Misunderstanding Ukraine, Misreading Russia
by Andreas Umland
January 17, 2014
The Western public’s disappointment about Yanukovych’s behavior vis-à-vis the EU is duplicitous. Unless Brussels takes its partnership with Kyiv as well as the Ukrainian-Russian conflict seriously, the Association Agreement with Ukraine will not be signed. Above all, the EU member countries have to make a conceptual and practical conjunction of their intensive economic relations with Russia with their interests in the EU’s Eastern neighborhood, a connection that needs to be made clear to Moscow. The conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine has not only a geopolitical, but also security dimension. If the EU does not invest today its economic weight into securing Ukraine’s sovereignty and Europeanization, it may have to deal with political turmoil, migration waves, and armed confrontations on its Eastern border in the future.
Much has been written and said about the deficiencies of the current Ukrainian President during the last weeks. Already before the debacle with the non-signing of the EU-Ukraine Association at the end of last year, Viktor Yanukovych’s authoritarian domestic and erratic foreign policies had been criticized in hundreds of reports, papers, op-eds, and columns. Repeating over years that he fully supports Ukraine’s European integration, Yanukovych misled the EU and the Ukrainian people. He even deceived his own governmental apparatus, the ruling Party of Regions, as well as the diplomatic service, about what would happen at the Eastern Partnership summit at Vilnius in November 2013. Having confirmed on a weekly basis, in both mass media and closed meetings, its intention to sign the already initialed Association Agreement with the EU, the current Ukrainian leadership, at the last moment, withdrew from its commitment. With his unpredictable behavior, Ukraine’s President left everybody flabbergasted and made an embarrassing figure at the Vilnius summit.
Ukrainian Underperformance and Western Introvertedness
Today, both Ukraine’s citizenry and the West are unclear about what the current state of Ukraine’s European integration is, and the immediate future of the relations between Brussels and Kyiv will bring. Yanukovych seems to have entered a semi-secret arrangement with the Russian leadership and for now abandoned signing the Association Agreement. He thereby violates the spirit of the Ukrainian law on European integration. With the rise of new powerful mass protests reminiscent of the Orange Revolution of 2004, his regime has become shaky, and may end before his current presidential term expires in 2015. His chances for re-election and his general political future look dim. Yanukovych will, sooner or later, have to pay a price – perhaps, a hefty one – for his numerous aberrations and transgressions.
Nevertheless, in spite of Yanukovych’s poor record as a ruler at home and representative of Ukraine abroad, the widespread contempt for his latest underperformance is partly misguided. When such critique comes from politicians of the EU and its member states, it even appears as inappropriate, if not hypocritical. The dismissive attitude towards Kyiv of many Western politicians, diplomats and journalists is a result of widespread naïveté concerning the domestic conditions and foreign strictures within which many post-Soviet leaders operate. It may look from the West, as if Yanukovych & Co. are just irresponsible crooks – which by itself is, probably, true. Yet, the political realities of the internal affairs and international relations of today Eastern Europe are more complicated.
Most countries in the West enjoy the luxury to be more or less economically independent, politically sovereign, administratively consolidated, institutionally embedded, and militarily secure. In contrast, the crucial circumstance of the Ukrainian state’s current existence is that it is located in one of the northern hemisphere’s most fragile post- or neo-imperial realms. The post-Soviet space remains crisis-ridden, and contains a number of failed or unacknowledged states and separatist regions. It has experienced several civil wars, often with Russian direct and indirect involvement, over the last quarter of a century. Much of the territory of Ukraine once belonged to the Tsarist and later Soviet empires, and went through centuries of despotism, devastating military conflicts, as well as mass-murderous state terror.
The Domestic Determinants of Putin’s Eurasia Project
The current leadership of the Kremlin believes that Ukraine’s and the other post-Soviet countries’ Tsarist/Soviet past implies that they should be also subordinate to Moscow, now and in the future, because of their common history. To be sure, one can make an argument that the shared tragic experience of foreign invasions by, for instance, Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany, or the collective suffering of all Soviet nations during Stalinism creates a joint history and lasting bond. Yet, this popular reading is purposefully ignorant of many other, more problematic aspects of Russian imperial history. It ignores that the non-Russian nations and cultures, not the least the Ukrainian one, had a different status under both the Tsars and Communists than the Russian people and their language. Within the strange logic of not only Putin, but many ordinary Russians too, the Romanovs’ and Bolsheviks’ centuries long harsh suppression of Ukrainian language and culture should motivate Ukraine today to re-unite with Russia in a so-called “Customs Union.”
