You would not know it from news reports, but Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has one of the hardest jobs in world politics: He is trying to guide Ukraine into a European future without antagonizing Moscow, who would very much prefer to see Ukraine face East and never again have the temerity to face West.
A critical moment is approaching in November, when Ukraine and the European Union are set to sign an historic Association Agreement and create a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. Russia is determined to stop this.
On the one hand, there is long-term growth, growing European norms at home, and the chance to deliver Ukraine to the European future for which it has aimed for a decade. On the other, there is the opportunity for immediate economic growth and a large, well-armed neighbor with a history of imperial ambitions and invading its neighbors with impunity.
As we reported last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Ukraine to celebrate the 1,025th anniversary of the mass-baptism of the Kyivan Rus’, one of the seminal moments in the shared history of Ukraine and Russia. At his side were the leaders of an array of Eastern Orthodox Churches, including the Russian one, which is the dominant force in that part of world Orthodoxy (and arguably the dominant force in all of Orthodoxy).
Putin was not there to promote a faith which he holds only for political purposes; he was there to apply all of the force of culture and blood and history and faith to the country that birthed Slavic civilization, to bring it back into Moscow’s orbit. He was also there to make a pitch for the Eurasian Customs Union and what it offers to Ukraine. “Competition on global markets is very fierce today. I am sure that most of you realize that only by joining forces can we be competitive and stand a chance of winning in this tough environment. We have every reason too, to be confident that we should and can achieve this,” he said, according to a Kremlin transcript.
Yanukovych played the same delicate game he has since becoming President, calling Russia a “strategic partner” and emphasizing that Ukraine “values [its] friendship with Russia.” What Yanukovych did not say of course is that why yes, Kyiv would like to fall back under Russia’s thumb again.
Putin is no fool, and so he is now reminding Ukraine of the dangers of a European course. Moscow has announced that Roshen, the maker of Ukraine’s best chocolate (and a major exporting firm), is banned from Russia, on the pretext of health and sanitation concerns that have absolutely slipped by everyone else in the world.
Although the states of the European Union are collectively Ukraine’s largest trade partner, Russia is the largest single-state trading partner Kyiv has, accounting for a fifth of the country’s exports and imports. Adding Belarus and Kazakhstan — Russia’s vassals under the Eurasian Union project — the total surpasses the EU’s trade with Ukraine. Putin is threatening a trade war that would wipe out one-third of Ukraine’s trade overnight.
And those ties of blood and faith and culture are not quiet, either. Although only a third of Ukrainians want membership in the Customs Union (against forty percent who want membership in the EU), that third is vocal and influential, and disproportionately located in Ukraine’s industrial East. The celebration of the baptism of the Kyivan Rus’ was beautiful, but its importance in Ukraine’s collective soul is more important than mere pageantry.
Yanukovych has nevertheless kept Russia at bay while continuing Ukraine’s Westward drive. European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Stefan Füle, speaking with a Polish newspaper, noted that while Kyiv still has some distance to go, it is still on-track to sign the Association Agreement with Brussels that will liberalize trade and travel between Ukraine and the EU. “I see a positive trend: the government understands how important agreement is for the country and for us,” Füle said.
He added that the EU is determined not to push Ukraine into Russia’s orbit, but that was perhaps more hopeful than realistic. Ukraine has labored for years to reach this moment, and Yanukovych’s government is determined to show that Ukraine is a European nation, and not a mere Russian subject. Vladimir Putin, however, is determined to see Ukraine as a part of Russia’s empire at almost any cost, and there will certainly be more shots fired before November. The EU has waxed hot and cold, and only recently begun to show determination to see the Association Agreement signed.
The stakes are high for all involved. Russia cannot be an empire without Ukraine. The European Union cannot lose its most powerful potential outpost in the former Soviet Union. Ukraine has committed its heart, its economy, and increasingly its laws and norms to Europe.
Moscow and Kyiv realize the stakes. Hopefully, Brussels does as well.