The war in Ukraine highlights the failures of the EU’s Eastern Partnership

The fallout of Russia’s attack on Ukraine will be massive in the Western Balkans, and Europe and her allies need to prepare for it

Demonstrators attend an anti-war protest march, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Podgorica, Montenegro February 27, 2022. | Photo credit: REUTERS/Stevo Vasiljevi

By Toby Vogel

Toby Vogel is a co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council based in Brussels.

03 Mar 2022

President Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine has upended many certainties in Europe. Germany is sending deadly armour to the Ukrainians, topping up its defence budget, and stopping Nord Stream 2 - each one of these steps near-unthinkable until before this weekend.

Non-NATO members Finland and Sweden, too, are sending weapons, and pro-NATO sentiment in both countries is gaining momentum. Switzerland, a haven for Russian capital and commodities trading, is clamping down on both.

But perhaps the most unexpected effect of the Kremlin’s naked imperialism is the way it has united the Member States of the European Union. This weekend, they adopted the EU’s toughest sanctions regime ever and agreed on direct arms supplies to the Ukrainians. Even Hungary’s government, the most pro-Kremlin in the EU, supported these moves.

The EU took Russian disinformation outlets Sputnik and RT off the air, froze the assets of dozens of oligarchs, and restricted the Kremlin’s ability to trade with the rest of the world. Officials are working around the clock to draft plans to make Europe less dependent on Russian gas. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, addressing the European Parliament on Tuesday, welcomed the “birth of Europe as a geopolitical actor”.

The mood in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I lived for six years after the war, is especially tense."

One region where demand for a more geopolitical EU is growing is the Western Balkans: the six countries of the peninsula that are outside the EU. They feel vulnerable to Russian influence, notably through Russian-aligned Serbia and the Kremlin’s allies among the Bosnian and Montenegrin Serbs. EU members Croatia and Slovenia have also been as open to Russian influence as Hungary.

The mood in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I lived for six years after the war, is especially tense. Many of my friends, who spent three and a half years under Serbian shelling, feel triggered by the images reaching us from Kharkiv and other cities. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, with the backing of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, manufactured a political crisis last summer that gave him a pretext to push for secession; many saw the Kremlin’s hand behind his moves.

In the last few days, there have been indications that Russia is putting pressure on Dodik to declare independence (a step from which he has so far shied away) and on Vučić to recognise it. Even if the rumours turn out to be false, they have further shaken an already shaky population. And so far, the EU’s response has been tepid: instead of confronting Dodik and showing his demands to be unacceptable, Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi - Prime Minister Orbán’s man in Brussels - signalled that they were all negotiable, including the repeal of a genocide denial law. Its imposition by the top international envoy in Sarajevo was the pretext for Dodik’s secessionist moves last summer.

So far, the EU’s response has been tepid: instead of confronting Dodik and showing his demands to be unacceptable, Enlargement Commissioner Várhelyi signalled that they were all negotiable."

Could the EU’s unexpectedly robust and united response to Russia’s attack herald a change in its weak position against Moscow’s clients in the Balkans?

Of course, as was to be expected, the lofty words of EU leaders soon collided with reality. A claim by Borrell on Sunday that the EU would provide fighter jets turned out to be wrong barely a day later, when the three countries supposedly involved denied having any such plans. This was highly embarrassing and distracted from the historic unity achieved by the European Council on Sunday.

Booting Russian outlets off EU airwaves might also turn out to be on shaky legal ground. And a claim by European Parliament President Roberta Metsola that the EU would do “whatever it takes” to assist Ukraine looks naïve at best, given the limited powers of the Parliament and the determination by Member States not to get dragged into the war. (“Whatever it takes” might well be a no-fly zone, for example – which would be an act of war against Russia.)

But all this should not distract from the historic resolve and unity shown by the EU this week. The question is how much of it will carry over into whatever murky situation follows the attack on Ukraine, and whether it extends to other situations in the neighbourhood, above all the Western Balkans.

The EU’s main partner in the region is President Vučić of Serbia, a Putin ally and aspiring autocrat who has tightened the space for meaningful civic action and curtailed the free media during his years in power. Vučić, who is facing an election next month, has been refusing to join the EU’s sanctions regime against the Putin regime while condemning Russia’s invasion and voting in favour of a resolution by the UN General Assembly censoring Russia on Wednesday (2 March). He is evidently trying to balance, to avoid having to take sides – and the EU should make sure to restrict his space for doing so. A brutal, unprovoked attack on a peaceful neighbour is not the moment for fence-sitting.

More broadly, the EU should ask itself why it has sided with Vučić and other local strongmen such as Albania’s Prime Minister Rama for so long – why it has been an agent for the status quo instead of pursuing the transformational potential of the EU accession process.

The question is how much of the EU's resolve will carry over into whatever murky situation follows the attack on Ukraine, and whether it extends to other situations in the neighbourhood, above all the Western Balkans."

Quite aside from such philosophical issues, however, there are a few immediate deliverables the EU should focus on. These are fairly low-hanging fruit. The EU’s external service and the Commission should finally undertake a policy review to assess why its enlargement and neighbourhood policies have failed to catalyse reform in the participating non-EU states. They should reassess how best to project the EU’s influence in the neighbourhood, and ditch the Eastern Partnership in its current form.

The most immediate issue is reinforcing the deterrent in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the day of Russia’s invasion, 24 February, the EU announced that it would almost double its UN-mandated force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, EUFOR, by deploying four reserve companies of around 500 personnel.

EUFOR stuck to its claim, repeated over the years, that “there is currently no threat to the safe and secure environment” in Bosnia, while also claiming that the “deterioration of the security situation internationally has the potential to spread instability to Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

The timing of the announcement suggests that the EU finally gave in to pressure from the US and other NATO allies to get serious about EUFOR, which since 2011 had been below operational capacity, but picked this moment to obscure the real reason behind the reinforcement – the fact that its own assessments thatthere was no threat had been politically motivated and, worse, wrong.

The Russian invasion has fundamentally changed every equation concerning security in Europe. What this requires is a wholesale philosophical recalibration of Western strategy towards the Balkans and the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.

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