Thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets over the weekend to protest Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s decision to turn his back on a European Union Association Agreement and instead consider a Russian-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ukrainians have struggled for years to win a European Union Association Agreement which, if signed, would eliminate most trade barriers between Ukraine and Europe and provide a big boost to Ukraine’s economy. The European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure: my wife) outlined Russia’s strategic objectives for CNN ahead of last month’s Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius:
Of all post-Soviet countries, Ukraine is perhaps most significant to Russia. Historically, Russia draws its very creation as a state to Ukraine. The two countries share deep historic and cultural ties. For Russian President Vladimir Putin – who once famously declared that Ukraine is not even a state – losing Ukraine would be akin to losing a crucial part of Russia. And Ukraine may simply be the tip of the iceberg. Moldova could also initial an association agreement this month. During a trip to Moldova in September, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, warned that it would be “a grave mistake” for Moldova to seek European integration. Upon concluding his visit, Rogozin threatened to cut Moldova’s gas, on which the landlocked country is entirely dependent. “We hope that you will not freeze,” he reportedly said. The same month, Russia banned Moldovan wine, and for good measure suspended Lithuania’s dairy imports in October, even though Lithuania is already a European Union member. One country has already fallen victim to Putin’s bullying. Armenia, which appeared set to be on a European integration course after concluding in comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union in July, made an abrupt reversal in September and instead joined the Customs Union after a meeting between Putin and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan.
What did Yanukovich get for his unpopular about-face? About $10 billion, although such funds are more of an accounting issue and a legacy of Ukraine’s decision to allow the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Crimea.
It’s been a holiday weekend in Washington, but the White House and State Department’s relative silence on Ukraine’s ultimate direction matters. Whether the Obama administration recognizes it or not, the Kremlin is playing a zero-sum game for influence. Putin sees the borders of the former Soviet Union (if not Eastern Europe) as Russia’s “near abroad” and is willing to do anything—political threats, economic leverage or, in the case of Georgia, military force—to ensure that Moscow remains the paramount influence.
In the case of the Ukraine, however, the people clearly see their future more with Europe than tied solely to Russia. It is in the United States’s interests to see European-style liberalism triumph over retrograde Russian-led rejectionism. When the United States does not stand up rhetorically for liberal principles, it only strengthens Russia’s hand and demoralizes those who want something more. There is nothing sophisticated about dictatorships, and the last thing Ukrainians need is the continuance of Chicken Kiev attitudes among our senior statesmen. Ukraine has a choice between East and West. Under tremendous pressure from Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich has chosen East. Ukrainians have taken to the streets to demand West. It’s time to stand up for the rightful demands of the Ukrainian people.