Ukraine, the EU, and Russia: Win, Don’t Whine

It is understandable that European leaders are angry with Russia for spoiling the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius by pressuring Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to “suspend” signing of Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement.  Moscow’s hardball tactics created a diplomatic debacle for the EU, as President Putin (yet again) violated his self-serving maxim of noninterference 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.  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 European anger is somewhat misplaced.  Moscow is indeed exploiting weaknesses in Ukraine for Russia’s geopolitical and geo-economic gain.  But it is President 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 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.

Here in Estonia, leaders across society can play two important roles in this broader EU effort.  First, Estonia’s top political leaders can sustain their visible presence in Kyiv in support of protesters demanding their democratic rights, as Foreign Minister Paet did on December 6 during the OSCE ministerial meeting. Second, Estonian business and civil society leaders can advise their counterparts in Ukraine  (as well as in Georgia and Moldova, which initialed EU Association Agreements in Vilnius) on the benefits of and way forward to EU accession. In these ways, Estonia could help the EU ensure an historic victory and underscore that Estonia is a net contributor of security to the Euro-Atlantic community.

Matthew Bryza is a former United States Ambassador and director of the International Centre for Defense Studies, a Tallinn-based think-tank. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

Image: St. Michael’s Square, Kyiv, Ukraine, Nov. 30, 2013 (Photo: Flickr/Mac_Ivan/CC License)