THE BLOG

An Exploration of Ukraine's EU Neighbours in Light of the Ukraine Crisis

18/08/2014 15:35 BST | Updated 18/10/2014 10:59 BST

As fighting in Eastern Ukraine continues with Russia backing the pro-Russian rebels, implications for Ukraine's Western neighbours are increasingly apparent.

Since the annexation of Crimea in February of this year, it is ever more important to explore the relationship between Russia, Ukraine and their neighbours, to question the stability of the region and draw attention to Putin's seeming desire to exploit ethnic divisions and maintain or increase reliance on Russia.

Most recently this has been seen in the import bans Russia has imposed on various countries.

However there are various socio-economic concerns at play comparable to those faced by Ukraine in the lead up to the annexation. Looking at the five EU member states that border Russia; Romania, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Moldova (non-member but EU Free Trade Area since June 2014), it is possible to explore these concerns and their implications in more detail.

Gas

A discussion of reliance is first and foremost a discussion of gas. Hungary and Slovakia get the most gas from Russia: 80% and 83% respectively. In March 2014, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic collectively asked US congress to make it easier for them to import natural gas from the UK. This action was taken amongst increasing reliance on Russia's gas supply, as well as fears about what role gas could play in the Ukraine crisis.

These concerns were realised when Russia halted all gas supplies to Ukraine in June.

Russia giant Gazprom's actions were the culmination of months of disputes between the two countries. Russia complained that Naftogaz, the Ukrainian national oil and gas company, failed to pay back their debts. However, Ukraine said it refused to clear its debts in protest at Gazprom's recent 80% price increase. Regardless of motivations, it is difficult to imagine that the halt has not created a sudden vacuum in gas procurement undermining Ukraine's efforts to stabilize the country.

Exports

Poland's foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, explained in an interview with The Washington Post that it was not simply the disruption of Russian gas and other imports creating a sense of tension and fear in central Europe, but also exports sent to Russia. He goes on to explain that 7% of Polish exports go to Russia, making the Polish government reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia for fear of economic consequences.

These fears were realised most recently in the Russian ban on Polish apples. Russia, which imported €336m (£266m) worth of fruit and vegetables from Poland last year, argued, in an interestingly timed decision, that the ban was due to 'Polish violations of health regulations and documentation procedures'.

In response Polish media has created a campaign encouraging its citizens to eat more apples and drink more cider in an attempt to lessen the blow to the Polish economy.

However these actions certainly further polarize Russian-Polish relations.

Ethnic Divisions

Based on the strong ethnic component of the Ukraine crisis, particularly in Crimea, national identity has a huge impact in understanding some of the complexities in the relationship between Russia, its neighbours and the people of these nations.

Moldova is perhaps the starkest example of this kind of tension. Transnistria, a region on Moldova's border with Ukraine, has been a self-governed independent pro-Russian state since 1992. It has maintained its independence from Moldova but has been economically reliant on Russian finance and gas since its people fought a war against Moldova that only ended when Russian troops entered and backed the separatists.

This scenario, familiar in the light of the annexation of Crimea, underpins a fear amongst pro-EU Moldovans that this region and its people could be a threat to their national security.

Romania

Romania is an interesting case.

Romanian is the highest ethnic minority in Ukraine after Russian. Additionally Romania's close proximity to Ukraine and Russia means that there are heightened concerns about the security of the Romanian people, both in and out of the country.

The Romanian government has been able to voice concerns and disapproval of Russian actions more strongly than some of the other countries mentioned. Why? This freedom is partially due to Romania's own hydrocarbon reserves and its gas security. Additionally exports to Russia, while high in value to the economy, only represent around 3% of Romania's total exports.

Despite this greater level of security, Russia extended its food import ban to Romania on the 6th of August, in the latest response to sanctions. Romanian beef and cattle will no longer be imported to Russia, no doubt at a great loss to both nations.

Earlier in the year Iulian Fota, Romanian Presidential National Security Advisor, warned that Gazprom was more dangerous than the Russian army. Perhaps in light of these recent import bans, Russia's food hygiene authorities may be the most dangerous of all.

Final thoughts

During the interview with The Washington Post, Radoslaw Sikorski expressed the opinion that Putin would be happy with some kind of federalism in Ukraine and 'having an overwhelming influence over a part, which can then paralyze the whole.' He then added that Putin's methods are 'preventing Ukraine from reforming and becoming successful...without having to invade'

Judging by Russia's recent influence and involvement in the affairs of its neighbours, which seems increasingly intended to paralyze their economy's, Sikorski's words foretold a pattern still coming to fruition.