Such an offer from the Kremlin rings a bell in Kyiv. In the same way that the Soviet Union was neither Soviet (i.e. council-democratic) nor a union (i.e. an alliance of equals), the Customs Union too is neither about customs nor a proper union. Instead, it is one of the Kremlin’s various instruments to secure Putin’s authoritarian regime via the re-building of a new empire that covers a specifically “Eurasian” civilization – a unique pan-national culture between Asia and Europe. The Customs Union – to be followed, in 2015, by the even more integrated Eurasian Union – is the core of the Kremlin-promoted national dream about rebirthing Greater Russia as a self-sustaining pole in international politics. That project is designed to function as an effectual distraction of the Russian population from the many domestic failings of Putin’s regime. As there have been few sustainable successes in the reform of Russia’s corrupt public administration, imbalanced social system, and stagnating economy, the implementation of an ambitious geopolitical project is to provide the legitimacy for a continuation of Putin’s otherwise unremarkable rule. It speaks volumes that the Customs Union, as a supposedly economic bloc, is currently negotiating the accession of Assad’s Syria.
Yet, it is Ukraine’s inclusion into the Customs/Eurasian Union which constitutes the most important exercise in Russian collective escapism. Ukraine’s accession to Putin’s project would transform the Russian president into a new assembler of lands, and a historical figure who restored Russia-Eurasia as a world power on par with the United States, European Union, and China. Implementing this project is in full swing already via a multitude of linkages between Moscow and Kyiv – political, economic, academic, cultural – through which the Kremlin can and does exert influence on Ukraine’s internal and external affairs. This peculiar background, and less so Ukraine’s corrupt leadership, semi-authoritarianism or rapacious oligarchs, is the deep source of Kyiv’s current domestic and international confrontations – a basic fact which the European public continues to misunderstand when judging Yanukovych.
During the Cold War, in Western Germany, there was a saying that the key to German unity is deposited in Moscow. Something similar can be said about the future of all-European unity, too. The Europeanization of post-Soviet Eastern Europe will only happen once Russia, for one reason or another, will – be made, or decide to – allow it. The EU needs to finally realize and adequately respond to the circumstance that the recent problems in its Eastern neighborhood have a lot to do with Moscow’s intermingling. To be sure, they are not exclusively made in Russia. Viktor Yanukovych, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, Serzh Sargsyan & Co. are no angels, and their fiefdoms rather peculiar crossings of state-capitalism with neo-patrimonialism. Yet, to large degree, Yanukovych behaves the way he does as he has few other options. Whoever will succeed him as Ukraine’s leader will face similar challenges. Even if Ukraine’s new ruler will be much more supportive of Europeanization, she/he will have to deal with Russia’s probable and effectual resistance to Ukraine’s integration with, and eventual accession to, the EU.
Moscow’s Strategy, and the EU’s Unused Potential to Respond
By threatening to take “protective measures” if Kyiv signs the Association Agreement with Brussels, in 2013, Moscow dramatically increased the expected costs for Ukraine to pursue European integration. De facto, the Kremlin has taken hostage hundreds of thousands of – especially, Eastern – Ukrainian industrial employees of companies that produce for the Russian market machinery, consumer goods, and equipment. Moscow’s plain message is: “You can do whatever you want, but if you go West, we will close our markets (take ‘protective measures’).” After an experimental 5-day Russian ban on imports from Ukraine in August 2013, there is now pure fear of further retaliation, by the Kremlin, among many Ukrainian workers, managers and engineers as well as their families who altogether are making up millions of Ukrainian citizens. This threat – both, its reality and perception – is today a, if not the, main source of legitimacy of Yanukovych’s faltering regime, and its wavering foreign policy.
The odd part in the sad story of the Eastern complications in Brussels’s Ukraine policy is that Russia’s by far largest foreign economic partner is…. the EU. About half of Russia’s international trade happens with the Union’s member states, and three fourth of the foreign investment she receives come from them. German, Dutch, French, Italian etc. payments for Russian raw materials, in particular gas, oil and coal, are filling the Kremlin’s budget as well as fueling the Russian economy every month. The financially intensive, highly reputable, and presumably efficacious Western economic engagement with Russia, to considerable degree, is what allows Putin’s regime to exist and act as it does.
The European economy, on the other hand, relies much less on Russian imports and exports, as they make up only small sections of the large foreign trade of the EU member countries. In the one area where there appears to be some dependency – Russian natural gas deliveries to Europe – the reliance is mutual, if not disadvantageous to Moscow. That is because Russia has currently few other ways to transport its natural gas elsewhere. It has the largest conventional gas reserves in the world, but most of its pipelines head West, and the various potential export alternatives are yet far from being able to substitute the large European market. For the time being, the Kremlin needs reliable Western disbursements for Russian gas deliveries to pay salaries, rents and stipends. And Russia’s largest company Gazprom needs the stable income from its European trade to keep itself afloat. The nature and context of the Russian-European gas business is today such that it creates, at most, interdependence, or rather Russian dependence on the EU market.
