The success of Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's presidential elections, coming just a year after the similar triumph of Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, has caught the bloc off guard. The EU has found itself ill prepared for requests for closer ties coming from both leaders, and fears a confrontation with Russia.
These tensions were abundantly in evidence yesterday as Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner addressed the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament in Brussels.
Much of her discussion with the European deputies revolved around Russia and Ukraine.
Ferrero-Waldner said Russia must not view the EU's evolving neighborhood policy -- targeting, among others, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus -- as something that is designed to reduce its own influence.
"We have witnessed the emergence of a more assertive and generally also well articulated Russian foreign policy vis-a-vis the new independent states," Ferrero-Waldner said. "Our challenge now is to try to reverse Russia's drift to a bloc mentality. I think our priority must be to find ways to overcome Russia's very defensive behavior and especially the idea that this is a zero-sum attitude to cooperation with the European Union in [its] New Neighborhood countries. And also to be able to realize our ambitions in the European Neighborhood Policy, which, of course, go out also to Moldova and go out also to Belarus [as well as Ukraine]."
Ferrero-Waldner said Russia remained an important "strategic political partner" for the EU, as well as a key market.
But, she warned, the EU itself must send Russia "solid messages," with the whole bloc standing by jointly agreed positions. This is a reference to recurring differences among EU member states over how to treat Russia.
The commissioner said that the EU must cooperate especially closely within the OSCE, which so far has been the leading forum for discussing issues related to Russia and its neighbors.
She said the EU had in the past "tried very hard" to negotiate solutions to conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Moldova. But, she noted, there was "not enough political will." Much of this had to do with the EU, she said, which "must do its best to speak with one voice."
Speaking before the same parliamentary committee on 24 January, the EU's foreign-policy coordinator, Javier Solana, appeared to rule out a direct EU role in the region's conflicts.
Ferrero-Waldner said she would visit Moscow in early March. She said a "lot of patience" would be needed to enlist Russia's cooperation, but she said the EU expected to overcome it and would continue to pursue its neighborhood policy.
"We know that it is not easy for Russia, as there is a feeling that we encroach too strongly upon their 'sphere.' But on the other hand, it is extremely important to lead these countries again toward us," Ferrero-Waldner said. "And this is actually the very idea behind the neighborhood policy. I hope that we can make headway here, even if slowly."
Meanwhile, the EU is continuing to fight off pressure to agree that countries such as Ukraine have an eventual right to membership in the bloc.
Ferrero-Waldner called yesterday for a "pragmatic and realistic" approach, saying the EU was still struggling to digest 2004's 10 entrants. She said many other possibilities than membership were open to Ukraine, adding the EU was not prepared to go beyond the action plan presently being offered to Kyiv.
Although Ukraine's new leadership has not directly raised the issue of EU membership, President Viktor Yushchenko has made it clear he sees his country's future in full integration with Euro-Atlantic structures.
The EU's basic treaty says that every European country can apply for membership. Ferrero-Waldner repeated this yesterday on several occasions, but refrained from describing Ukraine as a European state. A European Commission spokeswoman said later that the commission had "no opinion" at the present time on whether Ukraine is a European country or not.
Privately, officials speak of a "triangular" relationship with Ukraine, acknowledging an important role for Moscow. Yushchenko -- who is due to address the European Parliament in Brussels tomorrow -- is being praised by EU officials for having paid his first visit abroad to Moscow on 24 January.
Solana indicated that the EU was unwilling to address the issue of formally upgrading its relations with Ukraine until 2008.