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Rasa Juknevičienė: War or another manoeuvre? What threatens Ukraine?

What does the increase in Russian troops on the Ukrainian border indicate? What will war look like if it happens? What is behind the Polish border crisis and how ready is the West to help Ukraine? Can the EU support Ukraine in the face of an escalating energy crisis? The “Brussels Ukraine Review” journal asked these very difficult questions MEPs, politicians of Ukraine and Belarus, as well as Western and Ukrainian experts.

Rasa Juknevičienė, Lithuanian Mep (European People’s Party Group), Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Security and Defense, Minister of Defense of Lithuania in 2008-2012

I take this situation very seriously. Of course, nobody knows what Putin is thinking. But for me it is hard to believe that he could commit such insanity as to start another full-blown war in Ukraine.

While we do not know how the current tensions will end, we do know that Russia has used military build-up as a tool to exert pressure on Ukraine and on Europe in the past. And it is likely that Russia will try to use the build-up and the fear as a bargaining chip to advance its geopolitical and economic interests again.

Based on Russia’s disinformation channels, the Kremlin’s main purpose is to make sure that Ukraine is not invited to join NATO. This is their biggest fear. Putin is frantically trying to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit because he understands that there will be no Kremlin empire without Ukraine. But to think that the Ukrainians can be “brought back” under Russia’s rule by force – that is Putin’s biggest mistake.

Seeing a strong, pro-Western orientation in Ukraine, Putin feels he needs more leverage to prevent us from even considering Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine as a real option. Now is a convenient time to create such leverage: the world is full of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, growing prices, high inflation, economic instability… Russia’s actions aim to actively contribute to the existing tension, to instil a sense of fear and uncertainty. It is not just the military build-up that is used. Today, we heard the news about increased shelling across the front line in Donbas. In the last months, we have been under Lukashenka’s hybrid attack on the Lithuania-Poland border.

All of those actions are aimed at increasing pressure on the EU, NATO and Ukraine. And we have to take them seriously. As the EU, we have to remain united in our position in order not to give into such blackmail. We must be proactive and enhance our cooperation with our partners in Ukraine. One of the concrete things we can do is prepare our homework and be ready to offer tangible tools of support at the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit this December.

I cannot speak on behalf of all of the EU or NATO, but the European Parliament has expressed a very clear stance on Russia’s aggression and interference. We have no illusions about the intentions of Putin’s regime. This can also be seen in the most recent report on the direction of EU-Russia political relations adopted with overwhelming support across different political groups in September this year.

The EU has also taken preventative steps by strengthening the sanctions against Russia’s elites associated with the Kremlin and by offering deeper support to the democratic opposition in Russia. The recent decision to award Navalny the Sakharov prize is a case in point.

In addition to concrete steps taken to prevent aggressive action from Russia, the EU continues to provide support to Ukraine in providing capacity building assistance, enhancing economic cooperation, establishing information exchange mechanisms, learning from each other to counter Russia’s disinformation, etc.

Even more support has come from national governments. One of the most significant examples is the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership agreement that was signed this September. It is an impressive agreement encompassing broad measures of support across all key sectors, from security and defence, to democracy and human rights reforms, to economic development. National support is evident within the EU as well. For instance, Lithuania has consistently advocated for Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, has been providing military support and institutional assistance to implement needed reforms, etc.

Finally, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met recently in a joint visit to Lithuania. It was the first such meeting ever. Choosing to hold it in Lithuania is a strong signal in itself, showing that both the EU and NATO take the situation in the region very seriously. At the same time, holding a joint meeting in Lithuania demonstrated that the EU and NATO stand firmly together in light of security challenges coming from Russia. The NATO Secretary General explicitly commented on the situation at the Russia-Ukraine border, reiterating NATO support for Ukraine.

If we look at the European Parliament, a clear position has already been defined. This can be seen from the overwhelming support for the report on the direction of EU-Russia relations. The statement by Boris Johnson comes at the right time with a clear call to action, which can be further advanced within the existing EU-UK cooperation frameworks.

Annexation of Crimea and the start of a war in Donbas are fundamental breaches of international law. Looking at the EU’s reaction, it is crucial that we did not give up. We must maintain the policy of non-recognition when it comes to Crimea, regardless of how long the annexation lasts.

One of the things we learned from Russia’s aggression in Crimea and Donbas is that you cannot negotiate with autocrats. The only language they understand is power. Europe should not have illusions that another round of discussions would improve the situation.

Instead, we need to be more geopolitical, in all senses of the word. It is time the EU assumed geopolitical responsibility and demonstrated leadership in its Eastern neighbourhood. While it is crucial to further advance existing support and cooperation frameworks, real EU leadership in the region is impossible without a strong and clear call for integration. This is the only new meaningful addition that we could bring into the EU’s toolbox.

I understand that full Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine might still take some time. But we must not be afraid. The West has given into fear in the past, but it is only Putin who benefits from it. He exploits intimidation tactics knowing that fear is a powerful weapon.

We should be brave and offer a clear path of EU integration for Ukraine. The European integration of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia  – the so-called EU Associated Trio – is the only way to ensure democratic development, prosperity and long-term stability of those countries. There is no other viable alternative to the benefits EU integration can bring. Moreover, their success on the path of European integration is something that can also positively affect the Russian people’s will that their country would also turn towards more open and more democratic development.

There are growing discussions of truly novel mechanisms for gradual integration, such as the so-called Prodi’s formula: Everything but the institutions. This is something we need to advocate for now, not just for the sake of Ukraine, but for our own security as well. The less room we leave for the malign influence of dictatorships around our borders, the safer we will be within the EU as well [1].

As for the energy crisis, currently, not all EU member states recognise the full extent of energy insecurity that comes from our dependence on Russia. Nord Stream 2 (NSII) is a perfect example of that. But the pipeline still needs to be certified, which means that we still have a choice. The EU has certain tools at its disposal; it is the obligation of Member States to ensure that energy projects fully comply with EU law. This applies also to the NSII. The certification of NSII by German institutions is now suspended, but even once completed it will have to be double checked by the European Commission. Also, the European Commission can launch an investigation into Gazprom’s actions of manipulating the EU energy market, which MEPs have urged the Commission to do.

But in order to take effective action, we must fully understand that launching Nord Stream 2 will not increase our energy security. To the contrary: increased dependency will put us at risk of continued dirty blackmailing from Russia. Ongoing price manipulation that has led to the surge of energy prices across Europe illustrates this well. It has been a wake-up call to many: our allies start realising that Russia is not a reliable partner in securing our energy needs.

In this context, statements like that of Boris Johnson are very welcome. He is right. We cannot have both meaningful support for stability and democracy in our neighbourhood and business as usual with Russia, especially in critically important sectors like energy.

This is true for Europe as well as for Ukraine. Ukraine needs to diversify its energy supply and reduce dependence on Russian gas transit as much as possible. Dependence on Russia is a vulnerability that none of us can afford, particularly in light of increasing attempts to threaten us through hybrid attacks, military build-up, political interference, etc.

All I can hope for is that this energy crisis will be a wake-up call for all of Europe to reassert its geopolitical responsibility and leadership.


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