Russia’s great foreign policy achievement of the last five years may not be its solidification of fingers into Georgia, its firm grip on Belarus and growing grip on Kazakhstan, its empire building inside and out, its vanquishing of American influence in the -stans, or its repeated humiliations of the US in international fora.
Instead, its greatest achievement may be its greatest defeat. Moscow may have sealed the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union once and for all, by demonstrating the pain and danger of the alternative.
Vladimir Putin’s most recent lesson in Russian sweet-talking began with a threat of a trade war, starting with a ban on the country’s largest chocolate exporter and ending with a brief preview of a full-out trade war by imposing extensive inspections on all Ukrainian goods. Although that round of punitive measures was canceled, Moscow made clear that a trade war was inevitable if Ukraine went forward with the “suicidal” act of signing the Association Agreement.
Lest anyone think that Russia had backed off from its efforts over the last two months, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Ukraine “mooching” and “freeloading” for its desire to provisionally join Putin’s nascent-empire Customs Union.
Russia has thus forced Ukrainians and Brussels to confront hard truths, and in the process, made Putin’s empire less likely.
Stefan Fuele, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, has stepped up to both rebuke Russia’s actions and to reassure Moscow that Ukraine can be part of both worlds. Ukrainian businessmen — from the so-called oligarchs to the trade associations — have cast their lot with Europe, understanding that Russia does not seek a partner, but a slave, and a slave can be killed or beaten at will.
President Viktor Yanukovych has pushed hard for the Verkhovna Rada to pass the reforms Europe has demanded for the Association Agreement, and as his party is the majority, Kyiv is moving historic reforms at an unheard-of pace. Ukraine’s government on Wednesday approved a draft of the Agreement for signature.
Perhaps most importantly, Ukraine’s opposition has dropped its reflexive objection to anything and everything proposed by the government and has joined in crafting and passing on a bipartisan basis those laws needed to meet Europe’s criteria. “We are passing legislation with the support of 400 MPs out of 450,” said Ukrainian MP Yulia Lyovochkina, speaking at a recent conference in Paris in which Ukrainian parliamentarians, from both the government and opposition, and prominent international speakers briefed the French foreign policy establishment on Ukraine’s future with Europe.
Of all of Putin’s many accomplishments, forcing the United Opposition to stop chanting “Tymoshenko” again and again and get down to the practical business of governance may be the most incredible.
Speaking at the same conference, former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski said Ukraine had fulfilled most of the conditions Europe had imposed for the Association Agreement, adding that “Ukraine needs Europe and Europe needs Ukraine.”
Brussels has for too long imagined that Ukraine will always be waiting and ready to jump through whatever hoops are demanded for even a chance to come closer to Europe, and undeniably, the nearly 80 percent of the country who want closer ties with the West have made and will continue to make enormous sacrifices to get there. But Russia has, inadvertently, reminded the EU that there are others with their sights set on Kyiv’s economic and political riches, and those suitors will not wait forever.
A hard dawn is coming to the wreckage of Russia’s empire. There will be pain and, if he is smart, opportunities for Putin in that dawn; but because he has tried so hard to keep it from happening, Vladimir Putin has made much more likely a shared morning together for Ukraine and the European Union.
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