Zbigniew Brzezinski’s dictum that, without Ukraine, Russia is no longer an empire is well-known in Europe too. Yet, its topicality for European security seems insufficiently appreciated in Brussels. While the EU cannot directly influence relations between Russia and Ukraine, any more than it can solve her problems, its Eastern policies do nonetheless affect both Kyiv’s foreign affairs and Ukrainian domestic politics.
Whether it likes or not, the EU exerts influence on the whole process of Ukraine’s post-Soviet transformation – as it did in post-communist Central Europe. To be sure, the successful Central European transformations of the ’90s sometimes led pro-European observers to overestimate the relative weight of EU membership conditions, within these post-Soviet democratisations. But for Ukraine today, the Brussels-Kyiv relationship and the policies of the EU Delegation in Kyiv have an impact that goes beyond mere foreign relations.
While the EU, of course, supports current Ukrainian reforms with various programmes and agreements, Kyiv is still being denied any official membership perspective. For EU politicians and officials the difference between intensive cooperation and targeted preparation for joining may be philosophical.
But for Kyiv’s elite, as for many ordinary Ukrainians, the difference between an official “yes,” on the one side, and a “perhaps” or even “no,” on the other, is considerable. Moreover, it has relevance for the future of Ukrainian statehood – and, thus, for the security of Eastern Europe as a whole.
That is because EU membership is one of the few ideas which still unites almost all Ukrainian politicians, at a national level, as indeed it does large sectors of the population in the east and west of the country. Other salient issues like NATO membership, Russian as a second state language, or the interpretation of World War II deeply divide the country. But the goal of EU membership enjoys wide support, not only in western Ukraine, but in the east too (though less so, in the south, one has to admit).
Recently, however, the enthusiasm of Ukrainians who were once outspokenly pro-European has started to wane – presumably because of the EU’s restrictive visa policy, and the way it has continued keeping a distance to Kyiv.
But the prospect of EU membership still serves to link up the main political camps in Kyiv, which are at loggerheads on other issues. While this aspiration to unity still obtains, it could, however, fade if the EU remains as vague about its intentions in Ukraine as it is today. The results could, in the worst case scenario, have a negative impact not only on Ukraine, but on Europe’s security too.
In the long term, Ukraine is too weak economically, militarily and politically to exist as a neutral state in a buffer zone between the West and Russia. Given the country’s geographical location and the growing differences between the West and Russia, the “Swiss model” discussed from time to time in Kyiv, seems ever less relevant for Ukraine.
Sooner or later Ukraine will have to choose one of the politico-economic blocs. Kyiv will be unable to carry on for long with its current many-vector policies, although the EU is pressing it to do just that. NATO in its turn will in the medium term be unable to offer Kyiv an alternative integration model: for several years now the possibility of NATO membership has, unlike EU membership, been refused by more than half the population.
In the immediate future the question of joining NATO could provoke such heated argument that participation in the Membership Action Plan is more likely to decrease, than increase, Ukraine’s security.
There is a danger of this happening in respect to Ukraine’s European perspective too. If the EU continues to lose favor in Ukraine, parts of the population, especially the political and economic elites of the east and south, might start supporting the idea of a new alliance with Russia. This might seem acceptable or even desirable to some Western observers and EU officials. But it would be a risky course of development – not only for Ukraine.
Scepticism, if not antipathy, towards the current Russian government has become deeply rooted in many members of the West and Central Ukrainian political and cultural elites, because of the two countries’ controversial common history.
In addition, more and more Ukrainians, especially the young, see a resumption of the Russian connection as being inexpedient, not only for national-historical reasons. These people have become socialized under democratic conditions: they have pluralistic views and recognize that the current authoritarian Russian model of development has no future, and that Russia is thus an unreliable long-term partner.
A potential pro-Russian re-orientation of the leaders of eastern and southern Ukraine would thus find little support with a significant part of both the elite and the population, even if Brussels continues to equivocate and the Ukrainian economy keeps suffering from the world financial crisis.
Thus a rapprochement between east-southern Ukraine and Russia would deepen the split in the country and could threaten the state with disintegration.
Some Western observers regarding themselves as “realists,” along with a few self-styled “pragmatic” Ukrainian commentators, propose that, in such circumstances, Ukraine could and should also formally divide. Ukraine’s partition is, of course, a scenario eagerly discussed in Moscow too. But, a cynical “two-state solution” looks feasible, if at all, only at first glance.
