We all have but one planet. The danger of nuclear war, climate emergency and ecological disasters mean that maintaining peace is an imperative for the very survival of humanity. Wars destabilize not only parts of our globe - they add to the universal insecurity and undermine the possibility of addressing shared threats.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, growing momentum had been building around the world to address the behemoth task of combating climate change. An increasing number of countries was showing greater ambition in their climate neutrality goals. Security experts developed new tools to assess and prevent climate-induced security threats. Developed economies seemed eager to exploit new opportunities for innovation and economic growth that the transition to climate-neutral policies promises. The European Union has been undoubtedly at the forefront of these initiatives, having launched the ambitious European Green Deal (EGD) in 2020 and streamlined its external action with the core objectives of its green policy at home. The Agenda for the EU-Eastern Partnership Cooperation adopted at the EU-EaP Summit in December 2021 is another step in this direction. It reaffirms joint commitment to “increasing prosperity and fostering peace, stability, sustainability and resilience in the region” via an approach based on common values, mutual interests, and shared ownership. Enhancing environmental and climate resilience by advancing the green transition is one of its key priorities.
The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is a joint initiative launched in 2009 by the European Union and its member states, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Notably, it excludes Russia and is perceived by Moscow as a channel for Western influence in what it has always called its “near abroad”. Although framed by the EU as primarily a project of regulatory transfer in multiple policy realms such as trade, education, and transportation, among others, it had considerable political impact on EaP countries as it contributes to changing their normative frameworks and incentive structures. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created multiple crises in the region and further politicized and securitized relations among these six countries and the EU. It calls for each of these countries’ reassessment of threats and priorities so that their bilateral relations with Brussels remain tailor-made and co-produced. As such, the EU will need to strike a difficult balance between addressing immediate security concerns and maintaining its long-term focus on climate change and the “green” transition in the region.
This paper discusses the recently adopted EaP-EU cooperation agenda with a particular focus on its environmental and climate resilience goals. It examines specific “green” priorities to be found in the bilateral relations between each of the six countries and Brussels and highlights the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on said nations as well as the region as a whole. The paper identifies key challenges in advancing the “green” agenda in the region during – and after – the war.
How “green” is the new EU-EaP Agenda?
2021 was dedicated to the previous agenda’s assessment for cooperation between the EU and EaP countries and to the development through joint consultation of the new agenda for cooperation, which was approved at the EU-EaP Summit on 15 December 2021. The agenda puts Recovery, Resilience, and Reform to the forefront and has a substantial “green transformation” component to it. It is more ambitious and makes explicit links between the European Green Deal (EGD) and the EaP policies in common policy areas including the environment, energy, climate, biodiversity protection, pollution control, and the sustainable use of natural resources. Although the environment and sustainable development have been a key component of the EU external policies for a while now, they remained in the “low politics” realm and benefitted from relatively modest resources. With the EGD’s adoption, the environment-related components of the EaP programming have shifted to the fore as the EU has pledged that at least 25% of its external aid will be dedicated to climate-related objectives.
In its own words, the new agenda aims at strengthening longer-term resilience as well as making EU and partner countries’ joint investments forward-looking and founded on the “build back better” agenda and the “do no significant harm” to environment and climate principle. Inspired by the European Green Deal, this is a historic opportunity to fast-track the twin green and digital transition with a whole of economy approach, decouple economic growth from resource use and environmental degradation, and pursue climate neutrality by 2050. This will offer multiple opportunities for growth and jobs whilst increasing Eastern Partners’ competitiveness in the growing global markets for sustainable and green technologies. […] In line with the new EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, anticipatory and preventive climate resilience and preparedness will also be mainstreamed.
