A pivotal moment in history is fast approaching, and for a change, the actors moving it seem keenly aware of its importance. The question now is whether they are prepared to create a new and exciting future, or if they will lose their chance out of timidity and inertia.
On November 28-29 in Vilnius, Lithuania, Ukraine and other Eastern European nations will meet with the European Union as part of the Eastern Partnership project Brussels launched years ago. The purpose of this meeting for Ukraine will be the signing of an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, the combination of which will draw Ukraine closer to Europe in trade, travel, and after two years of breakneck legal work, law and culture. It is a chance to vindicate the EU’s interests decisively.
Despite what has by an measure been some of the canniest diplomacy in decades by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his team, Ukraine is now caught between a bright future coupled with enormous pain, and a darker future with some sweetness in the short term. The fault for this lies with the two greater powers who want Ukraine in their orbit; and if Europe truly wants a European Ukraine, it is time for it to step forward and prove it.
The Eastern Partnership is often portrayed in Western papers as some sort of favor being done for Europe’s poor cousins in the East. It is not. Brussels sees markets for its products that are now locked behind trade barriers; easier access to energy supplies; and the possibility of ending, perhaps finally, the centuries-long struggle between Russia on the one side and the rest of Europe on the other. Bringing Ukraine — and Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan — into a closer relationship with the European Union will basically hit on the the EU’s core reasons for existing.
And Ukraine is the real prize in all of this. With a well-educated populace (and market) of 46 million and enormous manufacturing and agricultural industries, a rapidly-developing natural gas industry, and historic ties to the two poles of Europe, Ukraine is in a sense the entire object of the Eastern Partnership.
These core interests are jeopardized from within and without.
The EU’s vacillation on the issue of Yulia Tymoshenko — whose status may or may not be a deal-breaker for the Association Agreement — undermines these core interests. The EU’s mission to Ukraine on this topic, headed by former President of the European Parliament Pat Cox and former President of Poland Alexander Kwasniewski, has asked to extend its mission until Vilnius, while urging Kyiv to find some way to pardon Tymoshenko. With the opposition in Ukraine refusing to pass any bill allowing Tymoshenko to seek medical treatment unless it also pardons her, it is clear that Europe’s misplaced emphasis on the former Gas Princess is becoming a critical leverage point in Ukrainian politics, and thus jeopardizing the Association Agreement.
Europe has no concrete interest in allowing the Ukrainian opposition to play games for political advantage. While the Cox-Kwasniewski mission has done admirable work, it is time for Europe to look past its last, self-imposed obstacles and assert its own interests.
Yet there is a second, greater hurdle. In the face of losing its most populous satellite, the birthplace of its civilization, Moscow is offering the carrot and the stick. The carrot is not merely membership in the limited, high-tariff Eurasian Customs Union — a poor man’s European Union — but also nuclear energy, space telecommunications capacity, and, unsubtly, cheaper natural gas than the disastrous price Kyiv currently pays for it.
The stick will be an all-out trade war.
Ukraine’s economy is dependent on Russia in so many ways; the threat of a trade war endangers both Europe’s and Ukraine’s futures. As anyone who does business there knows, because of proximity, language, tariffs, and the history of the Soviet Union, to do business in Ukraine, you almost must do business with Russia. Russia is the largest single-nation trading partner Ukraine has, and the influence it wields through its Customs Union makes it even more significant.
It is little-appreciated outside of Ukraine that the country is in some ways two — a Western, Ukrainian-speaking one, and an Eastern, heavily Russian-speaking one. Battles over language, religion (the country is overwhelmingly Orthodox, but the East aligns with the Patriarch of Moscow, the West with the Ecumenical Patriarch), trade, and identity are subtexts in every election and much of the culture. A soft war with Russia would very likely tear Ukraine apart, perhaps literally.
Ukraine is now faced with choosing Europe and suffering a mortal or near-mortal wound, or choosing Russia and never seeing its full potential. Europe and the rest of the West have too many interests at stake to allow Ukraine to face this Hobson’s choice.
Brussels and Washington must do what they have been reluctant to do for years and forthrightly assert their interests in the face of all opposition. They must remind Vladimir Putin that Russia is dependent on Europe for its economy; that its own foreign policy initiatives can be stymied by the West; and that peace and trade are infinitely more profitable than conflict and stagnation. They must reassure Russia that Europe poses an opportunity through Ukraine; the threat only exists if Russia is determined to make one.
This, the West must do before Russia becomes convinced that it has no choice but to lash out. It must do this for Russia, for Ukraine, and most particularly for itself.
This article has been amended to include its a discussion of the EU Mission to Ukraine, since the latest report on the Cox-Kwasniewski Mission was filed.