Europe’s Crisis in Ukraine

Read Time:3 Minute, 57 Second – How Ukraine’s profound crisis will end is impossible to predict. We in
the European Union and the United States are doing what we can to secure a peaceful
transition to a more stable democracy, and the implementation, at long last, of
urgently needed reforms. And the agreement now concluded between President Viktor
Yanukovich and the opposition should create a new possibility for this.

If the agreement is not honored, Ukraine could well continue its descent into chaos
and conflict, which would be in no one’s interest. That is why Ukraine’s crisis is a
European crisis. And, though we cannot know how the crisis will end, we should be
very clear about how it started.

For years, Ukraine sought a closer relationship with the EU. Its leaders warmly
endorsed the promise of enhanced ties under the EU’s Eastern Partnership, and pushed
for an EU Association Agreement, together with a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade
Area. When those talks, which began under the previous Ukrainian government, were
concluded, the agreement was endorsed by all four presidents and all 14 prime
ministers to hold office since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991.

But, as the EU and Ukraine were addressing remaining issues ahead of the November
2013 Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, where Ukraine was to sign its
Association Agreement, something suddenly changed. From August onward, Russian
policymakers embraced the openly declared aim of knocking Ukraine off the course
that it had chosen. A political campaign against the agreement was launched, and the
Kremlin mixed targeted sanctions with threats of harsher measures against the
already-weak Ukrainian economy.

Russian leaders publicly stated that if Ukraine signed a free-trade agreement with
the EU, it would lose its free-trade deal with Russia, and high tariffs would be
imposed on all goods and services. Severe economic pressure, it was made clear,
would become open economic warfare.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich gave way. In explaining to EU leaders that he
was not ready to sign the Association Agreement, he was very clear that Russian
pressure was responsible for his decision.

This set in motion the chain of events that has now resulted in carnage and death in
the streets of Kyiv. For many Ukrainians, Europe was the symbol of hope of a better
life; suddenly, they felt betrayed by a political elite that they had long perceived
as being incorrigibly corrupt. So, to be clear, it was the Kremlin’s pressure, and
the Yanukovich administration’s vacillation, that produced the current crisis.

Had Yanukovich decided to stand up to Russian pressure, there is no doubt that
Ukraine would have faced difficulties. But, with an EU Association Agreement and the
possibility of solid financial aid and reform assistance from the International
Monetary Fund, the Russian measures would not have been sustainable.

Of course, the reforms asked of Ukraine would have been difficult, but no more
difficult than what had been asked of other ex-communist countries that saw their
future in and with Europe. There would have been light at the end of the tunnel,
and, as Ukraine embraced the reform process, it would have been seen as a determined
and democratic European country.

Instead, Yanukovich opted for a short-term strategy narrowly focused on his own
political survival – a strategy that the protesters increasingly came to view as a
game of deceit and betrayal. As the regime started to use violence to repress its
opponents, violent opposition groups gained credibility.

Free trade with both Russia and the EU would obviously have been good for Ukraine’s
economy, thus providing a boost to the Russian economy as well, notwithstanding the
oft-used but fundamentally bogus argument that EU goods would flow into Russia via
Ukraine. (Has anyone heard Americans complaining that the free-trade agreement
between Mexico and the EU is undermining the US economy?)

Russia is intent on building a new strategic bastion in the form of its proposed
Eurasia Union, and it seems determined to force Ukraine to join. While publicly
grumbling about supposed EU pressure on Ukraine, the reality is that Russia brutally
extorted the country into abandoning its EU course. That is the source of this
crisis; the facts speak for themselves.

Even under the best of circumstances, the road back for Ukraine will be difficult.
Russian pressure and destabilization, and the crisis to which they have led, have
created new fissures in Ukraine’s society and have caused further damage to its
fragile economy.

And that damage could, one day, spill over into Russia. The Kremlin should have an
interest in a stable and reforming neighbor that, like other countries, is also
seeking a close relationship with the EU.

Carl Bildt is Foreign Minister of Sweden.

Project Syndicate

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