The agenda’s environmental and climate resilience objective covers the following areas:
- Benefits for people’s health and wellbeing (air pollution, clean water, and sanitation), strategic environmental assessments and environmental statistics, public awareness, and information campaign;
- Circular economy, climate neutrality, and green growth, investing in renewable energy and raising energy efficiency leading to economic growth and jobs, facilitating the transition to less wasteful, more resource-efficient and decarbonized production via mainstreaming climate policy in all economic policies and improving environmental governance; implementing nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement and Low-Emissions Development Strategy; scaling up climate and green financing for infrastructure, transport, the energy sector, and SMEs; public-private partnerships and systematic environmental assessments; eco-innovation policies; improved waste management, and increased recycling;
- Energy security and nuclear safety, including clean energy systems, energy efficiency of buildings for energy infrastructure, energy legislative and regulatory framework, exploration of options for renewable hydrogen generation and use as well as for environmentally sound investments in hydro, solar, wind, and geothermal sources; reduction, where applicable, of methane emissions throughout the whole energy value chain;
- Sustainable and smart mobility;
- The sheer scale and complexity of these objectives means that their fulfillment will depend on a number of factors, from the amount of investment that will be made available to EaP countries’ absorption capacity. The synergies that might emerge within and across different policy fields will also be of the utmost importance. Overall, the agenda seems to prioritize a more comprehensive and tailor-made approach by combining actions at the local, national, and regional levels and by adapting strategic plans for each country’s specific needs. Following in the footsteps of the Team Europe approach introduced in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic and investment plan is based on facilitating and leveraging public and private investments. The EU’s support continues to be contingent upon a conditionality and incentives-based approach, with particular emphasis on structural reforms, especially as regards the rule of law and anti-corruption as the preconditions for effective policy and greater legitimacy across all domains.
Priorities for each EaP country
In line with its stance on partnering for country-specific needs, the EU has adopted ten top targets as well as five flagship initiatives specific for each country based on each EaP country’s inputs. In order to achieve concrete demonstrable results, each flagship has specific benchmarks and an estimated investment plan.
Armenia prioritizes the green and digital transition, with particular emphasis on completing its north-south corridor and further developing its southern regions. Full recovery is also conditional on the post-war reconstruction of conflict-affected regions and broader peacebuilding and reconciliation work once the conditions allow for that. Crucially, Armenia’s reliance on Russia as a security guarantor in Nagorno-Karabakh puts its relations with the EU at risk. Moreover, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), led by Moscow, it may find itself in an extremely difficult position should the Kremlin decide to mobilize its CSTO allies for its war effort. Armenia is also closely linked to Russia economically and has been working on the de-dollarization of its bilateral trade with Russia since the latter found itself under sanctions. As Moscow is pushing to strengthen its ties with Armenia, the recently ratified Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between Yerevan and Brussels is at risk of falling short of its potential. While CEPA is often cited as a successful solution to cooperation with a country that is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s war in Ukraine is transforming regional cooperation schemes into zero-sum arrangements regardless of their stated objectives.
Azerbaijan, the second biggest exporter of energy in the region after Russia, has economic diversification at the heart of its policy agenda, including support for SMEs, rural development, and support for smart and green cities. Its energy cooperation with the EU is assured through the Southern Gas Corridor, whose importance is difficult to overestimate in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the urgency with which Brussels is phasing out its gas imports from Moscow. The Corridor’s possible extension, appropriately future-proofed to accommodate the transmission of low/zero-carbon gases, could also lead to economic diversification and transitory decarbonization in other countries and regions in the EU’s vicinity in the future. Similar to Armenia, the EU is ready to support broader peacebuilding and conflict reconstructions efforts in the country, when conditions allow for that. At the same time, the EU’s overreliance on Azerbaijan for gas imports may render its peacebuilding role in the region more difficult.
Reports of escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh put the peace process between these two countries at risk. Azerbaijan sees the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of its territory under international law, and negotiations between Yerevan and Baku to find a shared solution for the future of these territories have not yielded results so far. Russia’s protracted war in Ukraine may be seen by Azerbaijan as pretext for renewed military action to occupy even more territory. Baku may gamble on the fact that the Kremlin is too tied up in Ukraine to honor its peacekeeping commitment, while strained relations between Russia and other countries who may act as mediators in Nagorno-Karabakh — including France, the US, and Turkey — could hinder the effectiveness of de-escalation and conflict-management mechanisms.
