KRUK REPORT: Poroshenko’s meetings with EU and Nato leaders deserved more attention

KRUK REPORT: Poroshenko’s meetings with EU and Nato leaders deserved more attention
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.
By Kateryna Kruk in Kyiv July 16, 2018

Ukraine was so preoccupied with the “Slava Ukraini” drama at the World Cup that President Petro Poroshenko's international meetings were left without significant attention. However, they deserved it. The EU-Ukraine summit, Nato summit, and even a meeting with US President Donald Trump before his largely criticised rendezvous with Vladimir Putin are good results for Ukrainian foreign policy. Although without major breakthrough, all these meetings were important milestones in the Ukraine-EU and Ukraine-Nato relations.

The Nato summit and the meetings on its sidelines were important for Poroshenko for several reasons. First of all, unlike the European Union, Nato welcomes Ukrainian membership aspirations and has left the door open for Ukraine. During the press conference with Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, Poroshenko again reaffirmed Ukrainian readiness to reform the army in accordance with Nato standards. This, surely, will not be a short road, but Ukraine has already made some progress in the last few years, especially when it comes to military expenditure, which is currently more than 2.5% of Ukrainian GDP. That’s something Trump would surely like.

Speaking about Trump, his recent remarks about the status of Crimea and readiness to make some concessions to Russia on the eve of his meeting with Putin made Ukrainians extremely nervous. Ever since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 Ukraine continues the international campaign “Crimea is Ukraine” and never misses the opportunity to point out that the annexation was a serious breach of international laws and is not recognised by a majority of states. Having the US president contemplating a change of position regarding Crimea and, what follows, the withdrawal of annexation-related sanctions, would seriously damage the existing status quo about Crimea. And this is something Ukrainians are very much afraid of. That is why the very fact that Poroshenko had a chance to see Trump before his meeting with Putin will possibly cool down Ukrainian worries. As for the result, Poroshenko said that he was “very pleased with the talk”. Moreover, the joint statement of the participants of the summit contained the Crimea issue and repeated the previous position that annexation was illegal and for the first time called Russia an aggressor.

Although still with a light shade of anxiety about Crimea, Ukrainians got the surprisingly strong support of the US against Nord Stream II. The German-Russian pipeline project is one of the major headaches in Ukraine, which might result in a weakening of Ukraine’s position as a transit country and huge financial loss. Trump very strongly criticised Nord Stream II during his meeting with his German counterparts and hinted at the possibility of sanctions against the companies building it. Together with some other Central European countries, Ukraine is among the strong opponents of the project and having the US with them would definitely strengthen their position. However, a deepening of the transatlantic skepticism in Germany is even more probable and possible than stopping Nord Stream II. Trump’s harsh tone and possible sanctions can catalyse this process.

With the EU summit, there’s much less breaking news, rather a continuation of the previously agreed cooperation path. Ukrainians are still waiting for the official reaction of Brussels on the association ambitions of the country. Even in the joint statement following the summit, EU leaders diplomatically avoided reacting to the fact that most of the reforms Ukraine is undertaking are aimed at pushing country closer to European standards: “We recognised the substantial progress made by Ukraine in its reform process, which is essential both to meet the demands of Ukraine's citizens and to strengthen Ukraine's resilience to the external challenges it faces”. The EU “acknowledges and welcomes European aspirations of Ukraine,” it added, but this is the language that hasn’t changed much for the past four years. 

What has indeed changed, is the attention to the security challenges. The summit and joint statement were the first to discuss the question of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. “We called for the immediate release of all illegally detained and imprisoned Ukrainian citizens in the Crimean peninsula and in Russia, including Crimean Tatar activists as well as Oleg Sentsov, Volodymyr Balukh, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Stanislav Klykh, Oleksandr Shumkov and Roman Sushchenko,” wrote the EU leaders. This is a clear milestone in the process of securing the release of Ukrainian political prisoners. As well as a reaction to numerous civic campaigns organised by Ukrainian activists worldwide, it can be a sign of the activities of the Ukrainian leadership in bringing this issue into the light.

One of the very few in-depth analyses of the EU-Ukraine summit was presented by Taras Kachka, a strategic adviser at the Renaissance Foundation and an advisor to the minister of foreign affairs of Ukraine. He called the last summit a “summit of the sectoral cooperation” and argued that there are signs that Ukraine and the EU will pursue a Norwegian model of integration. This means that Ukraine should accept that there will be no clear answer to its European aspirations, at least as long as the EU is going through the process of looking at internal reforms. However, Ukraine can continue benefiting from the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) and integrate more closely with the EU in the chosen sectors. Ukraine has already announced its readiness for sectoral integration a long time ago. The plan is an association with the Schengen zone, and integration with the customs union, energy union, common digital space and airspace.

Poroshenko’s Brussels voyage coincided with the last plenary week of the parliament. MPs went on summer holidays and will return to work only in early September. The last plenary days were accompanied by the already usual protests and demonstrations outside the Rada. Ukraine is entering the electoral period, which will be a fierce fight between Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. His week in Brussels was intensive but rather smooth for Poroshenko. That is a luxury he won’t have back in Kyiv.

An activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kateryna Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Euromaidan revolution to the world. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now comments on the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.