What are the main opportunities and challenges of a new European eastern policy? This was the central question of the lecture of Ambassador Michael Siebert, Director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia in the German Federal Foreign Office. The lecture was titled “How to deal with Russia, Ukraine and other neighbours in the East”, and took place on 16 September at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT). The lecture was followed by a discussion during which the participants talked about the rapprochement possibilities of the Member States of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, the domestic political developments in Ukraine, and disputes concerning the Nord Stream 2 project.
Michael Siebert began his lecture by evaluating the new European eastern policy (neue europäische Ostpolitik), announced by German foreign minister Heiko Maas. According to the German diplomat, the previous new Eastern policy, which was introduced by Willy Brand and Egon Bahr in the 1970s, was in need of revision due to fundamental shifts in the geopolitical circumstances since then. An important difference between the two policies is that while the West was focused solely on Moscow in the past, today a broader perspective must be taken on under the “European” indication. Therefore, issues such as territorial disputes in Georgia or Moldova, the resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, or the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan should be part of policy as well. European Member States need to talk and consult with each other on their historic experiences and respective sensitive issues in order to develop a common “European reflex”. This will hopefully create a more homogeneous EU policy in the future, as so far “we only have a non-policy” towards Russia according to the lecturer. Siebert later-on again stressed the need to maintain European unity against Russia, as “Russia will be the determining factor eastwards of the EU”.
Concerning Ukraine, he said that Germany was currently interested in two main things: continuing the internal reforms that have begun and keeping the Normandy format alive. In the context of the Eastern Partnership countries’ prospects for EU accession, Siebert stated that “we are not very much in the shape to digest new Member States”. He added that the EU was currently in a state between “fatigue” and “finality”, that sectoral co-operations were fundamentally important, and that the essence of EU conditionality policy, the “more for more” principle, had to be applied further on.
During the later discussion, Michael Siebert spoke about the Ukrainian domestic policy developments, stating that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had promised a lot before the election, but had to compromise on his promises later-on, meaning that now he would be “ready to pick up the phone to Putin”. Assessing the EU-Russia relations, Siebert proposed dividing them up into three phases: the “time of euphoria”, which began after the transition time, an economic-scientific co-operation phase that replaced it in the early 2000s and lasted until the Russian–Georgian War 2008, and finally the subsequent phase, characterized by the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the EU sanctions against Russia, for which a proper name has yet to be found and which is still ongoing. The EU-Russia relations would certainly not be labelled “strategic”. On the European side, the goal is to find common interests and reliable partners, even if the latter are beside the Russian public sphere. According to Siebert, the German side is aware of European criticism towards the Nord Stream 2 project, but the investment is economically necessary for securing the country’s energy supply. At the same time, he highlighted the trilateral talks taking place between the EU, Russia and Ukraine, which are important for maintaining the Ukrainian transit role, so the country is receiving the valuable transit fees for the future.
Reflecting on the lecture, Sándor Ackermann, analyst of the IFAT, claimed that the biggest challenge facing the Eastern European region was the resolution of armed conflict on eastern Ukraine. The elections in Ukraine over recent months (including the election of a new president and parliament) have been a source of moderate optimism. The communication channels between Kiev and Moscow are open again, and the revival of the Normandy format could bring positive changes in resolving a conflict that has caused more than 13.000 victims in the past five years.
The event was moderated by Tamás Levente Molnár, research fellow of the IFAT.