a psychological compensation, as well as a demonstrative re-affirmation of Western values and solidarity concerning democracy in Europe.
It could also represent an alternative security-political framework for Ukraine and Georgia, as the EU has recently also become an official defense Union. The 2007 EU Treaty’s new Article 42.7 says: “If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations charter.”
The EU’s mutual aid guarantee is still a weaker security instrument than Washington Treaty’s Article 5 for NATO, to be sure. The EU does not primarily constitute a military alliance and excludes the US as, since 2016, also the UK as nuclear powers. Brussels prefers to use soft rather than hard power in its foreign affairs. Still, the Union’s considerable economic leverage and conventional military strength as well as France’s nuclear capability mean that the EU is, by no means, a mere paper tiger. Against this background, accession of the Association Trio to the EU would lift the three countries out of the geopolitical grey zone they are currently in.
Taking the Wind out of Putin’s Sail
Such a course of events would force Putin into a domestic and international oath of disclosure. The EU is perceived as far less threatening around the world, including in Russia’s population, than NATO (whose alleged aggressiveness is a misperception too). The Union’s enlargement cannot easily be portrayed as an existential military security risk to Russia. This makes the Union’s enlargement less geopolitically significant than NATO’s. It would be more easily justifiable vis-à-vis Russia whose various political and other representatives, before and under Putin, have made numerous and even today make occasionally pro-European statements.
Geopolitical dovishness and fundamentalist pacifism are widespread in Western Europe, including Germany. It is to be expected that the coming months will see a softening, in one way or another, of NATO’s 2008 membership commitment to Ukraine and Georgia. The consistency and coherence of NATO’s and its member states’ public communication have already suffered in the past. While the Bucharest Declaration may remain formally in place, the alliance’s credibility could decline even further in 2022. An EU membership perspective for Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova can save the West’s and especially Western Europe’s face.
Such an announcement would pose a complicated conceptual challenge to the neo-imperialist Russian elite. The Kremlin’s appetite for inclusion of post-Soviet states and especially of Ukraine into Russia’s sphere of influence would, to be sure, remain in place. In fact, an EU membership perspective for Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine may be seen as more threatening to the power holders in the Kremlin than NATO’s accession promise. In view of the high popularity of Europe in Russia, it would suggest to ordinary Russians that the future of post-Soviet states is not predetermined by their common past as parts of the Tsarist and Soviet empires. The Kremlin would thus be as opposed to accession of Ukraine to the EU as to NATO.
Yet, the so-far dominant apology for Russian neo-imperialism — namely, its alleged defensiveness — would become implausible in the case of EU expansion. Conjuring up the image of an allegedly existential security threat to the Russian nation would not easily work regarding a possible new enlargement of the EU to the east. A public offer by Brussels to Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau of the possibility of a future accession of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to the EU would create an ultimately unsolvable ideological conundrum for Moscow. It would revitalize the all-European integration process, bolster the international reputation of such countries as Germany and France, as well as energize domestic reform processes in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.