One year ago, negotations over a Ukraine association agreement with the European Union collapsed. The result has been a standoff with Russia and war in the Donbass. It was an historical failure, and one that German Chancellor Angela Merkel contributed to. Photo Gallery: Ukraine’s Road to War
Only six meters separated German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as they sat across from each other in the festively adorned knight’s hall of the former Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. In truth, though, they were worlds apart.
Yanukovych had just spoken. In meandering sentences, he tried to explain why the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius was more useful than it might have appeared at that moment, why it made sense to continue negotiating and how he would remain engaged in efforts towards a common future, just as he had previously been. “We need several billion euros in aid very quickly,” Yanukovych said.
Then the chancellor wanted to have her say. Merkel peered into the circle of the 28 leaders of EU member states who had gathered in Vilnius that evening. What followed was a sentence dripping with disapproval and cool sarcasm aimed directly at the Ukrainian president. “I feel like I’m at a wedding where the groom has suddenly issued new, last minute stipulations.”
The EU and Ukraine had spent years negotiating an association agreement. They had signed letters of intent, obtained agreement from cabinets and parliaments, completed countless diplomatic visits and exchanged objections. But in the end, on the evening of Nov. 28, 2014 in the old palace in Vilnius, it became clear that it had all been a wasted effort. It was an historical earthquake.
Everyone came to realize that efforts to deepen Ukraine’s ties with the EU had failed. But no one at the time was fully aware of the consequences the failure would have: that it would lead to one of the world’s biggest crises since the end of the Cold War; that it would result in the redrawing of European borders; and that it would bring the Continent to the brink of war. It was the moment Europe lost Russia.
For Ukraine, the failure in Vilnius resulted in disaster. Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has strived to orient itself towards the EU while at the same time taking pains to ensure that those actions don’t damage its relations with Moscow. The choice between West and East, which both Brussels and Moscow have forced Kiev to make, has had devastating consequences for the fragile country.
But the impact of that fateful evening in Vilnius goes far beyond Ukraine’s borders. Some 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Europe is once again divided. The estrangement between the Russians and the Europeans is growing with Moscow and the West more inimical toward each other today than during the final phase of the Cold War. It’s a reality that many in Europe have long sought to ignore.
The story of the run-up to Vilnius is one filled with errors in judgment, misunderstandings, failures and blind spots. It is a chronicle of foreign policy failure foretold — on all sides. Russia underestimated the will of Ukrainians to steer their country toward the EU and was overly confident in its use of its political power over Kiev as a leverage.
For its part, the EU had negotiated a nearly 1,000-page treaty, but officials in Brussels hadn’t paid close enough attention to the realities of those power politics. Even in Berlin, officials for too long didn’t take Russian concerns — about the encroachment of NATO and the EU into Eastern Europe — seriously enough. The idea that Moscow might be prepared to use force to prevent a further expansion of the Western sphere of influence didn’t seem to register with anyone.