By Matthew Bryza
It is understandable that European leaders are angry with Russia for spoiling the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius by pressuring Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to “suspend” signing of Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement (see EDM, November 22, December 3, 4). Moscow’s hardball tactics created a diplomatic debacle for the EU, as President Vladimir Putin (yet again) violated his self-serving maxim of non-interference in countries’ internal affairs by yanking Ukraine from the EU’s open door at the eleventh hour, just as he had done earlier by forcing Armenia to choose the Eurasian Customs Union over the EU (see EDM, September 5). Putin’s closure of Russian markets to Ukrainian exports and his threat to raise natural gas prices struck at the heart of the personal interests of many of the oligarchs who dominate Ukrainian politics; these tactics also infuriated European leaders as economic blackmail aimed at sabotaging EU foreign policy.
But this European anger is somewhat misplaced. Moscow is indeed exploiting weaknesses in Ukraine for Russia’s geopolitical and geo-economic gain. But it is President Viktor Yanukovch and Ukraine’s political elite who are responsible for perpetuating these vulnerabilities. By exploiting Ukraine’s weaknesses, President Putin is acting rationally in pursuit of a centuries-old goal of Kremlin foreign policy, keeping Ukraine in Russia’s orbit.
Rather than being disappointed with Russia for behaving like Russia, the EU would be more effective if it recognized that Europe and Russia have been playing different games. The EU is engaged in a competition of values to attract Ukraine and the five other Eastern Partners (Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia) to its consensus-based community that has replaced armed conflict with bureaucratic collaboration. Russia is engaged in a competition of power in pursuit of geostrategic influence through economic, political, and even military strong-arming. Regardless of how passionately European leaders argue that EU enlargement poses no threat to Russia, Russia’s top geostrategic thinkers will disagree, given their belief that any increase in EU influence in the region is a loss of Russian influence.
The EU would therefore be wise to stop romanticizing Russia as a strategic partner that shares European values, and then lamenting Russia’s pursuit of its own national interests as somehow immoral. Instead, the EU should start competing with Russia for Ukraine’s political soul.
Now is the time for decisive action. After buckling under Putin’s pressure and returning to Kyiv from Russia and China without an economic rescue package, Yanukovych can now expect hundreds of thousands of protestors on Kyiv’s streets. Absent physical presence by European leaders in Kyiv, pro-EU protesters risk being beaten again (or worse) by the police. And, absent intense political support from European leaders, the protests are unlikely to expand sufficiently to Yanukovych’s political stronghold in eastern Ukraine to compel him to heed his own pro-Europe citizens rather than his Russian counterpart.