Ukraine Rejects Europe: A Blessing in Disguise?

Kyiv joining the EU could have deepened the Union's crisis, and Russia's moves aren't from strength.

The failure of Ukraine to sign an association agreement with the European Union has provoked gloom and outrage on both sides of the Atlantic. Are these reactions justified?

There are two reasons why six years of negotiations between Brussels and Kiev did not produce an inked agreement at the Vilnius Summit. The first and most obvious is that Moscow employed its massive influence in Ukraine to forestall a deal. More to the point, however, is the manifest unwillingness of the ruling political elite of Ukraine to accommodate itself to EU standards.

Yes, the western part of Ukraine profoundly wants to join “Europe.” Yes, the Ukrainian oligarchs from the eastern part of the country very much want, as one Ukrainian commentator has put it, to “have one foot in Europe and one foot out” (not, mind you, one foot in Russia). However, that is not enough. The regime of Viktor Yanukovych is both strong enough and legitimate enough—for the time being—to pursue its “third way” option of seeking improved economic access with both Europe and Russia.

Therein lies the core problem: for twenty years, independent Ukraine has expected, demanded, and all-too-often received a special status, allowing it to benefit from its geography while playing by its own set of rules. Western governments—with Washington at the fore—have encouraged the Ukrainian political class to believe their country can forever have its cake and eat it too, and obtain the benefits of a dual orientation without reforming itself even to Russian standards, let alone to Western ones.

In the EU negotiations, Brussels bent over backwards to encourage Kiev to sign up to association status. Indeed, the European mistake—under pressure from Warsaw and Stockholm—was to treat Ukraine as if it already was in essence “European” and merely needed to adopt a few formalities. This did no favors to the people of Ukraine, and reflects a sad but established EU tendency of not rigorously enforcing standards with applicant states for either membership or association status.

This practice began with Greek membership in 1981 and includes accepting a divided Cyprus, admitting Greece and Cyprus into the Eurozone, and the premature memberships of Romania and Bulgaria, which by rights should today enjoy association status rather than full membership. The consequence is recurrent buyer’s remorse among EU governments and growing skepticism toward the European project among their populations.

Americans are no help in this regard, constantly encouraging the European Union to take on ever more obligations, despite the comparative immaturity of the European project (the goal of establishing four common markets as specified in the 1957 Rome Treaty are still unfulfilled). If Washington had its way, European taxpayers would today shoulder most of the Black Sea littoral.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership program with Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan was bound to encounter serious problems, both with the political cultures of the countries themselves and with Moscow, which did not welcome an overlapping “near abroad” to its west any more than it does the one with China in Central Asia.

At Vilnius, two association agreements were to be signed. The Georgians, who look willing and able to genuinely benefit from their new relationship with the EU, signed on. Moldova, despite having also signed an agreement in Vilnius, is a different story, both because of domestic political divisions at least as acute as those of Ukraine and due to its fairly primitive economic institutions. For Brussels, making the association agreement with Moldova actually work will be a serious challenge. Implementing it successfully would be by far the best incentive to neighboring Ukraine to restart itself on a European path.

Armenia did not sign up at Vilnius, but what Putin did with his Armenian counterpart was merely to rip off the veil of sovereignty which President Serzh Sargsyan and his predecessors had long since abandoned in practice. The Armenian ruling elite had alternatives, especially with Turkey, but chose not to exercise them, and deliberately painted their country into a corner with Russia, believing they could maneuver their patron at will. In fact, any time Moscow wanted to call the bluff, Armenia’s dependency would stand naked to the world.

Why is Moscow now pursuing an economic Eurasian Union? In brief, the Russian derzhava is turning inward on itself, in part for domestic reasons but more broadly because of its inability to compete (on different indices) with the European West, the Chinese East, or the Islamic South. The Kremlin seeks to build a redoubt of the Eurasian heartland, but has waited far too long to do so effectively. If Putin really wanted to make his Eurasian project a going concern, he should have started in earnest five to seven years ago. Today, Moscow’s efforts to shore up segments of its near abroad are a manifestation of Russian weakness, not strength.

For Ukraine, the consequences of failure at Vilnius are real, but the opportunity costs are not as great as some imagine. The government in Kiev has neither the inclination nor the ability to actually fulfill the requirements of association status with the European Union. It was precisely this systemic shortcoming which caused Ukraine’s rulers to back away from signing. If they would not take the cosmetic measures needed for the agreement, they certainly could not introduce the much deeper reforms in their economy and political system to benefit from it.