09/01/2021 – HR/VP Blog – On the very first days of the new year, I visited Ukraine to underline the EU’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at a moment when the country is faced with Russia’s military build-up and when Russia is questioning the basic tenets of Europe’s security. The EU will continue to be involved in any discussions that affect our security and nothing could be decided about us, without us.
My visit to Ukraine came at a particularly important moment, when the conflict at the border of the country is on the verge of getting deeper, in the context of the Russian military build-up. It took place ahead of a series of meetings between Russia, the US and NATO that will discuss Russia’s demands for “security guarantees”. The security situation in Eastern Europe will also be the main topic for the informal meetings with EU Foreign and Defence Ministers next week in Brest, France.
Highlight EU support to the conflict affected population
The mission was my third visit to Ukraine since the beginning of my mandate, but the first time I travelled to the Donbass region, east of Ukraine. It was also the first mission of an HR/VP to the contact line with the non-governmental controlled areas of the country. Together with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, we visited the Stanytsya Luhanska entry-exit checkpoint on the line contact, to highlight the tangible support of the EU to the conflict affected population.
The entry-exit checkpoint facilities and the new associated Administrative Service Centre, opened last November, were both established with the support of the EU. The original bridge in Stanytsya Luhanska was destroyed in March 2015 during the armed conflict. The Ukrainian government opened the new bridge in 2019. It was intentionally build for light traffic only, in order not to accommodate movements of heavy military vehicles. Today, around 70,000 people cross this entry-exit checkpoint monthly. The Administrative Services Centre offers services to the people crossing the checkpoint. Stanytsya Luhanska is the only active checkpoint in the Luhansk region. The de facto authorities in the non-government controlled area have refused until now to open other checkpoints.
“I could eyewitness the consequences of the war in the Donbass region and hear and see how the conflict has dramatically affected the lives of thousands of people, with many destinies destroyed.”
The visit was an opportunity to eyewitness the consequences of the war in the Donbass region. I could hear and see how the conflict has dramatically affected the lives of thousands of people, with many destinies destroyed; families divided living on both sides of the contact line and many obstacles to access basic services and work. However, I was also impressed by the daily work done by the Ukrainian government, the international organisations, and NGOs.
In Stanytsya Luhanska, I was also briefed on the military situation by the Deputy Commander of the Joint Forces Operation. He stressed that there was no abatement in the ceasefire breaches by the Russian backed armed formations. Since last November, Russia has been massing troops and weapons in an unusual manner around Ukraine’s border. This, alongside other subversive actions aimed at Ukraine, is another attempt to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. There can be no doubt that Russia is a party to this conflict, and not a mediator as it often claims.
“Russia is a party to this conflict, and not a mediator as it often claims. Our main interest, concern and purpose is to get Russia to de-escalate tensions.”
Overall, tensions have been building up with respect to the European security. During the press conference that we held on the contact line, I stressed that our main interest, concern and purpose is to get Russia to de-escalate tensions. The full implementation of the Minsk agreement by Russia remains a fundamental condition. We will continue to support diplomatic efforts to revive conflict resolution in the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group (Russia, Ukraine and OSCE) and the Normandy format (Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany). It is equally important that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission can fully undertake its mandate.
Dialogue is a must, but so is deterrence and resolve through a firm support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any further aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs for Russia. We are coordinating our approach closely with transatlantic and other like-minded partners. There is no security in Europe without the security of Ukraine.
“Dialogue is a must but so is deterrence. Any further aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs for Russia.”
Beyond Ukraine, the whole European security architecture is at stake. The Russian leadership, by deliberately excluding any reference to the EU from the “draft treaties” they presented last December, seems to intend to turn the clock backward to the old times of Cold War logics. The Russian proposals reflect indeed the position of Russian authorities aiming to roll back evolutions that took place since 1990 to the detriment of European unity and in breach of the independence and sovereignty of former Soviet states. This type of delimitation of spheres of influence does not belong to 2022.
“The Russian leadership seems to intend to turn the clock backward to the old times of Cold War logics. This type of delimitation of spheres of influence does not belong in 2022: there cannot be a Yalta 2. “
These times have definitely passed and we need to be clear that nothing will be discussed about the security in Europe without the Europeans. We agreed with the US and our partners that such discussions will continue in coordination with, and participation of the EU. In addition, there should be no limits placed on Ukraine’s independence or its right to determine its foreign policy choices. And, of course, any discussion about Ukraine must require Ukraine to be at the table.
Several of the Russian proposals are incompatible with the funding principle of European security, notably the Helsinki Final Act from 1975. The dialogue with Russia at the NATO-Russia Council meeting does not imply any endorsement of Russian proposals but rather offers a platform for diplomatic discussions, in line with our security interests and reiterating the fundamental principles of European security and stability. For example, the proposals regarding the creation of crisis management mechanisms could be useful.
“The OSCE should also be a privileged place for discussion on European security: it was created precisely to deal with situations like the one we are facing and is a well-suited institution to start a meaningful dialogue.”
In addition to the NATO-Russia discussions, the OSCE is a privileged place for discussing European security: it was created precisely to deal with situations like the one we are facing and is a well-suited institution to start a meaningful dialogue. Discussions on European security should take place on the precondition of constructive engagement by Russia to address regional security issues in the relevant existing formats.
“Enhancing Ukraine’s internal resilience increases Ukraine’s capacity to resist external challenges. Strengthening anti-corruption efforts, pursuing judicial reforms and building stronger democratic institutions are the best way to face Russian pressure.”
Continuing my mission with visiting Kyiv, I also met Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. He highly valued the EU’s proactive stance and support provided. Our discussion focused on enhancing Ukraine’s internal resilience as a way to also strengthen Ukraine’s capacity to resist external challenges. These are two sides of the same coin. Sticking to the reform agenda must remain a priority, starting with a comprehensive reform of the judiciary, the “mother of all reforms”. I encouraged the Prime Minister to also further pursue important reforms relating to the Constitutional Court, security services and corporate governance of state-owned enterprises and I assured him of the continued EU support on this. Strengthening anti-corruption efforts and building stronger democratic institutions are an important element to face Russian pressure.
Since the beginning of the conflict in 2014 and the illegal annexation of Crimea, the EU has indeed been the most reliable partner of Ukraine: we have mobilised €17 billion to help the country and our Association agreement is simply the most comprehensive one we have with any country in the world. Recently, we adopted an additional €31 million in support of the Ukrainian armed forces. The European Union Advisory Mission (EUAM(link is external)) has also been operating on the ground since 2014 to help reforming the Ukrainian civilian security sector. In addition, our support for countering disinformation continues and the EU-Ukraine cyber dialogue is now running. With €200 million, the EU has also put forward a strong support to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest assistance package for any of our Eastern partners. On top of this, we have provided an emergency support of €1.2 billion to help Ukraine cover its urgent financing needs.
Ukraine can be sure that we will continue supporting the country politically, diplomatically and economically.