The military build-up of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border, combined with the escalation of threats and subversive actions aimed at Ukraine, have dominated the international news and diplomacy in recent weeks. They have led to a flurry of activities at all levels and in all fora: the G7, NATO, the OSCE as well as bilaterally. Logically, it was also at the heart of EU foreign policy this week, first on Monday when EU Foreign Ministers met; at the European Parliament debates on Tuesday, at the Eastern Partnership Summit on Wednesday and at the European Council on Thursday.
At the same time, we still have had to deal with the fallout of the Belarus crisis. Thanks to nimble EU diplomacy, the flow of irregular migrants, brought in under false pretensions to then be pushed to the border, has now receded. But even if many have been repatriated to their country of origin (for example, more than 4,000 have flown back to Iraq), many thousands remain stuck in Belarus, in need of humanitarian help. Meanwhile, the domestic repression inside Belarus continues unabated.
Both crises are unfolding against a backdrop of high tensions with Russia, and in a context of extraordinarily high energy prices: gas prices have risen by around 40% just in December and around 300% since this summer. Any discussion on Russia/Ukraine/Belarus includes the energy dimension, given that 40% of EU gas imports come from Russia, principally through three transit routes: Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic Sea.
Russia has used energy as a tool for political influence (see for instance in Moldova), and while it is strictly speaking fulfilling its commitments on gas supplies, many see its current refusal to increase export volumes to Europe or to re-fill Gazprom-owned storage facilities as a means to exert pressure on the EU and specifically to secure the regulatory licensing of Nord Stream 2. This project, which the European Commission does not consider as priority and which in any case will have to fulfil European regulations requirements, continues to be an issue for discussion, also demonstrating that solidarity is a two-ways street. No one can increase their own security without taking into account the security of the whole Union, which should be a basic principle to make the EU stronger and counter attempts to divide us.
All these developments came together at the Foreign Affairs Council, the European Parliament debates and at the European Council summit.
So, what was discussed and where does it leave us?
On Ukraine, everyone agreed that it is a moment to be firm and united and to deter possible further Russian moves. We have to uphold the core principles on which European security is built, and which are also enshrined in the Paris Charter of 1990 and the CSCE/OSCE Helsinki Final Act – all signed by Russia: the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states; the inviolability of internationally recognised borders; the freedom of countries to decide their foreign policy and security arrangements. The European Council agreed on sending a strong message to the Russian leadership that any action against Ukraine and those principles, by military or hybrid means, would have serious consequences.
Russia’s ultimate intentions are not clear, except that it seeks to threaten and weaken Ukraine. Different scenarios can unfold. As I said in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, we have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We cannot exclude Russia’s desire to use this crisis as leverage for its declared purpose to reshape the security framework in Europe, also excluding the Europeans from the discussions. But we know that our American allies will not fall into this trap.
We know that words and statements alone are not enough to change the calculus of the Russian leadership and that is why it is so important that EU leaders decided to roll over existing economic sanctions and warned that any Russian move against Ukraine would carry heavy consequences. This has been underlined by both the President of the Council and the President of the Commission. And this is an important tasking for me as HR/VP, because, according to the Treaty, decisions on the adoption, renewal, or lifting of sanctions regimes are taken by the Council (i.e. member states), on the basis of proposals from the High Representative. Subsequently, the European Commission has an essential role to give effect to these sanctions and in overseeing the implementation by member states.
It is also important to remember that the EU has been working with Ukraine for years, including for instance through the EU Advisory Mission on civilian security sector reform within the framework of our Common Defence and Security Policy. Recently we have added a €31 million support package to the Ukrainian army under the European Peace Facility, for the provision of military medical and cyber defence support.
Diplomacy works best if done in partnership with others, which is why we have been in constant and close contact with the US and other like-minded partners, including G7 Foreign Ministers, passing a united message of support for Ukraine and to deter further Russian actions.
Many EU leaders underlined the need to continue this coordination and support diplomatic efforts.
I also stressed that the EU must of course be at the table of any discussion on the European security architecture. Russia's Foreign Ministry this Friday released a draft proposal on security guarantees between Russia and the US as well as to European members of NATO. It is clear that the EU must be an integral part of such discussions. The Helsinki Final Act and the Paris Charter have offered us key principles around which to build European security for the past 50 years. The OSCE, in particular, offers mechanisms and rules, which remain cornerstones of any engagement with Russia.
