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“We can’t lose Ukraine” – Baroness Ashton

August 28, 2013

Hmmm.

I think I have read almost every press release, seen almost every video/YouTube clip, watched almost every live EU EEAS podcast made by Baroness Ashton – not because I am a stalker, but a policy wonk, and therefore EU foreign policy matters to me, particularly when it involves the EaP nations.

The statement attributed to her by the Estonian Government’s website at a recent meeting in Estonia that “We can’t lose Ukraine” seems therefore very unlike something Baroness Ashton would say – on the record at least.

Off the record she may very well state such thoughts so bluntly.  Having never had an off the record conversation with her, I wouldn’t know just how great a difference there is between her public statements and private conversations.

What I can say, after hundreds of conversations with diplomats and politicians both on and off the record over the years, is that what is said publicly is often far more careful and polished than what is said privately – as we would expect.  The whole point of an off the record conversation is that it allows those having it to be blunt – without public repercussions.

I am therefore left to wonder whether this statement was made in the expectation of privacy – later to be unexpectedly be made public – or whether it is paraphrasing to a sound-byte by an Estonian press officer, or whether recent Russian actions toward Ukraine have finally focused the minds of those at the very top of the EEAS and European Commission respectively, to the point where more robust and definitive language and thinking now prevails.

The chances of a governmental press officer inaccurately reporting such a statement are slim given the gravity of the statement.

Ergo, I am left with the options of a comment made in the expectation of privacy, and/or a distinct (deliberately public) – albeit indirectly attributed – hardening of attitude towards Russia.

If the EaP project is to survive – and it won’t without Ukraine as the most significant nation by far – then whatever happens to Ukraine at the hands of Russia is a clear signal to the other capitals of the EaP nations.  It follows therefore, that any EU response with regard to pressure placed upon Ukraine will be watched carefully by those much smaller EaP nations.

In this regard, “We can’t lose Ukraine”, whether actually said by Baroness Ashton or not, is quite true.

A proportionate but robust EU response will be expected in order to provide what may well be much needed fortitude in some EaP capitals as they attempt to stand their ground when various Russian sticks are used to soundly rap the knuckles of those who would dare to pick up a pen and sign agreements taking them into the EU orbit and out of that of Russia.

Ukraine therefore sets the precedent not only for what, where , when and how Russian coercion takes place – but also,  and perhaps more importantly, the response and support EaP capitals can expect from the EU when such actions undoubtedly occur.

That is not to say Russia will exactly mirror the coercion model used on Ukraine on the other EaP nations, as there nuanced differences to the sticks that can be used for each EaP nation – additional levers of Transnestria in Moldova, or Ossetia in Georgia etc, to add to the Russian armoury for example – But economic, social and political “sanctions” and “agitation” are equally available to be employed in any EaP nation as they are – and will be – in Ukraine, before, during and after any Association Agreement progression.

As such, any form of success between Ukraine and the EU will harden attitudes in Tbilisi, Yerevan and Chisinau to follow the EaP path.

Naturally, there will be those in numerous Scandinavian, Baltic and ex-Warsaw Pact nations – particularly in Warsaw I strongly suspect – who will be prodding the European Commission and EEAS, stating, “We told you this would happen so you had better be prepared to make a show of things and openly show your displeasure with Russia – for a change – for if you fail to do so, not only will you lose Ukraine, but the entire EaP project with it.”

Unfortunately, I am not sure whether the statement attributed to Baroness Ashton – if accurate – was meant to be made public or not.  I cannot find an EU or EEAS statement confirming the Estonian governmental website account.  Knowing the accuracy and whether it was meant to be a public or private comment would take us past the “what was said” to “what was really said” by way of EU intent and robustness toward Russian meddling now and in the future.

 

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