Europe’s Ukrainian Test

Read Time:5 Minute, 4 Second  MADRID – Powerful images have been pouring out of Ukraine lately: Kyiv’s Maidan
protesters bravely enduring months of bitter cold, withering police attacks, and
sniper bullets; the gilded bathroom fixtures of deposed President Viktor
Yanukovych’s opulent personal residence; a wheelchair-bound Yuliya Tymoshenko
emerging from prison to address her countrymen in a broken voice. And now Russian
troops in the streets of Crimea’s cities.

At a time when Europe’s self-confidence is at low ebb, Ukrainians’ courageous
struggle to topple a rotten political system is a powerful reminder of Europe’s core
values. The question now is what Europeans will do about it.

With the Russian Duma’s approval of President Vladimir Putin’s request to use
Russian military forces in Ukraine (not restricted to Crimea), the mirage that
Yanukovych’s ouster signals the start a new era, in which Ukraine moves inexorably
away from Russia and into the European democratic fold, has now evaporated.
Confronted with a reality that they should have foreseen, Europe’s leaders must
recognize that Ukraine is subject to deep internal cleavages and conflicting
geopolitical forces.

For starters, Ukraine is riven by deep-seated cultural tensions, stemming from its
history of occupation by competing foreign powers. In the seventeenth century, the
struggle among the Cossacks, Russia, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for
control of Ukraine resulted in a split along the Dnieper River. While the division
was formally eliminated after the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, its legacy has

Ukraine’s geography has also contributed to its disunity. Following the devastating
famine of 1932-1933, 2-3 million Russians repopulated deserted farming areas in
southern and eastern Ukraine, contributing to ethno-linguistic divisions that endure
to this day. Add to that endemic corruption, unscrupulous and powerful oligarchs,
and fractious political parties, and it is easy to see why Ukraine’s efforts to
consolidate a more democratic system will be exceedingly difficult.

And the challenges do not end at Ukraine’s borders. On the contrary, the country’s
internal discords operate within the context of a broader, ever-mutable geopolitical
rift that many assumed had been buried with the end of the Cold War.

Since the beginning of the Maidan protests, Russia had signaled that its support for
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not an isolated phenomenon, highlighting
America’s lack of strategic vision and declining global influence. Russian leaders
certainly had a point: the United States, preoccupied with domestic challenges, is
no longer setting the international agenda.

Indeed, US President Barack Obama’s response to Putin’s decision to send in Russian
troops pales in comparison even with the proposals made a week ago by former US
National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Whereas Brzezinski advocated
threatening financial sanctions or a review of Russia’s World Trade Organization
status should Putin take military action, Obama warned only that the June G-8 summit
in Sochi might be canceled.

Further complicating matters is the shifting nature of transatlantic security
arrangements. The good news is that Europe finally seems to have recognized the need
to assume greater strategic responsibility, exemplified in the recent French-led
missions in Mali and the Central African Republic. But the process of building a
common and relevant EU security strategy has only just begun – and progress will
undoubtedly be slow.

As it stands, the EU lacks the experience and savvy that the US accumulated over
decades as an international hegemon. This deficiency was on full display last
November, when the EU offered Ukraine an Association Agreement that failed to
account for the country’s financial vulnerabilities. That enabled Putin to swoop in
and compel Yanukovych to scuttle the deal in exchange for a promise of $15 billion
in loans and energy subsidies.

Making matters worse, Germany, the reluctant leader of the EU, has traditionally
acted in support of its own economic and energy interests, maintaining a strong
bilateral relationship with Russia. Today, German leaders are sending mixed and
confusing signals. While Germany has increasingly emphasized values – from the rule
of law to human rights – in its dealings with Russia over the last year, it remains
unclear whether it will go so far as to lead the tough EU-wide initiative that is

The fact that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was joined by his
French and Polish counterparts in brokering last week’s agreement in Kiev could
confirm that Germany is not planning to go it alone. However, in the aftermath of
German President Joachim Gauck’s recent announcement that his country is prepared to
embrace a larger role in global affairs, it is far from certain whether Germany is
willing to align its foreign policy more closely with that of the EU.

The West’s uncertainty over Ukraine contrasts sharply with Russia’s clear vision.
Putin knows that a pro-Western, pro-NATO Ukraine would present a major obstacle to
Russian dominance in Eurasia, potentially cutting off Russia’s access to the Black
Sea and, most important, providing a model to his opponents at home. His acts over
the last days confirm that he is willing to play hardball, leveraging the discontent
(real or provoked) of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population, particularly in Crimea,
the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Against this background, if we let old conflicts and rivalries persist, the images
that emerge from Ukraine will progressively contrast with the hopes of Maidan and
echo those seen in 2008, 1979, 1968, and 1956. The international community must
balance the need to ensure that Ukraine does not become the site of a proxy battle
with the necessity of stopping Putin’s destructive ambitions. Ukraine’s conflict
bears out a critical reality: the Atlantic Community and Russia need each other. It
is therefore urgent and essential that the US and Europe do not leave Putin with a
free hand.

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President
of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State and a visiting
lecturer at Georgetown University.

Project Syndicate,

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