Cooperation with Belarus, following President Lukashenko’s repression tactics against his own people, has been put on hold pending a democratic transition of power in the country. The EU stands ready to support Belarus with a comprehensive economic plan, including the digital and green transformation as well as democratic reforms. So far, President Lukashenko has unconditionally supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and authorised Russian troops’ stationing on Belarusian territory, which has been used as a springboard to attack Ukraine from the north. At the time of writing, Minsk continues to provide its territory to Russian troops for ballistic missile attacks, air raids, and the passage of military personnel and heavy weapons. In terms of international law, this makes Belarus a direct participant in the Russian aggression, although its troops have not entered the Ukrainian territory directly. At the same time, Belarusian society does not support the Russian aggression against Ukraine and numerous acts of sabotage against the war effort have been reported.
Georgia will receive support for SMEs, access to finance, and help with boosting its export potential. It puts a strong emphasis on transport connectivity in the Black Sea area, which is currently under threat due to the ongoing war and the blockade of maritime routes in the area. The protracted war in Ukraine puts Georgia’s trade – and tourism – dependent economy at high risk. With its politics highly polarized over the past several years and the security situation in its break-away republics unclear, the country is in a vulnerable position. Relations between Tbilisi and Kyiv are hostage to domestic political clashes that have only intensified since the beginning of the Russian invasion, undermining the idea of an “Association Trio” acting in accord in the region. The influx of Russian immigrants into Georgia further complicates social dynamics in a country where the memories of the 2008 war against Moscow are still fresh and public discussions of a possible renewal of fighting in the break-away territories have resumed.
Moldova aims at exploiting the full potential of the DCFTA with the EU, including through concrete initiatives such as an inland freight terminal. However, it finds itself in a highly vulnerable position due to the Russian military presence in the separatist enclave of Transnistria. Moreover, its proximity to the war zone puts its infrastructure at risk, while its fierce 2021 gas dispute against Moscow makes it particularly sensitive to the issue of energy security. In addition, at the moment of writing, Moldova has received more Ukrainian refugees pro capita than any other country, including Poland.
Prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s priorities included finalizing its land reform, improving its transport infrastructure on the extended TEN-T network, and aligning its policies with the EGD. The scale of destruction due to Russia’s particularly ruthless military strategy means Kyiv would need a massive Marshall Plan-type of assistance for its post-war reconstruction effort, including a targeted plan to deal with the environmental fallout of the war. Very concrete challenges are already apparent in the areas liberated by the Ukrainian army: dealing with debris, such as destroyed military and civilian transport as well as used ammunitions; cleaning up hazardous waste; addressing the housing shortage without compromising the longer-term objective of energy-efficient and ecologically sustainable housing; and rebuilding energy, water, and waste management infrastructure according to standards of ecological sustainability. The Ukrainian government needs immediate help with adopting the relevant environmental legislation and with implementing environmental monitoring and strategic environmental assessments for these projects. Pilot projects could be implemented in the liberated municipalities to serve as templates for the bigger reconstruction effort once the conflict is over. Two specific objectives set out before the war – sustainable rural development and renewable hydrogen production – have only gained more urgency given the looming energy and food crises provoked by the Russian aggression.
Overall, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has rendered all six EaP countries more vulnerable to political, economic, and environmental crises on top of increasing the risk of escalation in conflict zones. It has also disrupted nascent regional links as each country is trying to manage the war’s fallout individually. Despite all these challenges, the initial idea behind the new Agenda – whereby the complete green transformation would have been impossible without the EU’s neighbours – should not be lost and its long-term green components ought not be sacrificed in light of immediate security concerns. While the initial approach has been one of investing in low-hanging fruit projects, it will most likely need to be complemented with bigger, region-wide initiatives aimed at addressing shared problems once the war ends.
The impact of the war
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — in its third month at the time of writing — has been characterized by massive damage to the environment, to the extent that some experts are debating the possibility of prosecuting the Kremlin for “environmental war crimes”, an initiative without precedent yet not impossible according to international law.
