Romania’s minister of foreign affairs, Bogdan Aurescu, is spearheading an initiative within the European Union to involve the EU in the management and eventual resolution of the protracted conflicts in the wider Black Sea region. Ten other EU member states (Portugal, Sweden and eight Central-Eastern European countries) co-sponsored Romania’s initiative. The objects of this initiative are defined as the conflicts ongoing in Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Azerbaijan (Karabakh) and Ukraine (Donbas).
Nowhere is Russia’s involvement mentioned explicitly in the public documents emanating from Romania’s diplomatic initiative. The omission is not an oversight of Russia’s destructive role in these conflicts (with a partial exception in Karabakh, where Western default makes Russia’s current role look partially constructive). Omitting Russia’s involvement in all these conflicts is a necessary tactical move, aiming to defuse possible obstructions from those EU member states that prioritize their own relations with Russia over the EU’s taking up its responsibilities in its eastern neighborhood. Moreover, some states that prioritize Russia also prioritize the EU’s southern neighborhood over its eastern neighborhood in terms of political attention and resource allocation.
The initiative of Romania and the ten like-minded states must, therefore, aim (as is often the case in the EU) for consensus on the lowest common denominator among the EU’s 27 member states. For the same reasons, the Romania+10 initiative must and does proceed in slow, incremental steps, looking almost like tinkering with the problem at its margins, rather than proposing a breakthrough. Such a cautious approach is inevitable in the EU’s existing configuration and must not become a source of cynicism or resignation on the part of those who may well expect more and faster.
The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (foreign ministers, chaired by the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy) has twice discussed this initiative at its meetings. According to Aurescu, the mere fact that the EU has taken up this topic at the foreign ministers’ level constitutes progress (Mae.ro, May 27, July 12). Indeed, the EU has never developed a policy regarding the protracted (“frozen”) conflicts in the Black Sea region for three decades.
That failure is hardly attributable to a lack of EU “instruments” (in the EU’s acceptance of what would constitute instruments). The EU possesses a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP, under the high representative) since the 1990s; a European Neighborhood Policy (ENP, with the corresponding EU commissioner) including an eastern and a southern dimension, in force since 2004; an Eastern Partnership (EaP) to strengthen the ENP’s Eastern dimension since 2009; an acquis of aspirational documents that could, in principle, authorize EU actions; and, since 2014 (at which point the conflicts had been ongoing for more than two decades), the EU resorts to the instrument of economic sanctions against Russia in response to its land grabs in Ukraine (but not in Georgia or Moldova).
Yet for all its instruments and the potential resources to enable their use, the EU has not been able to play a role in managing the protracted conflicts in the wider Black Sea region, nor in outlining the terms of their eventual resolution.
Among the manifold reasons behind this state of affairs, three factors stand out. First is Russia’s seemingly unchallengeable faits accomplis in the conflict theaters since the 1990s, long before the EU began manifesting its own interests in its eastern neighborhood. Second are the divergent priorities among the EU’s member states, as the most influential states proved reluctant to jeopardize their own relations with Russia on account of the conflicts in the wider Black Sea region. This deference amounted to an oblique acknowledgment of Russia’s participation in those conflicts, even as those same states (and the EU collectively) stopped short of acknowledging that fact. A third factor that inhibited the EU from taking up its responsibilities is the unilateral action of Germany and France, which arrogated those responsibilities to themselves, occupying seats that ought to have belonged to the EU in the negotiation formats. All this helps explain the EU’s marginalization in, or even exclusion from, the negotiation formats and other conflict-management processes in the wider Black Sea region.
The EU’s one salient achievement is the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM, since 2008), a civilian patrol operation along the demarcation line (“administrative boundary line”) between Georgia’s Russian-controlled territory of South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia. The EUMM (although civilian) amounts, in fact, to a tripwire against possible Russian military incursions across the demarcation line into Georgia’s interior; this de facto role alone makes this mission indispensable. However, Russia blocks the EUMM from carrying out its mandate in full, namely to also patrol the Russian-controlled side of the demarcation line. Moreover, the EUMM has not been able to prevent the “borderization” process, whereby Russian troops move the demarcation line bit by bit into Georgian-controlled territory (see EDM, October 2, 2013, October 6, 2017, March 6, 2018).
In the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, France (alongside Russia and the United States) is one of three co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, tasked since the mid-1990s to mediate a resolution to Baku and Yerevan’s conflict over Karabakh. France has all along been acting in its national name, refusing to turn its co-chair’s seat to the European Union. France’s overt partiality for the Armenian side under President Emanuel Macron has contributed to the discreditation of the Minsk Group and the co-chairmanship institution, which has become defunct after the 44-day Second Karabakh War in 2020 (see EDM, November 25, 2020, December 1, 2020, December 3, 2020).
In Moldova, the EU is merely an observer (as is the United States) in the 5+2 format of negotiations on the Transnistria conflict since 2005. Ironically, Ukraine is a full member alongside Russia and the OSCE, as arranged by Moscow in 1997. The observers in this format cannot take initiatives but only express their views about the initiatives of the full members and “the parties to the conflict” (Chisinau and Tiraspol). The Russian side has successfully blocked the EU and the United States from becoming full members of the 5+2 negotiation process.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, Germany has used its disproportionate influence in the EU to keep the latter out of the negotiations in the Normandy format dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas since 2014. Instead, Germany has handled the Normandy process to some extent as a bilateral Russian-German process. French participation in the Normandy process has lent only a semblance of European veneer to Germany’s own role. President Emmanuel Macron has attempted to raise France’s own profile after 2018, but his moves have only highlighted the EU’s absence from the negotiations. The EU remains important, however, in terms of approving the semi-annual rollover of the EU’s economic sanctions on Russia.