Ukraine, the European Union, Russia, and 2014

Europe bungled 2013.

Running a country, or a supernational bloc, is different in most ways from running a business, with a single exception: sometimes you can’t make up for your mistakes. In 2013, the European Union lost an argument between soft power and harder power, between feel-good promises and concrete results, with Russia. Brussels lost in Armenia in a barely-contested fight. She lost ground in Georgia and Moldova.

Brussels came very close to losing Ukraine. That it has not is a result of both President Viktor Yanukovych’s determination to tread out a European future and the Ukrainian people’s desire to see themselves a formal part of Europe.

None of the credit goes to the European Union, which has been possessed of an almost incomprehensible mix of dysfunction, arrogance, blindness, and naivete. Others have noted that Europe seemed ill-prepared for Russia’s all-but-military assault on Kyiv, a combination of cultural and economic attacks designed to both undermine Yanukovych and to bring Ukraine’s economy to the brink of ruin if it came closer to Europe. Yet most commentators, caught in the now, see a united Europe condemning Ukraine for growing closer to Russia, forgetting that just days before the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, Europe was basically divided between a pro-German bloc wanting a hard line on Ukraine and a pro-Poland bloc desperate to end Russian influence at its doorstep.

This divided message gave Vladimir Putin the opening he needed, and he exploited it; Europe sat agog, amazed that the offer of a free trade zone and easier travel could be set aside in the face of economic ruin. When Kyiv begged for more help, or at least an open dialogue between the three capitals, they were spurned.

The result is a Ukraine that believes it must look to its own interests as no one else will. This is not how the Eastern Partnership was to end, and yet for now, it has.

2014 must be different. The European project is frankly in more danger than its participants, stuck on the inside and seeing the same as it ever has been, imagine. Its south is riddled with even higher levels of corruption and economic dysfunction than the norm. Its north enjoyed the blessings of a stable market to the immediate south and now would just as soon be rid of it. Russian adventurism is on the rise.

A united Europe is not merely a way to have a convoluted bailout structure, finance German reunification, prop up Greek pensioners, and overregulate commerce. It is about an expanded rule of law and peace, shared values that bring previously warring peoples together and defuse centuries of hostility in endless meetings and conferences. It is about growing together rather than killing one another.

For too long, Brussels has refused to believe that anyone could be less than suicidally tempted to sign on to this arrangement. Today, one hundred years after the old Concert of Europe consensus broke down in death and slaughter, the last post-cataclysmic war consensus is breaking down.

The path forward will involve forging a new consensus, one where Europe speaks to its future partners — and adversaries — as equals and fellow players in the game of politics. Brussels must understand both Kyiv’s and Moscow’s national interests to restart its long project. This will mean dialogue, clearer thinking, and a hardnosed sense of unity.

The lessons of the past make this an imperative. It is an open question whether Europe is prepared to do it.

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