The EU’s chief fear is no longer that it will be squeezed onto the diplomatic sidelines by the U.S. and China — because it is now more afraid of being squeezed out by the U.S and Russia.
Washington is leading talks on defusing tensions with Moscow after Russia moved about 100,000 troops to its border with Ukraine and says it wants legally-binding guarantees from the NATO military alliance about its weapons deployment and its eastern expansion.
At a press conference Wednesday as part of a two-day trip to Ukraine, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said “we are no longer in the Yalta times” — a reference to the city in Crimea where the U.S, Russia and Britain held a key summit to determine their spheres of influence after the end of World War II.
“The delimitation of the sphere of influence of the two big powers does not belong to 2021/2022,” Borrell said speaking alongside Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister of Ukraine, which would like to join both NATO and the EU.
And while there are a number of meetings on Russia’s threat to Ukraine in the coming days and weeks — including a NATO-Russia Council and talks at the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a body that involves the U.S as well as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and EU member states — the bloc wants to be sure to be fully involved in a discussion that is primarily about its security.
The EU has, however, often proved a highly inconsistent player on Russia and reticent about putting economic pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized Crimea, EU states were divided over whether to roll out economic sanctions. Poland and Baltic countries called for a tough line, but expressed frustration over the soft stance on Moscow from the EU foreign service and western member countries.
Kuleba used the press conference with Borrell to reiterate that “Russia doesn’t have the right to decide” on Ukraine’s future.
Borrell had already said that the EU wants to be fully involved in any dialogue over the security architecture in Europe. But the visit to Ukraine (during which he went to the eastern border where Russian-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian government forces) was an occasion to hammer home the point.
Next week “we are going to have the Gymnich meeting — the meeting of the foreign affairs and defense ministers of Europe — where we are going to discuss the way we are going to have our say on these talks, through coordination with the U.S and talking with the Russians,” he added. “Like it or not, they will have to talk with us, be sure of that.”
Borrell stressed that “I haven’t expressed dissatisfaction in respect of these talks, if Russia wants to talk certainly it has to be organized … but in this dialogue there are not two actors alone, not just [the] U.S and Russia. If we want to talk about security in Europe, Europeans must be part of the table.”
He added that “there is no security in Europe without the security of Ukraine. It is clear that any discussion on European security must include the European Union and Ukraine.”
Yet that might not be easy.
Diplomats say that Russia has always preferred to talk to EU member states bilaterally instead of through the EU. A year ago, when Borrell tried to set up a direct dialogue with Moscow he ended up humiliated by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, during a joint press conference and faced calls that he resign or be removed from the role — questions that some diplomats privately repeat even now.
Borrell didn’t specify in which form the EU should be at the table but said that it can happen at a later stage since talks are likely to last a long time.
“If Russia is really willing to talk about the security in Europe then the Europeans have to be part of it, not the first day but it is not going to last just one day or one week,” said Borrell.
He also stressed that the new talks are different from those that Washington and Moscow held in June last year. And he pointed out that Moscow had replaced Beijing as the number one concern.
“Allow me to remind you that last summer during President [of the United States, Joe] Biden’s first trip to Europe, the primary cause of concern was China” he said. “And when President Biden and President [of Russia, Vladimir] Putin met in Geneva, it was assumed that the U.S. and Russia were in a process of building lines of communication. And we, the Europeans, were mainly listening to these contacts between Russia and the U.S. But now, everything is different” — since this time it is European security that is at stake.