WASHINGTON - Before boarding a plane bound for the European Union's Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told members of her country's Parliament that "we should...not raise any false expectations that we cannot fulfill later." At the same time, Ukraine and Georgia continued to call for concrete deliverables from the summit - something tangible they could present to their publics. The tenor of the dialogue going into and during the summit, from EU capitals and from Brussels, provided little room for optimism about any concrete outputs. While unfortunate for Ukrainian and Georgian ambitions, this was expected.
Following the summit, Europe's post-Soviet partners worry about the tenor of European dialogue about the region. Discussions on how or why to engage countries in the post-Soviet space have always been difficult, but perhaps never more uncertain than they are now. While assistance continues to flow through existing mechanisms linked to reform, the calls from Kyiv and Tbilisi for deeper integration are met with increasingly hesitant replies, and these partner nations are no longer certain of what the implementation of difficult reforms means for their integration ambitions.
With renewed violence in Ukraine and the renewal of EU sanctions set to expire later this month as a backdrop, the European Union remains exceptionally ambivalent on how to approach its Eastern periphery. Some members push for aggressive integration agendas, while others cry for a full stop. The divergent approaches show the significant divisions that cut the Union along largely geographical lines, as well as the way the discourse over Ukraine and Russia has unfolded. Essentially, Russia's narrative of existential paranoia has clouded the conversation and trumped engagement by other actors in Russia's near abroad - making all interaction in the post-Soviet space zero-sum. The need to counter this narrative has been brought into evidence time and time again, with the most recent reassurances offered by European Council President Donald Tusk, who said that "the Eastern Partnership is not a beauty contest between Russia and the EU." Chancellor Merkel also commented prior to the Riga Summit that the Eastern Partnership "is not an instrument for pursuing an expansionist EU policy" and "it's not against Russia."
The purpose of the Eastern Partnership as described in its founding document was to "advance the cause of democracy, strengthen stability and prosperity, bringing lasting and palpable benefits to citizens of all participating states." This goal served the partner countries' interests as well as those of the European Union. Russia therefore feels threatened, because it finds the mutual pursuit of these principles, well, threatening. But to argue that Association Agreements signed between the European Union and post-Soviet countries mean the "world" is marching on Moscow is just false. Rather, Moscow's hyper-nationalistic, revisionist rhetoric indicates that Russia is marching inward, away from the norms of the European Union and the Euroatlantic community. Sadly, some have bought into Russia's zero-sum argument, which unapologetically ignores sovereignty, the agency of nations, and the legitimacy of international institutions and multilateral agreements. By undermining the fabric of international norms, Russia blurs the lines between hard and soft power, choice and coercion, truth and falsehood. By conceding that the European Union (or the United States) must acknowledge Russia's disposition, the Euroatlantic community would have to simultaneously deny the will of partners in Russia's so-called privileged sphere of influence. This leaves those in Europe and beyond scrambling to find a reliable political and foreign policy foothold, particularly given the European Union's normative foundations.
Overtime, these developments have led to an unpleasant realization: The European Union's normative agenda clashes with Russia's blunter ambitions in its near abroad. This creates a de-facto competition for influence. For Russia, this means ideological and political divergence with Kyiv and Tbilisi, and a perceived and real decrease of its influence in these countries. This is what the Kremlin is unwilling to accept and actively opposes, as President Tusk noted, through "destructive, aggressive, and bullying tactics against its neighbors."
Transatlantic partners have remained unified against Putin's aggression. Yet unity does not equal consensus. There are wide-ranging differences of opinion on how to counter Russia's aggression, as well as disagreements about the strategic importance of post-Soviet countries. Russia will continue to put forth a narrative that exploits these divisions. And no matter how the European Union or Euroatlantic partners engage the post-Soviet space, it will likely be perceived as competing with Russia's own interests.
Following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the complications that arose from the Color Revolutions, and the disappointments of the Arab Spring, it is clear that Brussels has grown increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of promoting democratic values and human rights. However, Russia's aggression should serve as a chance for reflection. Europe should recognize and address the need to defend its values even if, at times, that may look a lot like promoting them. This includes supporting mechanisms, such as the Eastern Partnership, that encourage countries to reform but allow governments to choose their own paths.
While the Riga summit may not have produced many specific deliverables, the right of post-Soviet states to choose their own path should be at the center of any future dialogue. Merkel underscored this when she said, "We accept that the different Eastern Partnership nations can go their own way and we accept these different ways." The main dilemma after Riga, though, remains the same as before: Finding a way to move this region out of the shadow cast by Russia's actions in Ukraine. This will continue to be a challenge for the European Union for some time.