First and foremost, there is high potential for intentional or inadvertent nuclear disaster due to heavy fighting around nuclear sites. Control over nuclear plants would allow Russia to cut off electricity supplies to Ukraine and blackmail its government, which only increases the risk of intense fighting in the vicinity of such facilities, as recent data shows. Proposals by the International Atomic Energy Agency to establish international protection over those sites – Ukraine has 15 active nuclear reactors – have not been heeded. Moreover, heavy shelling and aerial bombardments suffered by densely populated areas, refineries, fuel storage areas, chemical plants, and metallurgical facilities have led to major fires and release toxic materials into the air, ground, and water. Additional concerns have been voiced about contamination from Russian depleted uranium munitions that are leaving toxic waste on the Ukrainian territory. The issue of pollution is further compounded by enormous amounts of greenhouse gases emitted by military vehicles and other heavy machinery as well as oil products emitted by the military ships in the Black and Azov Seas.
Escalating warfare produces an irreparable damage to biodiversity within Ukraine as well as in shared ecosystems. Fighting in the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve — Ukraine’s largest UNESCO protected area — has generated fires that can be seen from space. Marine wildlife, including the rare Black Sea dolphin, is in high danger because of waste released in the sea. Fighting and bombings are disrupting wildlife corridors and key flyways that link Asia to Europe as well as the Black Sea coast with territories to the north, thus putting at risk migration and mating for thousands of species. Multiple Areas of Special Conservation Interest that are part of the Emerald Network are currently in the war zone. Furthermore, damaged infrastructure has implications for Europe’s transnational interconnections, especially for existing and future energy corridors as well as trade roots, which contributes to exacerbating the energy and food crises both in Ukraine and Europe at large.
Another question looming large since the start of the war is energy security. While on the one hand the war has accelerated the implementation of measures aimed at cutting off Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels, on the other hand, the urgency with which Russia’s hydrocarbons need to be replaced in the overall energy mix puts the planned “green” transition at risk.
The new – REPowerEU strategy aims to reduce the EU’s gas imports from Russia by nearly two-thirds by the end of 2022 and to make Europe independent from all Russian fossil fuels well before 2030. The Green Deal’s Vice President, Frans Timmermans announced Brussels stands ready to reduce its reliance on Russian gas by two-thirds via increased imports of liquified natural gas (LNG) as well as sustainable energy sources such as biomethane, clean hydrogen, and renewable energy. However, discussions around how much Russian gas can and should be replaced with alternative gas and how much can realistically be replaced with alternative sources of energy are still ongoing. The bloc has been in talks with gas providers such as the US, Norway, Qatar, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea. Moreover, a number of new renewable energy projects are underway in Germany and Italy, though their share in the overall energy mix remains limited. Meanwhile, increased LNG imports, would require additional investments in infrastructure despite the fact that its overall ecological footprint is bigger than that of pipeline gas due to the energy intensive liquefaction phase it requires.
Overall, not everyone agrees with the Commission’s approach, arguing that a “partial and gradual wind-down of volumes from Russia is ineffective” as it risks driving prices up even further, essentially compensating Moscow for the loss of volume. In addition to the debate about the costs and benefits of a more drastic approach against Russian fossil fuels, what matters from the EGD’s standpoint is the overall strategic approach, whereby a more rapid transition away from energy-intensive industries in Europe may be justified despite its costs. In addition, as Ukrainian environmental activists point out, the costs of a protracted war may eventually outweigh the costs of the full fossil fuel embargo on Russia. More clarity on the European energy transition strategy is also important for the EaP: the six countries can become part of the European energy strategy when the conflict is over through synergies that will contribute to post-war reconstruction and development.
Overall, while the new Agenda for the EU-Eastern Partnership Cooperation remains highly relevant for each EaP country as well as the region as a whole, Brussels needs to update its initiatives in each of these countries in a way that addresses the multiple crises unleashed by the war. It also needs to strengthen the agenda’s multilateral component in a way that could jump-start regional integration once the conflict is over. While institutional reforms will have to be implemented individually, many environmental and “green” transition projects will require a region-wide approach.