Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has staked his and his country’s future on Ukraine’s integration into Euroatlantic institutions, even going so far as to say, at an Atlantic Council luncheon on September 23, that Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity can be preserved only with “international guarantees.”

Although there may be some hyperbole in that remark—an independent Ukraine is here to stay, after all, with or without international guarantees—Yushchenko is right to imply  that a sovereign Ukraine could be Finlandized or that its territorial integrity could be threatened were the United States and Europe to permit Putin’s Russia to extend its bear hug to Ukraine’s gas pipelines or the Crimea.

Yushchenko’s domestic political skills and commitment to radical reform may leave much to be desired, but his international instincts have always been on the mark. He has, since becoming president, consistently tried to move Ukraine closer to the United States and Europe while maintaining good relations with Russia. In reality, all Ukrainian presidents have since 1991 pursued a “two-vector” foreign policy aimed at balancing between East and West—with Leonid Kravchuk leaning toward the West, Leonid Kuchma leaning toward Russia, and Yushchenko leaning back toward the West. Such a policy of asymmetric balancing makes perfect sense for Ukraine and should in principle be palatable to both Russia and the West—but only if all three sides are genuinely committed to independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

Ukraine certainly is, and Russia was as well, at least under President Yeltsin. With Putin’s assumption of power in 2000 and his subsequent transformation of Yeltsin’s very imperfect democracy into an increasingly authoritarian, and possibly fascistoid, state, Russian elites have progressively rejected democracy both at home and abroad as a threat to their rule and simultaneously embraced neo-imperialism and hyper-nationalism as a prop of their legitimacy. These two complementary trends were part and parcel of Putin’s authoritarian project—as indeed they are of any authoritarian project—but both received a massive fillip from the colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, which an authoritarian Moscow correctly interpreted as threats to its internal system of rule and its external zone of influence.

While Ukraine’s commitment to independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity is as unsurprising as Russia’s revisionist attitude thereto, “old Europe’s” extreme reluctance to side with Ukraine is surprising. As Yushchenko and many other Ukrainians never fail to emphasize, Ukraine shares Europe’s values, while Russia does not. Since the European Union and NATO actually define themselves above all in terms of democratic values, their interest in integrating Ukraine should be a no-brainer. That
doesn’t mean immediate membership for Ukraine in either institution, but it does mean telling Ukraine, in no uncertain terms, that it will be able to join both if and when it meets all membership criteria. If Brussels really believed in European values, soft power, and the like, it should be able to state, unflinchingly and immediately, that “Ukraine is European and, once rich and fully democratic, deserves to be within the EU.”

Of course, if Brussels—or, more specifically, such states as Italy, Germany, and France—don’t really believe in democracy, then indifference to Ukraine’s European aspirations makes more sense. But just a tad. After all, if old Europe’s ruling elites are primarily interested in hard power and geopolitics, then they should be even more interested in getting Ukraine on their side. As Zbigniew Brzezinski has often pointed out, an independent Ukraine is the best guarantee of Russia’s non-emergence as an
empire and, I might add, of the Cold War’s non-revival. That admonition may have seemed like a bit of hypothetical reasoning in the past, but the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 has surely demonstrated that Putin’s Russia is ready to reassert itself in the former Soviet imperial space and, thus, to threaten Europe’s geopolitical interests.

The good news is that the global economic crisis and the fall-out from the Georgian invasion have refocused Moscow’s attention on Russia’s domestic problems. That gives Ukraine time to get its house in order and accelerate its efforts to join Euroatlantic structures. That also gives Europe time to come to its senses and extend a hand to Ukraine. The bad news is that Ukraine’s squabbling political elites—and Yushchenko, alas, belongs to them—seem ill-equipped to do anything but squabble. And old Europe seems ill-prepared to do anything but kowtow to an authoritarian Russia. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the Munich Agreement that made appeasement so
notorious a concept took place exactly 70 years ago, in September 1938.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.