Against this background, the Kremlin’s sabotage of Brussels Eastern partnership policies amounts to a bizarre case of mutual misperception in international diplomacy: Russia is playing hard ball with an entity on which it itself has to rely in whole number of areas such as raw materials exports, foreign investment, trans-border cooperation, scientific research etc. Instead of using its considerable leverage regarding Russia to make the Association Agreement with Kyiv happen, Brussels is trying to influence the pressured Ukrainian leadership. Rather than addressing the crux of the issue, it bemuses itself commenting on the Euromaidan, and voicing mantras about the peacefulness of protests, observation of human rights, respect for the sovereign choice of each country, need for compromise and dialogue etc.
This defect in the EU-Ukraine-Russia economic triangle seems to have its roots in diplomatic comfort and intellectual laziness – rather than any prohibitive organizational and economic strictures. The EU could exploit its economic strength to threaten Russia with retaliation if Moscow punishes Kyiv for an association with the EU. But it does not want to. Such a confrontation might create complications for the cozy EU-Russian business relationship in which a whole number of prominent European companies and public figures are involved. The EU remains timid, although a warning concerning the Kremlin’s Ukraine policies may eventually cost only very little. Probably, Russia would not want to threaten her already shaky economic and budgetary stability through a trade war with Europe. Still, for the EU countries, it is uncomfortable to risk a fall-out with Russia, and consider a re-structuring of their energy supplies for the unlikely case that real sanctions against Russia would indeed become necessary. The sanctions will probably never happen because a mere indication of their possibility should be enough for the Kremlin to rethink its position. However, the EU – it thinks – should not work this way, but rather through persuasion, mediation and compromise-seeking.
Time for Action for the EU
As Brussels remains reticent, Russia continues bluffing that it can shape the post-Soviet space. In fact, Moscow has neither a sustainable economic model nor the administrative capacity to do so. Under insufficient leadership of a Russia that overstretches its limited resources, the post-Soviet space will remain a source of instability. It is thus in Brussels’s own interest to overcome its current shyness and use the EU’s considerable economic leverage for pressuring Moscow to accept the Association Agreements with Moldova, Georgia and, above all, Ukraine. The risks of not doing so may be closer and more immediate than some think. A decision by Yanukovych to join formally or informally Russia’s Customs or Eurasian Union would not be accepted by many Ukrainians, especially in the Western regions. The principled rejection that a new Russian hegemony would encounter in such places as Galicia, Volyn or the city of Kyiv could, in a worst case scenario, tear the country apart, in a civil war.
Already before the Association Agreement debacle, Kyiv’s foreign affairs community had been becoming increasingly impatient with the EU, feeling that Ukrainian affairs are not dealt with attentively by their counterparts in Central and Western Europe. Brussels continues to adjudicate that Ukraine cannot get even a long-term, conditional EU membership perspective. Yet, as recently once more confirmed by the Euromaidan, Ukraine is a manifestly European country. Kyiv allows already for several years EU citizens’ visa-free travel to Ukraine. Most Ukrainians, however, are still required to go through a long, costly, and denigrating application process to get even a short-term Schengen visum. Ukrainian applicants are frequently treated like potential criminals by West European consulates, and their visa requests are sometimes rejected, on dubious grounds. Germany has built with Russia’s Gazprom an expensive under-water gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea (“Nord Stream”). The main purpose of that pipeline for Moscow is to circumvent the – now underutilized – Ukrainian gas transportation system and to give Kremlin more leverage when pressuring Kyiv. Several EU countries have, moreover, recently agreed to cooperate with Russia in building an even more expensive similar pipeline through the Black Sea. The completion of this South Stream project would make Russia largely independent from the Ukrainian gas transportation system.
Over the last years, precious time, trust and opportunities have been lost by the EU because of its inconsistent dealings with the fragile post-Soviet neighborhood. As the Euromaidan is drawing more and more attention to both the chances and risks in post-communist Europe: Will Brussels, Berlin, Paris etc. finally get real about their so-called Eastern Partnership? More principally: Will the EU start seeing itself as a partner and not merely as teacher of the Ukrainians, Georgians, or Moldovans? Does Europe’s offer of an Association Agreement actually mean what its title says? Or does the offer still only imply the partner countries’ obligations to the EU, but not vice versa? When will the EU make its own “European choice” – a suggestion that it constantly makes to its Eastern partners? When will Brussels finally start implementing European values in its Eastern neighborhood not through pretentious lecturing, but via coherent policies, adequate diplomacy, and, if necessary, real actions, on the ground?
Excerpts of this text were earlier published by the “EUobserver” and “The Globalist.”