As the world watched anxiously, the conflict between Russia and a Western-leaning former Soviet neighbor intensified.
After days of intense shuttle negotiations, leaders of Russia and the European Union announced a six-point plan to defuse the mounting crisis. "The way toward the gradual normalization of the situation…will be opened," Russia's president said.
A hopeful scenario for EU mediation in the crisis in eastern Ukraine? No, that was the scene on August 14, 2008, when then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, announced their agreement to end the fighting between Russia and Georgia.
Six years later, that never-fulfilled agreement and the continued protracted conflict in Georgia stand as something of a warning of the risks as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) become increasingly involved as intermediaries between Kyiv and Moscow.
Salome Samadashvili, a visiting fellow at the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies who was Georgia's ambassador to the EU during the 2008 conflict, has reservations. "The Russians themselves have always made it clear that their preferred interlocutor is the European Union rather than the United States and I think a reason for that is very clear -- they know how to play the European Union," she says.
Longtime Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, senior editor at the British weekly "The Economist and author of the book "Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes the West," is similarly skeptical. "Russia has a record of undermining the EU position and the EU has a rather weak record of standing up to Russia," he says. The EU has a "vulnerability" in that Russia can undermine its consensus by applying pressures on particular countries -- many of whom are dependent on Moscow's energy exports.
Small Steps Forward
Now it seems Moscow is applying the same tactics that were largely successful in its 2008 diplomacy to the crisis in Ukraine. An unidentified U.S. official quoted in "The New Republic" on July 17 said: "Putin is trying to create a frozen conflict while he plays rope-a-dope [eds: stalls for time] on the diplomacy." Some observers have noted that the conflict in eastern Ukraine has succeeded to some extent in pushing the annexation of Crimea in March off the agenda.
To be sure, the EU has upped its game to some extent since the days of Sarkozy's one-man show. It has established the External Action Service (something of a fledgling foreign ministry, established under EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton) and has made significant strides in coordinating many policies -- most notably in some aspects of energy policy.
But, Samadashvili warns, it is far from clear that Europe -- and the United States -- can hold together to make it painful for Russia to renege on any agreements. "Efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table should come in parallel with very serious threats that will be damaging -- economically and politically -- enough to the Russians that they have the incentives to actually follow through with the diplomatic talks and to fulfill whatever promises they undertake around the negotiating table," she says.
Can Russia Be Held To Account?
There are no exact comparisons between the 2008 Russia-Georgia War and the current crisis in Ukraine. And the Sarkozy agreement was a crisis-management measure intended primarily to cope with a dire situation as were Russian military forces occupying large swaths of Georgian territory and advancing on the capital, Tbilisi.
The plan was also driven by Sarkozy, whose country held the EU's presidency at the time. Lucas says it was largely "political grandstanding" on the French president's part, describing it as a "hastily drafted document" that "left a lot of problems to the future."
Despite the agreement, Russia failed to return to its prewar military positions, refused to allow the EU monitoring mission access to Georgian territory under its control, and proceeded to unilaterally recognize the independence of the two breakaway Georgian regions -- all without lasting consequences from the European Union.
In addition, the passage of time and the emergence of other crises have benefited Russia, as even Georgia is pushing less to keep the problem on the EU-Russia agenda, Samadashvili says. "The current Georgian government has chosen to avoid issues which make Georgia…a problem between the European Union and Russia," she says.
The West's track record on getting Putin to stick to international agreements has been poor, writes Andreas Umland of Kyiv's Mohyla Academy this week, with the Sarkozy agreement being just one example. "The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 on Ukrainian territorial integrity [in exchange for surrendering its Soviet-era nuclear weapons], the OSCE Document of 1999 on the removal of Russian troops from Moldova's Transdnistria region, the 2008 Sarkozy Plan on a Russian military withdrawal from Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, and the 2014 Geneva Declaration on freeing Ukrainian public spaces by pro-Russian separatists are all meaningless today," he wrote.
The Ukraine crisis presents numerous serious challenges to the European Union's foreign-policy mechanisms. If, for instance, the bloc sets up a monitoring mission in Ukraine, the danger of direct confrontation is very real. Already, OSCE observers in eastern Ukraine -- and the failure of Europe to get such monitors in Crimea was a clear victory for Russia -- have already been abducted by pro-Russian separatists in past incidents.
But the key test is unity. "On a very sharp issue like Ukraine where very tough decisions are needed at a very high level, Russia does still have an ability to play divide and rule," analyst Lucas says.