Why Does the Western World Need Ukraine? (III)

Part I, Part II

Hasty delegitimation

Ironically, the actions of the West before and during Maidan were similarly inconsistent. Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency was, in fact, a period of EU activism, with two big economic projects fighting over Ukraine. For the European part there was the Eastern Partnership. For Russia’s part there was the Eurasian Economic Community Customs Union.

Yanukovich, who in his foreign policy doctrine seemed to give priority to “non-aligned”, found himself under double pressure, from which he tried to extract a double benefit in the old fashioned way. But it was impossible: the logic of geo-economic interaction was now reduced to a frank zero-sum game.

Moscow was insistent in demanding that its regional, first of all economic, interests be taken into account. The European Union rejected the very existence of such interests and simply refused to discuss Ukraine and options for cooperation with Russia to match large economic projects.

At the same time Kiev had to make a choice in any case, simply because the Soviet legacy had already been “eaten away”. At that time the industrial potential was finally ruined. The loans had to be paid. And if the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltics could not allow Ukraine to leave for Eurasia, Russia could not allow it to leave for the West.

How Yanukovych’s choice in the fall of 2013 turned out is well known. It is characteristic of how the West behaved in this situation. On the one hand, Brussels tried one last time to push Yanukovych to sign the Association Agreement, while at the same time inclining him to compromise with the pro-Western opposition. On the other hand, Washington returned sharply to Ukraine, which, with the hands of Victoria Nuland, played its own game with the leaders of the Maidan.

Nuland in Ukraine
U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland offered food to pro-European Union activists as she and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, right, walked through Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2013.

Then, mediated by the foreign ministers of France, Poland, and Germany and the special representative of the Russian president, an agreement was seemingly worked out to end the protests. It was signed on February 21; Yanukovych left Kiev and never returned to the capital. On February 23, the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Oleksandr Turchynov signed a resolution on assuming his duties as president of Ukraine.

The culmination was the instant recognition of the new government in Kiev by the U.S. and European countries which had not even tried to consult with Moscow on this matter. It was a blatant leg shot: the illegitimacy of the Kiev regime was obvious which was later recognized even by Western analysts.

It is surprising how much the West lacked both stamina and patience at the time. Even when Yanukovych fled, they could have waited to get the same result, but in a legal way that Moscow could hardly counter.

Russia’s blistering operation in Crimea came as an absolute surprise to the West. And the attempt at direct negotiations in Geneva to resolve the situation in Ukraine failed in the summer of 2014. At that time, the parties to the confrontation were already in different dimensions.

For Moscow, Ukraine had finally turned into a bridgehead that threatened not only its strategic interests but also its strategic security. And for the West, it had become a burden that could not be thrown off for ideological reasons, and it was not clear what to do with it next.

“The Known Unknown”

Subsequently, Ukraine became a huge headache for European and American officials. Barack Obama rather quickly cooled down to the Ukrainian crisis. By imposing sanctions against Moscow, he essentially left all the hassle to his European colleagues. Ukraine was already successfully “pulling back” Russian forces, and all the economic consequences of the sanctions were taken over by Europe.

After Maidan, various parts of the association agreement with the European Union were signed, but the ratification process dragged on until 2017. Characteristically, the last state to ratify the agreement was the Netherlands, although in a referendum held in 2016, the majority of its residents (61%) opposed the document. There was no unanimity within the EU regarding the Ukrainian direction.

Europe still had to remain a donor to Kiev, transferring billion-dollar tranches for reforms, which, as European officials later became convinced, did not progress beyond well-intentioned wishes. However, even if the reforms had moved off dead centre, it would hardly have brought relations between Ukraine and the EU to a new level.

Ukraine has been unlucky in a sense. With tremendous effort, it could have become a second Poland twenty years ago, when Europe was at the peak of its optimism and wealth. But in the 2010s, there was no more chance of that. The EU was faced with such a cascade of crises that it no longer cared about Ukraine.

Zelensky and Trump
Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meet in New York on September 25, 2019 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly

At the same time, the EU was engaged in diplomatic routs to solve the crisis in eastern Ukraine. However, the Minsk agreements stalled: Paris and Berlin lacked the political weight to push Kiev’s party. And there was no particular desire to resort to serious pressure: it was easier, for all its absurdity, to hold Moscow responsible for Kiev’s refusal to move on the crystal-clear road map.

When Donald Trump came to power, the White House was in another turmoil. The 45th U.S. president was particularly irritated by the unequivocal support that political elites in Kiev expressed for Hillary Clinton. As one American political scientist noted, from the beginning, Ukraine was a “known unknown” to Trump, for which he had no enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, being caught up in the spiral of the Ukrainian issue, the American president could not simply give up on it. Thus, Kurt Volker, known for his intransigent attitude to Russia, was appointed U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine. A priori, he could not bring anything to the crisis in the east of the country, except lobbying the U.S. military-industrial complex and coordinating the supply of lethal weapons.

Delegating negotiations with Moscow to Nuland, a person with a strong anti-Russian reputation, was equally pointless. And Joe Biden, who had influence on Ukrainian internal policy and was more moderate, was appointed the curator in Kiev. However, he also failed to convert his reputation into results (and did he even try?).

Gradually, there was a feeling that the U.S. had no ideas about Ukraine other than to turn it into a more or less manageable black hole right at Russia’s borders. This became a kind of consensus of the time among some of the American elites – turning Ukraine into a ‘mercenary kamikaze’ on the borders with Russia, which would draw Moscow out of defense, die bravely and put it under attack.

Paradoxically, after thirty years of cooperation with the West, Ukraine has failed to achieve anything – neither acceded to NATO, nor integrated into the EU, nor even received guarantees of its security. It would seem that Europe should dump such a Ukraine as an illiquid asset. But at what price? And how to combine this deal with ideological obstacles? Everything came to a standstill and was resolved in the saddest way for the Ukrainians.

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.
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