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In this week’s edition: From Brest to Brest, Eastern partners in focus and Mali mission continued?


Geneva, Brussels, Vienna, Brest – Western and Russian diplomats remain deeply divided over European security interests as none of the talks in the different formats this week yielded any progress in resolving the current deadlock.

From almost every side, warnings are now coming that the risk of large-scale military conflict has increased to a level not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Opinions differ on whether these are doomsdays predictions or not.

But what is clear to most European diplomats is that the decision on the next steps will fall on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has warned of military action if Russia’s security demands are not met, including the insistence that NATO should withdraw forces from Eastern Europe, branded a “non-starter” by Western officials.

Russian rhetoric has shifted into a higher gear since the talks concluded.

This was evidenced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said on Saturday (15 January) that Russia would not wait forever for the United States and NATO to respond to its security demands, and it wants a detailed response to every proposal.

Meanwhile, Russia’s biggest state-owned propaganda agency RIA Novosti titled an article, “Putin has proclaimed war on Europe. It is still not too late (for Europe) to capitulate”.

Detailing intelligence findings, the White House said that Russia was “laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion” by blaming Ukraine.

Some EU officials fear that Russia is already creating heightened pressure on Europe and its allies – think of cyberattacks, disinformation on social media and destabilisation efforts – without even having to invade.

Government sites across Ukraine, including the emergencies’ ministry, education ministry, and cabinet, went down early Friday, with a message warning Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst”.

Ukraine is still investigating, but preliminary indications suggested that “hacker groups associated with the Russian secret services may stand behind today’s massive cyberattack on government websites”, foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said.

EU foreign ministers, meeting in the French port city of Brest, pledged support to Kyiv, with several saying that they had feared a cyberattack to set the stage for a Russian invasion.

So what are the next diplomatic steps?

Europeans now pin some more hopes on a Franco-German initiative to bring back talks in the Normandy format, bringing together Ukrainian, Russian, German, and French officials. German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock is meant to prepare the ground with a visit to Kyiv and Moscow in the coming week. 

Senior EU officials confirm there is ongoing work to develop a sanctions’ strategy that could be announced ‘within hours’ of a potential invasion, coordinated and pushed for with the US and other non-EU allies.

Nevertheless, Ukraine is not ready to count on European efforts alone: President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday (14 January) also proposed three-way talks with US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet again raising the question among some EU diplomats whether this is the preferred discussion format over a European-led one.

However, the question that looms large is whether diplomacy can rescue European security. Experts believe that diplomatic efforts that are not underpinned by hard power may not be enough to avert a war.


DEFENCE CORNER

EASTERN PARTNERS | Amid tensions with Russia over Ukraine, the EU is set to enshrine stronger support, including in security and defence, for its Eastern partners, according to the latest version of the bloc’s upcoming military strategy document, seen by EURACTIV.

NATO membership in the near future is not possible for Georgia and Ukraine, and the alternative – arming Ukraine – is a tricky issue, ECFR expert Kadri Liik told EURACTIV in an interview.

FRENCH PRIORITIES | In Brest, EU foreign ministers revisited their ambitious timelines for the bloc’s key new military strategy and space documents, to be agreed in the next few months under French EU Council Presidency leadership.

“I have to say that the current ambience has been helping us to continue pushing for the Strategic Compass and is proving us right,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told EURACTIV on the sidelines of the meeting.

“Some more hesitant member states have recognised and taken this chance, just because they feel the context shows clearly that we need it,” he said.

EU defence ministers held the initial discussion to develop an EU-centred space strategy to be completed sometime next year. Additionally, in March, France will host the second iteration of a new space exercise dubbed ASTERX in Toulouse. “This will give us the occasion to once again meet to reflect upon the way we should think about this European defensive space strategy,” French Armed Forces Minister, Florence Parly, said.

RAMPING UP | With Russia tensions high, the Baltic States are talking to NATO allies about increasing military deployments on their soil to deter Moscow, which could be discussed by NATO defence ministers when they hold their regular meeting in mid-February.

Denmark has decided to increase its military presence in the Baltics as a show of support against Russia’s aggressive behaviour. Meanwhile, Sweden is ramping up its visible activities on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland, Finland’s forces are at peak readiness and Norway preps for the largest NATO exercise inside the Arctic Circle since the 1980s, the Norwegian-led Exercise Cold Response.

MALI MISSION CONTINUED? | The EU’s role in an anti–jihadist defence and security mission in the Sahel region is under increasing threat as relations with the military government in Mali continue to decline over delayed elections and the presence of Russian mercenaries. The EU wants to continue its military missions in Mali, but ‘not at any cost’.

EU IN THE WORLD

CHINA WOES | EU foreign ministers in Brest pledged “solidarity” with Lithuania in its trade dispute with China, though no new measures were announced. Borrell said that an EU–China summit at the end of March would give the opportunity to review “where we are in our relations with China”.

In the meantime, the EU side will stick to plans for a potential WTO case (which could take years, according to EU diplomats) and its recently presented European Commission proposal for an anti-coercion instrument, that would permit the bloc to strike back at economic bullying (which also is not likely to come any time soon due to lengthy legislative processes).

AFRICAN TRAVEL BANS | The EU’s decision to scrap travel bans on people from a group of African countries has removed a major diplomatic obstacle ahead of February’s EU–African Union summit, where the two blocs are hoping to agree on a ‘strategic partnership’.

IGNORED EFFORTS? | Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan this week told EU ambassadors that the bloc had not provided meaningful support in battling migration and that it had not reciprocated Turkey’s efforts to improve relations.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

BOSNIA SANCTIONS | Should the situation in Bosnia deteriorate further, the EU disposes of a wide toolbox, including imposing sanctions and reconsidering aid, the EU said earlier this week as hundreds of Bosnians gathered across Europe to call for swift action over the escalating crisis.

Meanwhile, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić attended the “Days of Republika Srpska” celebrations in the Serb half of neighbouring Bosnia, an inflammatory extravaganza condemned by the EU.

VARHELYI INVESTGATION? | Following a letter from thirty EU lawmakers, the European Commission appeared to stand by its embattled enlargement chief this week after allegations were made in December that he had indirectly contributed to secessionist moves of Bosnian Serbs.

‘LITTLE IMPACT’ | Despite the substantial financial and expert resources invested into the Western Balkan countries hoping to join the EU, governments in the region are becoming more authoritarian with clear signs of state capture, a new report by the EU finances watchdog found.

EURASIA DIGEST

INSIDERS ACCOUNT | A trusted source in Almaty gave a rare first-hand account to EURACTIV of the unrest that shook up the Central Asian country in the first days of 2022. You can read it here.


WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…

  • European Parliament’s AFET/SEDE Committees hear extraordinary joint meeting on Ukraine/Russia
    | Monday, 17 January 2022 | Strasbourg, France
  • German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock goes Kyiv, Moscow
    | Mo-Tu, 17-18 January 2022 |  Ukraine, Russia
  • NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg pays visit to Germany
    | Tuesday, 18 January 2022 |  Berlin, Germany
  • Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov visits, likely talks about EU veto 
    | Tuesday, 18 January 2022 |  Skopje, North Macedonia
  • ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher to preview space priorities
    | Tuesday, 18 January 2022 |  Paris, France
  • French President Emmanuel Macron addresses European Parliament
    | Wednesday, 19 January 2022 |  Strasbourg, France
  • Russia-led troops to complete mission in Kazakhstan
    | Wednesday, 19 January 2022 |

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