EU, ex-Soviet states push ties in face of 'hostile' Russia

Damon WAKE
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko attend the EU Eastern Partnership summit

The EU pledged to deepen ties with six former Soviet states Friday, as part of efforts to counter Russian influence, but warned them they had no chance of joining the bloc any time soon.

EU leaders agreed a package of 20 "deliverables" with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus to help them tackle corruption, improve the rule of law and modernise their economies.

Brussels insists its so-called Eastern Partnership with the six states is "not aimed at any country" and a joint declaration issued after the summit scrupulously avoided any mention of Russia.

But concerns are running high in Europe over the Kremlin's use of cyber tactics and misinformation to cause political destabilisation around the continent and draw former Soviet states into its embrace.

As she arrived for the summit British Prime Minister Theresa May warned that Europe needed to be on guard against "the actions of hostile states like Russia which... attempt to tear our collective strength apart".

EU President Donald Tusk fired a broadside at the Kremlin, condemning "Russia's aggression" in Ukraine after five soldiers were killed there and demanding vigilance agains hybrid threats in Europe.

He warned "we have to be very, very cautious, vigilant and also honest -- if you want to protect ourselves, if you want to help our partners from Eastern Partnership, we have to first of all be aware of threats inside the EU."

The likes of Moldova and Ukraine have urged the European Union to send a welcoming signal to their people to counter the siren call of Moscow.

Moscow regards the countries as part of its sphere of influence and has opposed them getting closer to the EU.

- '18 locked doors' -

Moldova and Ukraine argue that without a clear signal that at least in principle they could one day join the EU, their populations could turn their back on Europe and go the way of Belarus -- which lies firmly in Russia's orbit.

But there is no appetite in the EU for eastward expansion, particularly after Dutch voters rejected the first attempt at an association accord with Ukraine in an April 2016 referendum.

"This is not an enlargement or accession summit," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said as he arrived.

A European diplomat gave an even more blunt assessment.

"Maybe they see this as the waiting room for the waiting room (for membership) but for us it's clear that before the waiting room there are 18 locked doors," the diplomat said.

Lithuania's outspoken President Dalia Grybauskaite warned Ukraine had "a long way to go" before it could be ready to join, while Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel gave a flat "no" to the EU taking on new members soon.

The final summit declaration simply acknowledges the "European aspirations and European choice" of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

The EU hopes that focusing on concrete measures that will improve people's lives in the partner countries -- such as small business loans and reducing mobile phone roaming charges and energy costs -- will improve its popularity and see off the lure from Moscow.

- Don't mention the war -

The war rumbling on in Ukraine, which has killed 10,000 people since 2014, was conspicuously absent from the official summit agenda.

Unlike the declaration after the last Eastern Partnership summit in 2015, this time there was no mention of the conflict between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.

As the leaders met in Brussels, news came of five Ukrainian soldiers killed in fighting in the country's wartorn east and Kiev accused Moscow of ramping up its military presence in the region.

Tusk condemned the deaths as "just the latest proof of the tragic consequence of Russia's aggression in Ukraine", while Merkel met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on the sidelines of the summit to discuss the conflict.

The statement also made no mention of the bitter row between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh, which almost flared into a full-scale war last year.

Instead it simply called for "renewed efforts to promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the region" -- a sharp contrast to the strong language in 2015, which criticised Russia's annexation of Crimea outright.