The situation in Ukraine is a problem for all Europeans, whether they live within the EU or outside it. It stems from the fact that there is at present no cultural context that allows all Ukrainians to feel at home in Europe. Ukraine’s westernmost regions, which once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland, can use this as a peg upon which to hang their European identity. But in the rest of the nation, which has long been attached to Russia, people are alienated by efforts to force Ukraine to choose between the EU and Russia. And when they see how Russia is constantly berated by European leaders for trying to strengthen ties with Ukraine, they wonder how their own distinctive values and culture will be treated by the EU.
Sadly, the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine offers them no answers. There is nothing in it that addresses Ukraine’s cultural and historical distinctiveness, or that acknowledges its deep historical, cultural, and economic ties with Russia. Nor does it suggest that Ukraine’s Slavic and Orthodox heritage will have any role to play in shaping contemporary European values. It is merely a set of conditions that one part of Europe has set for the other part. The reward is, ostensibly, a more prosperous life. The cost is your soul.
The solution to Ukraine’s malaise is obvious, and it lies with Russia. Were Russia to be acknowledged as an essential part of Europe, and its incorporation become part of the EU’s strategic vision, Ukraine’s identity crisis would all but disappear. The whole of Ukraine could simply be what it already is—part of both Eastern and Western Europe.
Instead of embracing a Russia in Europe, however, the EU chose exclusion. The Eastern Partnership initiative was set up at the behest of Poland and Sweden after the 2008 crisis in the Caucasus to tear several former Soviet states away from Russia’s “sphere of influence” and bring them into Europe’s. This targetted omission of Russia made the entire project highly divisive in all six nations invited to participate. As a result only two, Moldova and Georgia, have gone through even the first stages of association.
The roots of this failure lie, first and foremost, in the EU’s reluctance to engage with Russia and Ukraine in a dialogue of equals. Such a dialogue must involve a serious, perhaps even at times contentious, discussion of the values gap that has emerged between the more secularized and liberal European West, and the more conservative and religious European East.
Western European leaders have shied away from such a dialogue because it would move beyond the familiar routine of lecturing the neighbors on the appropriate liberal values, and force them to address Eastern European concerns about the moral and ethical course of modern European society. It is far easier to mouth the mantra of an insurmountable “values gap” than it is to try to resolve these differences in a constructive manner.
The Ukraine is a case in point. Its current dilemma is that, while it cannot join the Russia-led Customs Union because of the political ramifications, it also cannot afford association with the EU because of the economic costs. Current EU mechanisms are simply inadequate to the task of supporting such a costly economic transition. Ukraine’s problems demand a much larger and more comprehensive program of support. Such a program, in fact, would require the combined resources of both the Customs Union and the EU.
Last month Russia did its part by reducing gas prices for Ukraine by one third and offering to buy $15 billion in Ukrainian Eurobonds. But that will not be nearly enough. By next summer Ukraine may need as much as $60 billion to pay for public services, repay part of its IMF debt, and service various private loans and other interest payments.
It is time for the EU and Russia to put mutual recriminations aside and work together to prevent the collapse of the Ukrainian economy. Stepping up to the plate with a package of financial assistance comparable to Russia’s would go a long way towards addressing one of the main Ukrainian criticisms of the current agreement; i.e., that the EU is simply indifferent to the economic impact that such a massive transition would have on the lives of millions of people.
The EU leadership, however, continues to insist that the European Union and the Customs Union (and its eventual successor the Eurasian Union) are incompatible institutions, even though as late as last September European Commissioner Stefan Fuehle suggested that the issue ultimately boiled down to a difference in tariff levels. (see Samuel Charap and Mikhail Troitskiy, "Russia, the West and the Integration Dilemma," Survival, December 2013 - January 2014). The EU’s obstinacy on this point is hard to understand since the Customs Union was designed to adopt many EU standards in order to make possible an eventual merger with it. A joint approach to the economic difficulties that affect the entire continent therefore makes eminent sense.
But as important as the benefits for Ukraine would be, there would be many broader benefits of such a joint effort. Instead of constantly getting bogged down in debates over which side was more successful at snatching portions of the common European home away from the other, this issue, if handled as a common European challenge, could provide a practical and positive mechanism for involving Russia in European affairs. If there must be competition in post-Cold War Europe, let it be for who can contribute the most to a more stable and prosperous Europe.
The economic collapse of Ukraine need not happen. It is an avoidable catastrophe, if all parties can work together. The EU should therefore be encouraging Ukraine, Russia, and indeed all the former Soviet states, to become equal partners in building Europe’s future. As former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher once put it: "Man braucht sich!" (We need each other!")
Hans-Dietrich Genscher, “Partner Russland? – Man braucht sich!” Der Tagesspiegel, November 17, 2009.
Note: this article is a sequel to “How the E.U. Pushed Ukraine East,” which appeared in the International New York Times on December 4, 2013.
*This article reflects the views expressed by the author, it does not display the views of the Fulbright Program or the US State Department.