European promises of accession as a way out from a “frozen conflict” in Ukraine?

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis


Could it be that the lightning visit of EU Commission President to Kyiv (unannounced until it happened: peculiar, given the bandwagon of publicity following Ursula von der Leyen whenever she ventures in foreign-affairs terrain), meeting President Zelenski to congratulate Ukraine for “excellent progress […] impressive to see” in preparing for accession negotiations, be some kind of smoke-screen for pressure being brought to bear on Ukrainian leadership to envisage negotiations with Russia in case the war situation deteriorates to a “frozen conflict”?

Brussels old-timers perceive even some king of preparation for public opinion to digest an imminent proposal from the Commission to start accession negotiations, such proposal to be included in the Commission report on enlargement to be soon submitted to the Council.

The real question arising is whether the EU might be called upon to assume the role of sweetening – through accession talks – the bitter pill Kyiv may have to swallow, if called by its West supporters to get closer to engaging in peace talks with Russia – notwithstanding the fact that the situation on the ground is nowhere near the reversal of the Russian invasion in East-South Ukraine. As it should be expected, as soon as such rumours started going around Ukrainian President Zelenski denied any such thing: “Nobody puts pressure on us for sitting at the negotiating table with Russia and give something away” is the full quote.

The impression of a stalemate on the ground is increasing, though. Just days ago, Ukraine’s own commander-in-chief General Zaluzhny, talking to The Economist, admitted that the much-vaunted Ukrainian counter-offensive is nowhere near to succeed at the scale expected. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough”: coming from a commander-in-chief, such language augurs ill for the future. Zaluzhny explained in technical terms how it would take innovation in drones, electronic warfare, demining equipment and the use of robotics to allow for a radical change in the war front. That is, over and above the military hardware already being made available to Ukrainian forces – all the way from modern tanks to ever-longer range missiles, with F-16s to follow in some months’ time.

For the time being, though, winter is getting closer; human resources are dwindling – “sooner or later we are going to find that we simply don’t have enough people to fight”. A chilling perspective, indeed.

Clearly feeling the tide, President Zelenski – after meeting von der Leyen – stated that “when we start negotiations on Ukraine’s membership, this will mean several things. For one, there will no longer be grey geopolitical zones in Europe” Zelenski also strongly refuted the notion that the war had reached “a stalemate”, notwithstanding that “time has passed and people are tired”, while “the Middle East conflict […] is taking away the focus”.

So, could it be “EU-Ukraine accession talks” for “some sort of peace talks with Russia” – at some point in the not-so-distant future? Of course Ukrainians realise that initiating accession talks is just the first step of a long and arduous process for any candidate country  – a process at the end of which the unanimous approval of Member States must be achieved. (Not to forget Article 42 para 7 of the EU Treaty, whereby “if a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by any means in their power”. Not exactly art 5 of the NATO Treaty, but quite forceful language, indeed).