In early February, a meeting between the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borell and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was hosted in Moscow. Borell's trip turned out to be extremely unsuccessful and somewhat sobered the European side regarding the perception of Russia, as evidenced by the comment of the High Representative: «Europe and Russia are drifting apart. It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat. If we want a safer world for tomorrow, we have to act decidedly today and be ready to take some risks». It took the EU High Representatives 7 years of hybrid war waged by Russia against the West and Ukraine to finally realize this obvious truth.
In parallel with the destructive dialogue with Moscow, the European Union negotiates with the Eastern Partnership program Member States, developing a new approach in relations with countries of this format. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are determined to further intensify relations with the EU, in particular, in the areas of implementation of deep and comprehensive free trade areas and sectoral rapprochement with the EU. The foreign ministers of the three countries agreed that integration into the EU internal market and the prospect of spreading the «Four European freedoms» for interested and prepared Partner States should become ambitious strategic goal within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. The Ministers also jointly stressed the importance of developing the security dimension of cooperation within the Eastern Partnership, given the existing threats and challenges to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Eastern Partners. Therefore, in late February, European Council President Charles Michel visited Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as part of a working visit he announced during a February meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmygal. It is important to note that the trip to the three Eastern Partnership countries was carried out in preparation for the European Union summit, during which a strategic review of EU-Russia relations is planned.
The first country visited by European Council President Charles Michel was Moldova. At the end of last year, pro-European candidate Maya Sandu was elected in Moldova's presidential election, opening the window for opportunities to intensify relations between the country and the European Union. However, as Michel himself noted, how wide this window will open depends directly on the Moldovan side. At the press conference, he also addressed the topics of the implementation of reforms, the rule of law and the fight against corruption in Moldova. In addition, the President of the European Council supported Maia Sandu's idea of dissolving parliament and holding early elections. Maia Sandu, in turn, noted that the citizens of Moldova are expecting the processes that clean the institutions of corrupt schemes, the reforms are irreversible, and they can be implemented through early parliamentary elections. On March 2, Sandu made a statement that the dissolution of parliament would take place on March 23.
After Moldova, Charles Michel went to Ukraine. On his first day in Ukraine, the President of the European Council has visited east of the country together with President Zelensky. During a press conference at the «Shchastya» checkpoint, which is on the demarcation line with the so-called «LPR», Charles reaffirmed the EU’s unwavering support to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, within its internationally recognized borders. The main message of the meeting was the statement of the President of the European Council regarding Russia. Michel stated that EU expects Russia to provide full access for the OSCE SMM to all Ukrainian territories not currently controlled by the government, and the COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as an excuse to further separate these territories from Ukraine. «Unfortunately, Russia has not demonstrated the same positive steps that Ukraine has taken to implement the Minsk agreements. That is why our economic sanctions against Russia will remain in place. Russia is a part of this conflict, not a mediator», Charles Michel said.
It is significant that the President of the European Council mentioned Russia's policy in the context of the pandemic. After all, the Russian Federation not only tried to lift sanctions under the pretext of a pandemic, but also uses its own vaccine as a tool of «soft power», including in the occupied Ukrainian territories, where Russia began vaccination with «Satellite» – V back in February, widely covering this event in the news.
After Ukraine, the President of the Council of Europe visited Georgia, where he tried to mediate the solution of the internal political crisis in the country, which questioned Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Although he did not secure the release of the leader of the Georgian opposition Nika Melia, he managed to propose a six-point plan, including electoral and judicial reforms, a promise to resolve the issue of people which are considered to be political prisoners by the Georgian opposition. They also talked about the redistribution of power in the Georgian parliament, about possible new elections. At the end of the working visit, Charles Michel appointed his personal representative, who is tasked with mediating the dialogue between the government and the opposition. This position was taken by the former head of the European Commission Delegation to Sweden Christian Danielson. The parties managed to reach an agreement that the EU-Georgia Association Council would meet in Brussels on March 15 to sum up the work.
Against the background of deteriorating relations between the EU and Russia and a possible change in the European strategy on the Russian Federation, the question arises: is the European Union ready to deepen relations with the Eastern Partnership countries, despite Moscow's desire to divide the region into spheres of influence? There are chances that the Eastern Partnership program will soon be reformed, which will create more opportunities for deepening relations between the countries participating in this initiative and the EU. Although the goal of the Eastern Partnership does not imply further accession of the member states to the European Union, deepening relations, sectoral cooperation, and implementation of reforms actually bring Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia closer to their strategic goal of joining the EU. During his visits, the President of the Council of Europe Charles Michel, in particular, had the opportunity to better understand the aspirations of the three members of the format and coordinate the positions with the leaders of the states.
At the same time, the instrument of the Eastern Partnership does not solve, probably, the main goals of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova - restoring their territorial integrity, ensuring security and getting out of the Kremlin's influence. Therefore, the format of the Eastern Partnership can be considered as a tool that will further contribute to implementation of reforms and introduction of European standards in the participating states, but in the near future it is unlikely to become an effective format of defense interaction. Possible steps towards closer cooperation in the field of defense may include the entry of the Eastern Partnership countries into the military mobility program, the so-called «military Erasmus» and the involvement of Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects. The European Union Member States will be able to introduce new initiatives within the framework of the Eastern Partnership program at the European Summit on March 26.