(Written with the concurrence of the undersigned.)
Ukraine has announced that it has no choice but to suspend the planned signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union. This is a win for Russia, and a profound loss for the people of Ukraine and of Europe. The fault for this lies with Europe, a house divided that could not stand and seize a moment that was rightfully theirs.
In less than a week, Brussels and Kyiv were set to memorialize a decade of hard work — accelerated over the last two years — by both, especially Ukraine, in aligning their economies, political systems, and cultures. The pace and breadth of reform in Ukraine has been by any measure incredible, a testament to the country’s resolve and its determination to face a Western future. Ukrainians have suffered through the economic shocks that come with rapid reform, piled on top of the country’s experience with the global recession that began five years ago. Ukrainian industry still has some distance to travel before it is fully competitive with Europe’s; everyone knew that the country would suffer yet another shock when the proposed Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (also to be signed later this week) went into effect.
Ukraine has suffered and was prepared to suffer more for its dream of Europe, yet despite this, President Viktor Yanukovych has pushed forward, reflecting a shared desire among his people to finally turn West, once and for all.
For this, Russia declared economic war. Ukraine’s trade with its largest partner is down over 25 percent, year over year. Its attempts to escape the ruinous gas prices former Prime Minister Tymoshenko inflicted on it were stymied at every turn. And all of this was to be a mere preview of what would come should Ukraine finally make the leap to escape once and for all its thousand-year-long status as a Russian vassal. Yet at the same time, Russia offered loans, grants, natural gas discounts, and technology and industry transfers worth tens of billions of euros in return for Kyiv remaining aligned with its long-time cultural progeny.
For Ukraine’s efforts, in the face of the enormous dislocation the Association Agreement was causing, with the certainty of an economic war waged by Moscow that very likely would have broken the country, the European Union stood tall and offered … one billion euros. As a matter of perspective, consider that the eurozone has spent over four hundred billion euros to keep afloat the sclerotic PIGS economies (or in Greece’s case, to keep the rioting to a minimum). The International Monetary Fund has refused to free up much-needed funds unless Ukraine raises the price of natural gas by 40 percent on a people who even now sometimes experience gas shortages in the severe winter.
Some in Europe, led by Germany, tried to hide behind the issue of Yulia Tymoshenko’s imprisonment as their excuse for allowing Ukraine to twist in the wind. It is hard to determine if this is bad law, bad geopolitics, fundamental dishonesty, or some combination of these. Tymoshenko, despite her good looks, is hardly an angel. Her partner in the Orange Revolution, former President Viktor Yushchenko, not only fired her as Prime Minister once, but went out of his way to testify against her at her trial, accusing her of corruption of office to advance her presidential ambitions. She is credibly charged with corruption, tax evasion, money laundering, and a host of other crimes; and somewhat more murkily, she is also facing murder charges.
Germany’s decision to hang its refusal to bring Ukraine into the fold on Tymoshenko is therefore either inexcusably naive; a poor reading of Ukraine’s law, which like many European nations’ allows an incompetent politician to stand trial for abuse of office (witness Iceland); or is a fig-leaf for German indifference to finally removing once and for all the key component of a Russian empire — and with it, Moscow’s ability to plausibly disrupt the real aim of the European project, continental peace.
Russia has played for the prize of Ukraine — for its 46 millions, for its industry, for its gas pipelines, for its culture and history, for its geopolitical value and its economic potential — to win. Europe has played, when it has bothered to play, not to lose.
When faced with a determined foe and an indifferent-at-best friend, Kyiv had no rational choice but to back away from the Association Agreement — and for now, its European dream. On the one hand lay the hope of a prosperous European future, someday, and economic chaos and dislocation for years before. On the other lay comfort and some chance of surviving the winter. This failure should and must rest heavy on many heads, beginning with but hardly limited to Angela Merkel’s.
Yet Kyiv is signaling that not all is lost, that it remains committed to its reforms and a European path. The waiting market of 46 million — with its ready industry, agricultural power, and educated workforce — can still be had, and with it, the realization of the dream of a Europe that will never again face a catastrophic war. All Europe needs to do is match Ukraine’s commitment, a tiny task for one so powerful. All it needs to do is show that it is capable of understanding its own interests as well as Russia understands its own. A mere fraction of what it has given permanent sinkholes to its South can secure peace for generations.
Yanukovych and his government are today protecting the people who elected them. Brussels must now show them that there is safety, and not merely adversity, lying to the West.
Matthew Lina, Scholar
Erika Chen, Junior Scholar
Rich Seibert, Junior Scholar
Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons