At the event of the signing of the Association Agreement between the European Union (EU) and Ukraine last 27th of June, the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroschenko, was tightly held by José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission and Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European Council. This is quite characteristic for EU-Ukrainian relations. The EU attempts to get a grip on Ukraine through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), of which the Association Agreement forms an important part.
Geographically, Ukraine is situated between two large political powers: the European Union and the Russian Federation. This has shaped processes of identity formation in this country since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. Ukraine has always been close to Russia, because of its Soviet legacy. This was a reality that the West, including the EU, did not question. Over the last decade, the Ukraine has been growing closer to the European Union and has challenged its Soviet legacy in several ways, for example through the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan protests.
Russia has devoted considerable effort to bringing parts of the former Soviet Union under its control in the past decade. It has put pressure on politicians, tried to control the gas pipeline to the West, pressured Ukraine to become a member of the Common Economic Space (CES) and annexed the Crimea region. The European Union, on the other hand, has tried to liberalize and democratize Ukraine, through the ENP and the Eastern Partnership initiative (EaP) and provided a framework for the modernization of Ukraine. Although the successfulness of the ENP and the EaP as well as the degree of Europeanization and progress of reforms can all be questioned to some extent, it is clear that the EU is trying to exert power and influence beyond its external border in Ukraine.
The EU is often described as a ‘soft power’ and ‘weak’. Professor Luiza Bialasiewicz states that the way the EU is perceived in terms of ‘weak’, ‘uncertain’ and ‘indeterminate’ is the consequence of highly normative assumptions regarding territoriality and ‘power’ in the international arena. She argues that geographical imaginations like that fundamentally miss the radical transformations taking shape at and beyond Europe’s borders and that they fail to recognize the emergence of the EU as a very new sort of international actor. Taking the nation-state as the central building block of the international system, gives a mistaken understanding of the kind of power the EU is. From within the state centered paradigm, the EU could be perceived as a ‘weak’ state, because it is not doing what nation-states do according to realists. The power of the EU, however, should not be measured in terms of military spending or the global reach of its forces. Rather it should be understood as a ‘transformative’ power, trying to reshape the world in a slow manner instead of invading it. Understood as a nation-state like entity the EU is continuously underestimated when it comes to exerting power. Understood as a transformative power, however, the extent to which the EU exerts power and influence becomes more visible and it then becomes clear it is exerting a great amount of power. The liberal reforms in Ukraine are an example of this.
José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, likened the European Union to a “non-imperial empire” – an empire based on incentive instead of force – at a press conference in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2007. This is a better description of the EU than ‘superstate’, because the EU has the same characteristics as an empire in terms of borders and is acting as an empire with the ENP, governing beyond its borders. Professor Jan Zielonka has extensively discussed this in his book ´Europe as Empire´. The power gap between the EU as an empire and its neighbors is too big for the ENP to be negotiated on a basis of equality. This has large implications for the understanding of EU-Ukrainian relations. The policies towards this country can be understood as an attempt of the EU to integrate what it perceives as a peripheral area in Europe on a functional level.
Ukraine not only forms the periphery of the EU as an empire, but also of Russia. This means Ukraine is a part of a dividing zone or ‘frontier’ between two empires. An empire by itself may expand outwards until the expansion becomes a challenge to the internal cohesion. When two empires are in competition, they might have the same zones of influence and these may have an overlap, while there is no clear border between these two empires. However, when an empire meets another empire, this may also lead to competition over a border-zone. This is what is happening in Ukraine at the moment. The conflict should not be seen as a stand-alone case, but as part of a larger geopolitical problem that is arising as the consequence of the overlapping spheres of influence of both the EU and Russia. As a clash of modern empires can escalate into a conflict of great proportions, it is important that the EU and Russia realize the full potential of the symptomatic conflict in Ukraine and find a peaceful long-term solution to deal with each other in the international arena.