Maidan, the aftermath: could the EU have avoided the Ukrainian drama?

21 December 2016 /

It has been more than three years since Ukraine was shaken by the Euromaidan revolution in 2013. People gathered in the main square of Kiev and voiced their hopes and dreams for a different Ukraine, based on democratic values and without a kleptocratic leadership. The enthusiasm soon faded away when it became clear just how remote Ukraine was from achieving the goals advocated through the Maidan movement. What have been the impacts of EU’s actions or inaction on the conflict? Can we designate the EU as a partial culprit for events that took place in Ukraine?

© Maksim Belousov (
© Maksim Belousov (

The dramatic consequences of a failed revolution

The country slipped away in a so-called hybrid war. Human Rights have been and are still violated on a large scale and dreams and perspectives for a different future have been shattered. Albeit it is exaggerated to presume that the EU could have avoided the whole situation, there are some ways in which the failure of the Maidan can be attributed to the EU. Notably, the EU could have played a greater role in preventing the Human Rights violations and easing the complicated Ukraine-Russia relations, some fallouts could have been avoided if the EU had long acted differently regarding Ukraine.

During the Euromaidan, the EU flag generally flowed alongside the Ukrainian one.

In addition, Poroshenko, president of Ukraine, suggested that Ukraine could apply for EU membership in the following years, seemingly implying that Ukraine was engaged in a more pro-European path. However, let us not forget that one issue that makes Ukrainian society so complex yet so interesting is the division between pro-Europeans and pro-Russians on the one hand and, the largest “minority”, those who are simply trying to make the best possible life for themselves on the other. As such, the choice between the EU and Russia can for some be reduced to the question of “who has the most to offer”. At this point in Ukrainian history, that includes notably financial aid and technical assistance towards a corruption-free state. It also encompasses in a context of war providing for weapons for supporters of one’s camp. In this regard,  the EU also to some extent failed to tilt the balance to its advantage.

The EU’s weak response to Human Rights issues

The Human Rights crisis taking place in Ukraine since the start of the Euromaidan is far from getting better. In 2014, Human rights watch (HRW) noted an increased risk for political-motivated violence, such as unlawful detention, abduction and assault, as well as riot police brutality and kidnappings. In 2015 the trend was toward a worsening of the situation. Indeed, HRW found that pro-government forces and Russia-backed rebels had used cluster munitions during the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine and that without a full investigation by Ukrainian prosecutors. Also, according to HRW no significant progress had been made in 2015 concerning the accountability of perpetrators of abuses during the 2014 Maidan protests. Overall, serious violations of the Rule of Law, freedom of expression and freedom of media as well as homophobia and intolerance remain widespread, among other Human Rights violations. In the light of the Maidan movement that was explicitly standing up for basic Human Rights, these violations become even more painful.

In 2013, even before the Euromaidan started, there was some sense of tiredness within the EU regarding Ukraine. The EU hardened its stance in the framework of the Eastern Partnership and suspended the signing of an Association Agreement. The EU albeit keen on presenting itself as a normative power for upholding Human Rights failed to adequately support Ukraine in avoiding the current situation. For instance, the Union refused to send peacekeepers or any weapons to Ukraine, despite requests from the country and the Russian similar support for separatists. The EU was too divided on “what Putin might do next” to coherently formulate answers to events. Therefore it compelled itself to lag behind: the EU’s approach based on helping out Ukraine via using laws and regulations might be useful, but seems somehow inadequate to respond to the situation in which Ukraine finds itself today where money and weapons might be more appropriate tools. At the Vilnius Summit at the end of 2013, which gave rise to the Maidan Crisis, the EU was more ambitious in moving forward its relationship with Ukraine. Now this is less clear, as stated by Donald Tusk: “Our partnership, as well as the Riga summit itself, are not about dramatic decisions or taking giant steps forward (…) Our partnership will go forward step-by-step.” (Politico, 2015)

How the EU could have made a difference

Russia was left as the only alternative for Ukraine, given the absence of a European one. The European weakness and indecisiveness in its external action are symptomatic of the overall inability of the EU structure to act in its foreign policy when required. In this regard, another blatant lag between the EU’s rhetoric and actions should be pointed out. Angela Merkel, for example, showed some political will in taking the lead in the EU’s negotiations with Putin over the Ukrainian crisis, but the EU nevertheless failed to take strong actions: member states did not agree, sanctions were overdue, and financial aid to counter Ukraine’s bankruptcy was delayed and eventually was less than Ukraine was hoping for.

Further on, Merkel, as well as many other EU heads of State noted “with great concern” the ongoing advances by separatist militias in the territory and the civilian casualties resulting therefrom. Those notices were never acted upon and this European inaction was in great contrast with its commitment to respect the values of democracy and Human Rights. In 2015, Ukraine counted a million refugees that were internally displaced. The EU could have liberalized the visa regulations for these refugees, but instead the door was kept close and EU leaders continued to stall their commitments (Linda Kinstler, 2015). It seems that the EU fears creating a huge influx of labour migrants from Ukraine, which explains its unwillingness to remove restrictions with the war-torn country. Currently this unwillingness seems at odds with the recent decision on granting visa-free travel to the Schengen zone for Georgians citizens. (EU Observer, 2015). Although the latter is conditioned upon the setting up of safeguards permitting to suspend the application of the “deal” in case of abuse, it still renders it more painful for Ukrainians to accept their fate.

A pessimistic outlook for the future

It would be unfair to say that the EU hasn’t done anything at all. Indeed, the EU has frequently called upon all parties to the conflict to honour ceasefires laid out in the Minsk agreements in addition to financially supporting Ukraine throughout the conflict. The EU also offered extensive advice on the creation of modern institutions. However, this did not suffice. It is difficult to come up with one explanation for this inability. Of course, the Ukrainian crisis came on a “bad timing” for the EU, to put it cynically, since the EU itself was in a particularly bad shape trying to tackle a never-ending economic crisis and facing fundamental political problems. This undoubtedly played in the tardiness of the EU in reacting to Ukraine’s issues.

To some extent the EU’s failure to provide for an effective response is the result of a combination of a lack of political will and more fundamental institutional issues. The individual member states are not willing to involve themselves in Ukraine, for example by sending peacekeepers. These issues make the EU virtually powerless to act. For example, at the beginning of the crisis when the protesters were still at the Maidan square, Barroso, the then President of the European Commission did not take the lead in formulating an adequate and strong EU response, because the lack of a consensus among member states that was needed for EU foreign policy actions. By the time he stepped in, however, months had passed and the EU’s messages were in any case too weak to really be noticed. (HRW, 2015). The current President of the Commission Juncker put this very simply when asked about enlargement: “They are not ready. We are not ready.” (Politico, 2015)

Paulien Natens is an advanced Master student in international and European law at the VUB

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