This November marks the first anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising in Kyiv. Large parts of Ukraine’s population – and young people in particular – rose in opposition to then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the country’s European Union association agreement (finalized after many years of negotiations), in favor of joining a customs union with Russia. This would have amounted to an eastward shift for Ukraine, with accession to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union ruling out any possibility of ever joining the EU.
In view of Ukraine’s ongoing crisis, this starting point – the first pro-European revolution in the twenty-first century, brought about by opposition to Russian influence and post-Soviet corruption and inefficiency – is important to bear in mind.
A lot has happened since: Russia launched an undeclared war, first occupying and then annexing Crimea. In eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin continued the war – which, in military terms, seems unwinnable for the Kyiv authorities – in the Donbas region.
Russia’s aim is not to occupy Ukraine militarily, but to prevent political and economic stabilization – a strategy that could include the de factosecession of significant parts of eastern Ukraine. Moreover, Putin will use the full range of tools at his disposal – including, of course, energy supplies – to pressure and extort Ukraine this winter.
Europeans should brace themselves for what is coming. Putin believes that time is on his side; he is convinced that he will still be in office when all of his Western foils – Obama, Cameron, Hollande, and Merkel – have long since passed from the political scene.
In military terms, Ukraine has never stood a chance against the Russian army and never will. But the country’s fate will be decided not only on the battlefield, but also on economic, legal, administrative, and political terrain. The fateful question is whether Ukraine, under the enormous pressure of military aggression by a much larger and stronger neighbor, can successfully become more European. Put bluntly: either the country succeeds in emulating Poland’s successful shift toward Europe, or it will once again fall under long-term Russian influence.
For Europe, Ukraine’s fate is a vital strategic question, because its independence has been the cornerstone of the post-Cold War European order and its framework for peace. Ukraine’s subjugation to Russia by military force would bring down the curtain on that order and its underlying principles: non-violence, the inviolability of borders, and popular self-determination, rather than spheres of influence.
This would entail enormous consequences for the security not just of Eastern Europe, but also of the continent as a whole. A revanchist Russia would once again – beyond Kaliningrad and the Baltic states – have a long joint border with the EU, and would seek a different, significantly more assertive role: that of a re-established great European power. For Europe, this would be a fundamental change for the worse. Cooperation would be replaced by confrontation, trust by distrust, and arms control by re-armament.
If the EU and its members (with the exception of Poland and the Baltic states) can be faulted, it is not because they negotiated a free-trade agreement with Ukraine, but because they ignored Ukraine’s importance to the post-Cold War European order, reflected in insufficient support for the country’s modernization.
Western politicians should have recognized that Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, triggered by Yanukovych’s attempt to steal the presidential election that year, was both a warning and an opportunity, because the very same aims and principles being fought for today were at stake then. In the end, the Orange Revolution failed, because the new leadership lacked the ability and incentive to implement far-reaching economic and other domestic reforms, partly owing to the West’s lack of interest.
With the approach of winter, the Euromaidan revolution has once again reached this point, and the challenge is the same now as it was a decade ago. Will the West provide the generous and energetic help that Ukraine needs to become more European internally and break from the corruption and oligarchic rule of its post-Soviet economy and society?
Ukraine remains a potentially rich country, and today it is closer to Europe – and vice versa – than at any time in its recent past. Should Ukraine succeed in breaking its post-Soviet shackles, there will be no way around its EU membership. Moreover, the West finally seems to understand what is at stake in Ukraine, namely the future of the European order and its framework for peace.
Whether the Euromaidan revolution succeeds will depend to a crucial extent on the Ukrainian people and their ability to free themselves from the structures and forces of the past, and on the West’s support, generosity, and resilience. In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles describes himself as “Part of that Power which still/Produceth good, whilst ever scheming ill.” In the end, the same might apply to Putin.