- Posted November 29, 2013 by
Ukraine Plays the Long Game
When Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov announced last week that his government was suspending preparations to sign a landmark trade and cooperation pact with the EU, Western journalists went in to a frenzy of speculation. Some say Ukraine duped the EU, others that the country had turned its back on the West under Russian pressure. For anyone who knows the country, however, the announcement did not come as much of a surprise.
Finding itself in the middle of a bitter battle of influence being waged between the EU and Russia, Ukraine had little choice but to ease tensions by kicking the can down the road. Far from a rejection of Europe or a sign of Putin’s rising political power, the decision is purely tactical, as Azarov said addressing parliament this week. Ukraine is simply playing the same game it has for centuries.
The narratives woven by the both the European and Russia media are highly simplistic, tending to see Ukraine as little more than a geopolitical pawn rather than the complex country it is. For Europeans, Ukraine has faced centuries of imperialistic oppression from the Russians and is striving to build closer ties with Europe to extricate itself from this morass. For the Russians, Ukraine is a central part of their national identity and many founding national myths and a country with which it continues to share profound cultural ties.
Both sides are correct in a sense. Since Bohdan Chmielnicki recognized the suzerainty of Moscow back in 1654, Russians have had difficulty accepting the sovereignty of a territory that has its own unique national history. For centuries, Russia’s Czars contemptuously referred to Ukrainians as malorussians, or "little Russians." This old mindset still carries weight at the Kremlin today.
Following the country’s independence in the early 1990s, and particularly since the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought the anti-Russian Viktor Yuschenko to power, Russian relations with its neighbor have been notoriously heavy-handed. The Kremlin has not hesitated to interfere in domestic politics, ban strategic Ukrainian exports or even cut off gas flows to the energy-dependent country.
Ukraine has unsurprisingly drifted towards Europe over the past two decades. Putin’s aggressive diplomacy has no doubt accelerated this shift, but the real reasons are more profound. The decrepit and oil-addicted Russian economy with its notorious corruption and cronyism inspire few Ukrainians aside from a handful of the country’s old-school oligarchs. For a new generation of Ukrainians, Europe offers a much brighter future. Not surprisingly, European (non-Russian) languages now account for two-thirds of second foreign languages among grade-schoolers.
Yet, despite the profound transformations that Ukraine has undergone since its independence, it remains sturdily anchored to its former imperial masters. Russia possesses powerful cultural sway through institutions such as the Russian Orthodox Church and mass media outlets. Much of the country's popular culture comes from Russia and almost all Ukrainians are able to at least converse informally in Russian. The country is also home to a large Russian-speaking minority that strongly favors stronger ties to Russia.
From the unique geopolitical, cultural-linguistic, and economic circumstances of their history, Ukrainians have inherited a highly pragmatic approach to their foreign policy. The recent decision to suspend negotiations ahead of the Vilnius Summit cannot, therefore, be interpreted as Ukraine ‘turning its back on Europe’, as many headlines would have us believe. In the end, the country tallied up the merits of siding with the EU or with Russia and decided it had more to lose from throwing its hat in with either.
While the country has never been closer to Europe, many Ukrainians rightly fret that dramatically shutting the door on Russia to placate Western egos would be disastrous for the country. While the EU is its largest trading partner, the Russian market still accounts for 25% of exports and the country is highly dependent on Russian gas, the price of which follows the ups and downs of diplomatic relations more than the free market.
The EU has much to offer Ukraine; lower tariffs, structural fund money, liberalized travel and political legitimacy. But unlike Russia’s ‘Eurasian Union’, the benefits are long-term and membership in the elite EU club may never become a reality.However, the most important factor influencing Kiev’s decision is the perception that Europe cannot shield the smaller country from Russia’s wrath. If Moscow made true on its threats, Ukraine’s economy would have taken a fatal hit.
Addressing Ukrainians on television this week, President Yanukovych said of his choice that, “I would have been wrong if I hadn't done everything necessary for people not to lose their jobs, receive salaries, pensions and scholarships.” Clearly, he believes that many Ukrainians would have paid dearly in the feud with Russia that would have followed the signing of the EU pact. Nonetheless, Yanukovych emphasizes that, “there is no other option than to build a society of European standards in Ukraine,” insisting that the country will continue to cooperate closely with the EU and that a future agreement was still on the table.
Vladimir Putin may be giddy over Ukraine’s decision, but he knows that this is no clear victory for the Kremlin either, which has failed in its attempt to permanently hitch Ukraine to Russia through the neo-imperial Eurasian Customs Union. Ukraine has made clear that cooling relations with Russia does not mean turning its back on Europe.