It has often been said over the last three months that there can be no Russian Empire without Ukraine, the post-Soviet region’s sweetest spoil. Putin has made no secret of his desire to keep it within Russia's sphere of influence.
But does Europe have an equal longing for Ukraine? Or will the continent’s courtship of Kiev remain as half-assed as in years past?
As the Ukraine crisis moves, uneasily, into its next phase — with President Yanukovych fleeing the capital and stripped of power, opposition leaders maneuvering for influence, and protesters clearing streets of cartridges and corpses — the country has acquired a symbolic stature. The future of Euromaidan, it seems, is not just about the political soul of Ukraine, but about an ultimate East-West reckoning, the culmination of a 20-year contest between Brussels and Moscow that has become reminiscent of the Cold War. In this view, Ukraine (which is derived from a Slavic word meaning ‘borderland’) is a stand-in for the post-Soviet world: whichever way Kiev goes, so goes the region.
But is the European Union really playing this geopolitical game?
“The people who made this an East-West issue sit in the Kremlin,” John Herbst, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, told VICE News. “If Yanukovych had walked away from the deal with the EU, and had let the demonstrators against that decision demonstrate until they got tired, then probably none of this would have happened.” American and European diplomats would have given Yanukovych a bit of a tongue-lashing, “and that would have been about it,” he said.
It’s true that protests kicked off in Kiev in November after Yanukovych chose an alliance with Moscow over an association agreement with the EU. But let’s not forget that full EU membership for Ukraine was hardly a certainty at the time, and was in fact an unpopular proposition in countries like Germany, which correctly judged that Ukraine hadn’t certified its democratic credentials since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
At the very least, Ukraine was a long way off from full EU membership. Years ago, the European Commission in Brussels could have lowered its bar and made it easier for Kiev to join. This would have established a strong economic incentive for Yanukovych to remain engaged with Europe, but the Commission didn’t help matters. Even with the present crisis, the Commission's President, Jose Manuel Barroso, recently scoffed at the idea that the EU would enter into a bidding war with Putin over Ukraine.
Protesters stood guard at key government buildings in Ukraine
The notion that Ukraine was, in November, going to fall imminently into Europe’s open embrace was entirely foolhardy.
So a question lingers: if Yanukovych hadn’t moved toward authoritarianism and committed such monstrous atrocities in Ukraine — if he hadn’t rubber-stamped the brutal slaughter of his own citizens — how hard would Europe have fought for Kiev?
Former Ambassador Herbst thinks it wouldn’t have fought hard. It was the regime’s brutality, he says, that “drove the EU to take steps that [its] major powers did not want to take.”
Since the early days of the Maidan, shrew regional commentators have rushed to make a very awkward point: that the EU definitely doesn’t need Kiev, thank you very much. “The EU has not sought to force Ukraine in any way to sign an agreement,” argues John Lough, associate fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank. “It was, after all, the Ukrainians who came to the EU back in 2005 and started the process to negotiate an association agreement, and carried it on all these years.”
Back then, Brussels took a hard line on its potential member, demanding that Kiev accept hundreds of EU rules and regulations and implement painful reforms. Even then, full membership wasn’t on the table. Neither were gifts of easy money of the sort that Russia has since (kind of) pledged. Steven Pifer, another former US ambassador to Ukraine, recently wrote in the New York Times that “EU officials see little reason to pay Ukraine to take steps that are in its own interest.”
The economist Pekka Sutela amplified this point in another NY Times opinion piece, noting that Ukraine, while boasting a population of 46 million, “is, in G.D.P. terms, the same size as a European nation of five million people.” Its purchasing potential, in other words, is sub-excellent. The country is notoriously graft-ridden, its bureaucracy unstable and schismatic.
Ukraine does play a critical role in gas transit between Russia and the EU, but Sutela expects this role to fade. “The twin Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is used only to half capacity,” he explained. “In a few years all gas transit through Ukraine could be ended.”
A reported 50,000 people attended a rally in the port city of Sevastopol on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on February 23
What about Ukraine’s self-determination? Is it true that formal engagement with the EU the country’s path out of the post-Soviet slump?
Jeffrey Sommers, a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs, is doubtful. “I have concerns about seeing the EU as the answer” for Ukraine, he told VICE News. “I think it’s not.” Sommers argues that in the lead-up to EU accession, increased trade with Europe might not be a long-term leg-up for Kiev. A country like Germany pursues trade with the East in order to secure new export markets. Sommers pointed out that this has generally come “at the expense of the development of the states that [Germany] was engaging with. In other words, they weren’t developing their own consumer sector.”
On a recent trip to Kiev, I met plenty of people on Independence Square who didn’t care a hoot about EU accession.
It is the EU’s more fresh-faced members, such as Poland and Estonia, who are pushing for Ukrainian membership. But this is due more to their belief in the transformative power of the EU than a belief that Ukraine will be good for Europe.
The ambivalence of leading EU nations Germany and France has been on prime display for several months, particularly in the EU’s lackluster management of sanctions during the government’s repression of the protests. The EU took three months to agree on a sanctions deal, by which point dozens of Ukrainians had been slaughtered at the hands of state security forces. German Chancellor Angela Merkel continued to sidestep the issue of sanctions even after her own foreign minister plead for them. It was only last week that the European Investment Bank suspended activities in Ukraine.
Herbst noted that the United States issued visa sanctions against senior Ukrainian officials in late January. “We were urging the EU to do something similar,” he said. “The EU was resisting our advice, as sometimes happens.” (This expression is more subdued than the objection of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who in a recently leaked telephone call expressed emphatic disdain for EU foot-dragging in Kiev: “Fuck the EU!”)
With the situation in Ukraine as precarious as ever — and with post-Olympics Russia free to focus on the situation in Kiev — calls for EU action have grown. On Wednesday, as bloodshed in Kiev reached its zenith, some pro-Russia residents of the autonomous Ukrainian region of Crimea invited Putin to dispatch troops to their region to protect them from “genocide.” “Russia could engineer a coup in Ukraine out of sheer nervousness and lack of better ideas,” worries historian Timothy Snyder.
Western officials are steeling themselves. Ukraine is on the brink of catastrophic financial default. On Sunday, EU economics chief Olli Rehn promised financial support to Ukraine, and hinted that eventual EU membership for Ukraine would follow. At the same time, the IMF will likely ready its own aid package, though this would be contingent on “important economic reforms” that are unlikely to be carried out under an interim Ukrainian government. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has agreed to a “Ukrainian Plan” that “won’t be small.” The next few months ahead of elections to be held in May will be an especially critical period.
It remains to be seen just how far Europe will go to welcome Ukraine into its fold. Will its new keenness dissipate if the situation in Kiev stabilizes? We shouldn’t take for granted that the EU’s openness will last.
In the meantime, Europe should broaden its focus. Georgia and Moldova both initiated trade deals with the EU in November, but they remain susceptible to Putin’s crushing attention. Armenia, which recently ditched Brussels in favor of Moscow, may already be too far gone — to say nothing of Belarus and Kazakhstan, which are squarely in Russia’s column.
What role Yanukovych himself will play in all this remains to be seen. Though hemorrhaging support, Yanukovych holds firm to his claim of authority. He was last spotted near the Russian border on Saturday, appearing on television to insist that he was still Ukraine’s leader. He accused his opponents of engineering a “coup d’état,” and compared the Maidan protesters to Nazis.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s acting government issued a warrant for his arrest.