Vladimir Putin: Hero of Ukraine

When the story of Ukraine’s drive for Europe is written, Vladimir Putin will star in an outsized role. Yet this time, it is not merely because of his enormous personality, his domination of Russian politics and the politics of his neighbors, or because of the canny maneuvers that have brought him so close to finally realizing his dream of a resurgent Russian Empire.

This time, one of his rare blunders will be known as perhaps the final push that brought Brussels and Kyiv together at last.

Putin’s decision to preview a trade war for Ukraine — on the heels of celebrating the 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of the Kievan Rus, a combination of cultural appeal and brute Realpolitik — clarified matters enormously. Where in the spring it seemed more likely that Ukraine and the European Union would enter a new era of relations and free trade in Vilnius before, now it seems very close to certain.

As The Economist recently noted, “Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, deserves the highest medal of Ukraine. He has done more for its European integration in the past few months than any Ukrainian politician has over the past 20 years.” The venerable magazine also notes that Putin’s attempt to bully Ukraine out of signing the Association Agreement with the European Union in November has left Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych guardedly buoyant. “We have some optimism that the European Parliament will take this historic step together with Ukraine,” he said Friday.

This echoes a tone now heard throughout Europe and Ukraine. “What we have seen during the past few weeks is brutal Russian pressure against the partnership countries of a sort that we haven’t seen in Europe for a very long time,” said Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt last month, as reported by Reuters, describing Moscow’s actions as “economic warfare.”

Perhaps more remarkably, the reforms Ukraine has passed at lightning speed and Putin’s bullying have helped defuse the issue that somewhat irrationally generates the most emotion between Brussels and Kyiv: Yulia Tymoshenko.

Ukraine has to carry out a range of judicial, electoral and business reforms to secure the association agreement, as well as finding a solution to the case of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister now imprisoned for abuse of power following a 2011 trial the EU said was based on selective justice. …

What’s more, Ukraine says it is not possible to release Tymoshenko unconditionally as it would violate the law, an argument officials in Brussels acknowledge has some truth.

That admission alone is a remarkable thing. For two years, Ukraine’s protests that the West is demanding a double standard — enforce your laws except when we say so — were blithely ignored. With Putin reminding European leaders that a real game of nations is afoot, with consequences not only for Ukraine’s 46 million but for all of Western and Eastern Europe as well, it appears that Europe is finally being serious about Ukraine and its drive for the West.

Ukraine’s Opposition, long broadly in favor of Yulia Tymoshenko and little else, has also realized the stark nature of the choices Kyiv faces, and so has finally backed Yanukovych’s reforms in Parliament. Ukrainian business interests, seeing how Vladimir Putin has been willing to abuse them to make a point, are opting for the rule of law.

Three years ago, there was a broad fear in the West that Yanukovych’s election to the presidency foretold a return to Russia’s embrace. The three years since have shown quite the opposite, with reforms in most major sectors and more en route, and the world has finally come to terms with this. For this, Yanukovych, his party, and now the opposition deserve credit; the dream of Europe may finally almost be at hand.

Yet when all of the credit is counted, Vladimir Putin should take a bow as well. He gambled his empire brutally, and he appears to have lost.

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