Almost three decades on from the fall of communism, the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood remains embroiled in protracted conflicts that hamper regional integration, breed mistrust, and encourage wasteful military spending. These conflicts have made the EU’s Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) objects of a damaging geopolitical tussle between Russia and the EU. While Moscow and Brussels have different visions of their roles in the shared neighbourhood, the Eastern neighbours continue to struggle to find their way between competing European and Russian narratives. To varying degrees, they are trying to seek an equilibrium between three major factors: internal stability, Russian influence, and European integration.
In recent years, there have been many initiatives aimed at peacefully resolving the conflicts in the disputed territories of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and the embattled Donbas region of eastern Ukraine—but little success in finding lasting solutions. Each conflict is intractable and in a different phase. They range from military clashes along a front line to attempts to initiate basic confidence-building measures through to the beginnings of more sustainable peace. However, the success of each peace process hinges on how willing and well prepared local and international actors are to craft viable exit strategies for removing current deadlocks.
Today the most difficult knot to untie is the security dilemma in the entire region. Against the background of the war in Ukraine, the absence of tangible progress in this peace process has created diverse new challenges in the EU and Russia’s shared neighbourhood.
Russia’s constant shadow
The security dynamics in the post-Soviet space are relevant because of the Eastern partners’ relations with Russia. In principle, Moscow has enough leverage to alter the status quo and bring about peacekeeping initiatives, not because of its reputation, but because of its capabilities and reach. All six countries face complex political, economic, and social processes that inevitably affect the Russia’s perception of its security. For this reason, Russia’s mediating role in the region is firmly rooted in common security interests.
Most incumbent leaders believe it will be difficult to find a way forward for a lasting agreement by ignoring Russian national interests. This puts Moscow in a position of power as the central arbiter of a future peace settlement, but it also reinforces Russian responsibility if something goes wrong. It is in Russia’s interest to re-energise the peace processes, mitigate risks, and prevent a renewed outbreak of hostilities. It remains to be seen, however, whether Moscow can eventually turn obstacles into opportunities.
EU vacillation and weakness
The EU lacks a visionary and principled approach to resolving regional security issues. Brussels has practically no active role in conflict settlement and therefore lacks the necessary tools to intervene in the peace processes, instead offering only confidence-building measures. This situation strongly limits the EU’s influence in its Eastern neighbourhood and dramatically hinders Brussels’s capacity to formulate a meaningful policy, although Brussels remains very worried about Russian hegemony extending to Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and beyond.
Although major European powers have considerable peacekeeping potential, they have little understanding of their Eastern neighbours’ national interests. The EU has therefore proved to be unprepared even for gathering information in this troubled region. It should take a more proactive and coordinated approach in seeking viable solutions to regional conflicts in its immediate neighbourhood, preferably in strategic cooperation with Russia.
Breakthrough via innovative ideas
Significant progress on the political settlement of conflicts in the shared neighbourhood seems unlikely in the near future. Peace building, however, is in the interests of Russia, the EU, and the Eastern neighbours because it promotes interdependence and has the potential to bring conflicting parties together to reach a breakthrough.
Novel ideas are required to overcome deadlocks in promoting mutual trust and understanding. The way ahead should be to find a model of interaction that will provide the Eastern partners with development free from external pressure. The goal should be a new security order in which Russia does not feel its interests are threatened and others have a voice.
Perhaps the time is ripe for the EU—probably through closer collaboration with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the UN—to launch a new regional security initiative focusing on conflict resolution in the Eastern neighbourhood. The main goal would be to establish a new dedicated platform that could help alter the conflicting narratives in Ukraine, Moldova, and the South Caucasus to achieve progress on negotiations and reconciliation.
This platform would consist of an ‘Eastern Table’ and an ‘Eastern Peacefare’. The Eastern Table should have separate baskets on common regional economic projects, transnational security threats, and confidence- and security-building measures. The Eastern Peacefare should place a strong focus on special study courses and training programmes for military officers, diplomats, journalists, scholars, and civil-society actors. This initiative could form a new Eastern Partnership tool that aims to increase understanding of conflict dynamics and promote informed dialogue, linking capacity building and cooperation with peace activities in an innovative way.
Elkhan Nuriyev is a political scientist and Humboldt senior fellow as well as a guest researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS). He has just recently been selected as Fellow of the Leibniz ScienceCampus "Eastern Europe - Global Area" in Leipzig.