On Belarus, the acute phase of the crisis at the border with the EU is receding. However, the dispute with Belarus is not limited to its blatant manipulative use of migrants. Far from it. At the root lies the brutally repressive and illegitimate nature of the Lukashenko regime, where more than 900 political prisoners languish in jail. On Tuesday, the regime convicted the husband of Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, the leader of the opposition in exile, to an absurd 18 years sentence.
On 12 December, together with President of the European Council Charles Michel, I hosted a meeting with representatives of democratic Belarus – civil society and NGO activists, human rights defenders, bloggers and members of political opposition. I was impressed by their stories and resolve. They asked the EU to keep supporting a democratic change and maintain the pressure on the regime. As EU, we have recently passed a 5th round of sanctions that targets those involved with the organisation of the cynical trafficking of migrants but also those behind the constant repression, the so-called Lukashenka ‘wallets’. The regime will continue to have the support of other like-minded regimes, like Venezuela’s Maduro. Both illegitimate regimes have signed new agreements of cooperation and back each other.
The regional tensions and the destabilising actions by Russia were also central to the Eastern Partnership Summit that took place on Wednesday, just prior to the European Council. We met with the leaders of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan – with a chair left empty for Belarus as a sad symbol. The Summit was structured around the tryptic of ‘recovery, resilience and reform’, with the EU offering a regional Economic and Investment Plan of €2.3 billion that could leverage up to €17 billion in investments.
We of course know that the positions and level of ambition to get closer to the EU – and what we stand for – varies among the Eastern Partnership countries and that some level of differentiation is needed, all while keeping the overall inclusivity of the group.
At the Summit, we agreed to step up vaccine sharing; to strengthen the rule of law; and to deepen our cooperation on security (see, for example, the recent support measures under the European Peace Facility for Georgia, Moldova as well as Ukraine). We also signed a new financing agreement for €60 million to assist Moldova to cope with the impact of the gas crisis.
The discussion, which was more open than the diplomatic formalities that often dominate this type of meetings, confirmed that our Eastern partners have a strong demand for more cooperation and integration with the EU, and the EU is prepared to respond to this demand in a way that reaffirms its role as a significant geopolitical actor in the region.
It was also striking that for the first time the Prime Minister of Armenia and the President of Azerbaijan, two countries that have been in open, military conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, exchanged constructive comments at the Eastern Partnership summit, instead of open confrontation. This was possible thanks to mediation efforts facilitated by President Michel, who had hosted an intense and fruitful meeting with both leaders the evening before. I welcome the outcome of that meeting, and the readiness of both sides to engage in concrete projects and ideas that could pave the way to reconciliation. This meeting highlighted the EU’s commitment to work closely with Armenia and Azerbaijan in overcoming conflict, creating cooperation and an atmosphere of trust, to build sustainable peace in the region, and the EU’s readiness to play a stronger role in the conflict resolution efforts in the South Caucasus.
The second big external relations item at this European Council was the Strategic Compass, which I presented to member states last month. The first line I used in the foreword is significant: ‘Europe is in danger’. The Ukraine and Belarus crises are clear illustrations, if any were needed, of the kind of threats that Europe is facing: hybrid tactics, power politics, intimidation and disinformation. At stake are the fate of individual countries and societies, but also the wider principles underpinning the European security order.
These developments demonstrate the urgent need for the EU to enhance its capacity and means to act in the security domain. Our member states need to have stronger and more interoperable defence capabilities. This will also contribute to NATO’s efforts in protecting our Eastern borders and enhance our collective deployment and projection capacity.
I briefed leaders on the state of play on the Strategic Compass and underscored the need to be ambitious and result-oriented - and not to lose ourselves in ideological discussions. At heart, the Compass is not only a description of the threats and challenges we face, but really a guide for action. It contains concrete proposals, big and small, with clear targets and timelines to measure progress.
It is worth stating that the proposals in the Compass to establish hybrid response teams, ways to strengthen our ability to counter cyber threats and aggressive disinformation campaigns, and plus the options to boost the resilience and security of our partners with trainings and equipment, have gained extra relevance, in light of recent crises.
When it comes to the Compass, I was pleased that EU leaders agreed on the diagnosis and the sense of urgency. Member states must decide the next steps: they own the assets and take the decisions. They echoed my plea for ambition and actionable results. I will present an updated version of the Strategic Compass in January, at the informal meeting of EU Foreign and Defence Ministers in Brest, in line with the goal to adopt it in March.
The open displays of power politics, in the East, but also elsewhere are a fundamental challenge. We have to remain clear-eyed and firm in our response – and equip ourselves with the means to act.