Ukraine: Another Egypt?

There have been enough color revolutions—more won't yield progress, but Cairene chaos. So what can the West do?

More than a week after Ukrainian President Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the EU at the “Eastern Partnership” summit in Vilnius, protesters continue to defy the ban on demonstrations in Independence Square in the center of Kiev. Their ranks were swelled Sunday to over 100,000 and imprisoned Ukrainian ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko relayed a message through her daughter, calling on Yanukovych to resign.

While Yanukovych has demonstrated an awareness of the unexpected severity of the backlash against his decision to not sign the agreement with Europe, in truth there is little he can do at this point, even if he wanted to. Ukraine has $17 billion in outstanding gas bills and debt payments. The IMF has declined to restructure its lending. The future course of this country of forty-five million people hangs in the balance.

Along with it hangs the post-Cold War vision for the broader transatlantic community. This is not simply a domestic or bilateral political disagreement but a manifestation of the fragility of a post–Cold War, pan-European security strategy. And it demands a strategic response by the transatlantic community.

In Mainz, Germany in 1989 President George H.W. Bush gave a careful, well crafted speech on the strategic idea of a “Europe, whole and free.’ It had deep historical resonance that cut across ideological categories. Moving beyond containment, the speech spoke metaphorically of the dual role of the gardener and the seasons in helping the seeds of democracy to grow. This speech formed the basis of US and European policies towards eastern Europe for much of the following two decades.

European and U.S. policies on eastern Europe became less coordinated in the corrosive environment of the Iraq War, with emphasis on ‘coalitions of the willing’ and talk about “new” and “old” Europe. Europe began to narcissistically view its attractive model as capable of drawing eastern European states into its orbit. The United States increasingly sought to draw down its forces in Europe and outsource pan-European affairs to the EU.

This breakdown in transatlantic consensus on eastern Europe was on full display at the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, where President George W. Bush’s premature push for Georgia was rebuffed by Europe. The subsequent miscalculations by Georgia and Russia led to a very preventable war.

The crisis in Ukraine is more of the same—but with perhaps even greater risks. This time, it was the EU that advanced a strategy that was overconfident, unrealistic, and premature, while the US looked on with a distracted eye.

Yanukovych long sought both the EU association agreement and the Russian-sponsored customs union. And this should have been unsurprising, given Ukraine’s geography and demographic makeup. Yet the EU continued to push its either-or agenda. In the face of this litmus test, Yanukovych did not suddenly abandon plans to sign the EU Association Agreement in Vilnius; he was clear for a long time that he didn’t intend to sign.

And how could he have? Facing reelection in 2015 and presiding over an economy that is both highly dependent on the Russian market and Russian gas, and ill-equipped to benefit from European trade and to support EU mandated reforms, it would have been political suicide. One need not empathize with Yanukovych—a thuggish politician who corruptly rules an oligarchic economy—to appreciate the unenviable choice he was forced to face.

While some castigate Yanukovych for not having done more, it is the European Union that did not do enough. Yanukovych was not simply being venal—although there was undoubtedly some degree of venality in his actions—when he dismissed as inadequate the $800 million EU financial assistance package; he was just being rational.

Building a stable security architecture is a competitive business. Under the Freedom Support Act, the US has invested over $3 billion in assistance to the Republic of Georgia, a country one-ninth the size of Ukraine. During Yanukovych’s meetings in China last week with President Xi Jinping, Ukraine already secured a $3 billion port development project. It costs to play.

Many in Europe, however, argue that under the current circumstances, no amount of aid or attempts at ‘harmonization’ could appreciably improve conditions in Ukraine. If the price is too high or the ‘season’ not auspicious for a deal, one shouldn’t try. Otherwise, countries risk sending confusing messages and exacerbating the risks of miscalculation.

There is now the real risk that demonstrations in Ukraine will topple Yanukovych’s government—only to find that any other ruler will be faced with the same constraints. This would likely fuel protracted cynicism with democracy and create a weaker Ukraine that is even easier for Putin to dominate.

There is also the risk that Moldova and Georgia will again misread Western resolve in supporting their pathway to membership in the EU and NATO and easily get out of their depth in confrontations with their respective separatist regions, each of which is backed by Moscow.

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