That is because in the event of a split, the question would arise as to where the border between the two new states should lie. Eventually, that would be an issue impossible to solve by peaceful means. It would be impractical to determine clearly where the “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian” parts of the country begin and end.
Some Western commentators, for instance, forget that the main protagonists of the Orange Revolution – Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko – were not born in western or even central Ukraine. They both come from Ukraine’s east, the Sumy Region and Dnipropetrovsk, respectively.
It is difficult to imagine that these two politicians, or other pro-Western political leaders with east Ukrainian origins, would agree to any deal where their native regions would once more fall into the sphere of influence or even under the control of Russia.
Therefore, the idea of dividing up the country is not only absurd, but also dangerous. Implementing such a plan, would lead to civil war with probable Russian involvement and unpredictable consequences for Europe as a whole.
Worrying though this sounds, such a development cannot be completely ruled out. A deepening crisis in Ukraine combined with continued EU uncertainty could lead more and more Ukrainians to question their country’s ability, in isolation, to continue operating as an effective state.
This would encourage separatist tendencies in places like Crimea where most of the population is of Russian extraction and ambivalent about the peninsula being part of the Ukrainian state.Were tensions to escalate and to draw in ethnic Russians, not to mention citizens of the RF, this could lead to Kremlin intervention along the lines of the Georgian conflict of August 2008.
This catastrophic scenario is, of course, not inevitable. Mainstream Russian politicians sometimes do play with the idea that Crimea, or at least Sevastopol, “actually belongs to Russia.” But for the time being the Kremlin gives no evidence of seriously considering reuniting Crimea with Russia – not least because the price of such an Anschluss would be so enormous that it could do more harm than good to the Russian state. There are not many democrats in the current Russian leadership, but it can still be classified as a corporation that functions more or less rationally.
On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the Russian political landscape contains ultra-nationalist groupings with connections in the State Duma, government and presidential administration. Two of the most significant – though by no means the only ones – are Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s so-called Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia and Alexander Dugin’s International “Eurasian Movement.”
To be sure, even these ultra-nationalist Russians might recognise that military confrontation with Ukraine, over Crimea for example, would be pointless. Yet, they and their ilk would derive domestic political benefit from escalating tension in eastern and southern Ukraine, a subsequent military intervention by Russia, and the resulting massive confrontation with the West.
The logic of internal political competition between the ideological camps in Moscow might tempt Russian right-wing extremists to inflame national differences in Ukraine with the help of their front organisations and political allies on Crimea or in the Donbass.
Hence, for the EU, the question of Ukraine’s future is more than a foreign policy issue, and closely related to its own basic security concerns. The continuing lack of clarity in policies towards Ukraine – i.e. its rhetoric of “the door is neither open nor shut” – is not only unwelcome in Kyiv. The risks of pursuing this strategy run counter to the interests of the EU and its member states too.
A simple reduction of the complicated controversy around an EU membership prospect for Ukraine to a confrontation between “Ukrainophiles” and “Ukrainosceptics” is based on a lack of understanding of this country’s significance for Europe, as a whole.
The alternatives to a gradual integration of Ukraine into Europe through provision of official prospect of EU membership are uncomfortable. Against such a background, current West European policies towards Kyiv appear as short-sighted. A continuing neutral status, a new liaison with Russia, a formal division of the country: none of these are acceptable futures for the territorially second biggest state in Europe. Were Ukraine to disintegrate, this would surely ignite Russian irredentism and at worst lead to the resurrection of the Russian Empire as being feared by Brzezinski. The consequences for European, or even world, security would be grave.
For these reasons the EU has no alternative but to “take Ukraine under its wing” – and to do so sooner rather than later. The prospect of joining the EU in the not too distant future could unite the opposing camps of the Ukrainian elite, and rally the culturally divided people of Ukraine, under a common banner. The carrot of future membership would also allow the EU to apply the stick of demanding more active constitutional, administrative, economic and educational reforms. In this way, the EU would both render service to its member states and extend the reach of its system of values.
 Elena Gnedina, “EU running on empty in Ukraine”, EUobserver, 16 November 2009, http://euobserver.com/9/2988