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Europe’s Ukrainian Test

MADRID – Powerful images have been pouring out of Ukraine lately: Kyiv’s Maidan protesters bravely enduring months of bitter cold, withering police attacks, and sniper bullets; the gilded bathroom fixtures of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych’s opulent personal residence; a wheelchair-bound Yuliya Tymoshenko emerging from prison to address her countrymen in a broken voice. And now Russian troops in the streets of Crimea’s cities.

At a time when Europe’s self-confidence is at low ebb, Ukrainians’ courageous struggle to topple a rotten political system is a powerful reminder of Europe’s core values. The question now is what Europeans will do about it.

With the Russian Duma’s approval of President Vladimir Putin’s request to use Russian military forces in Ukraine (not restricted to Crimea), the mirage that Yanukovych’s ouster signal the start a new era, in which Ukraine moves inexorably away from Russia and into the European democratic fold, has now evaporated. Confronted with a reality that they should have foreseen, Europe’s leaders must recognize that Ukraine is subject to deep internal cleavages and conflicting geopolitical forces.

For starters, Ukraine is riven by deep-seated cultural tensions, stemming from its history of occupation by competing foreign powers. In the seventeenth century, the struggle among the Cossacks, Russia, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for control of Ukraine resulted in a split along the Dnieper River. While the division was formally eliminated after the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, its legacy has remained.

Ukraine’s geography has also contributed to its disunity. Following the devastating famine of 1932-1933, 2-3 million Russians repopulated deserted farming areas in southern and eastern Ukraine, contributing to ethno-linguistic divisions that endure to this day. Add to that endemic corruption, unscrupulous and powerful oligarchs, and fractious political parties, and it is easy to see why Ukraine’s efforts to consolidate a more democratic system will be exceedingly difficult.

And the challenges do not end at Ukraine’s borders. On the contrary, the country’s internal discords operate within the context of a broader, ever-mutable geopolitical rift that many assumed had been buried with the end of the Cold War.

Since the beginning of the Maidan protests, Russia had signaled that its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not an isolated phenomenon, highlighting America’s lack of strategic vision and declining global influence. Russian leaders certainly had a point: the United States, preoccupied with domestic challenges, is no longer setting the international agenda.

Indeed, US President Barack Obama’s response to Putin’s decision to send in Russian troops pales in comparison even with the proposals made a week ago by former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Whereas Brzezinski advocated threatening financial sanctions or a review of Russia’s World Trade Organization status should Putin take military action, Obama warned only that the June G-8 summit in Sochi might be canceled.

Further complicating matters is the shifting nature of transatlantic security arrangements. The good news is that Europe finally seems to have recognized the need to assume greater strategic responsibility, exemplified in the recent French-led missions in Mali and the Central African Republic. But the process of building a common and relevant EU security strategy has only just begun – and progress will undoubtedly be slow.

As it stands, the EU lacks the experience and savvy that the US accumulated over decades as an international hegemon. This deficiency was on full display last November, when the EU offered Ukraine an Association Agreement that failed to account for the country’s financial vulnerabilities. That enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to swoop in and compel Yanukovych to scuttle the deal in exchange for a promise of $15 billion in loans and energy subsidies.

Making matters worse, Germany, the reluctant leader of the EU, has traditionally acted in support of its own economic and energy interests, maintaining a strong bilateral relationship with Russia. Today, German leaders are sending mixed and confusing signals. While Germany has increasingly emphasized values – from the rule of law to human rights – in its dealings with Russia over the last year, it remains unclear whether it will go so far as to lead the tough EU-wide initiative that is needed.

The fact that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was joined by his French and Polish counterparts in brokering last week’s agreement in Kiev could confirm that Germany is not planning to go it alone. However, in the aftermath of German President Joachim Gauck’s recent announcement that his country is prepared to embrace a larger role in global affairs, it is far from certain whether Germany is willing to align its foreign policy more closely with that of the EU.

The West’s uncertainty over Ukraine contrasts sharply with Russia’s clear vision. Putin knows that a pro-Western, pro-NATO Ukraine would present a major obstacle to Russian dominance in Eurasia, potentially cutting off Russia’s access to the Black Sea and, most important, providing a model to his opponents at home. His acts over the last days confirm that he is willing to play hardball, leveraging the discontent (real or provoked) of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population, particularly in Crimea, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Against this background, if we let old conflicts and rivalries persist, the images that emerge from Ukraine will progressively contrast with the hopes of Maidan and echo those seen in 2008, 1979, 1968, and 1956. The international community must balance the need to ensure that Ukraine does not become the site of a proxy battle with the necessity of stopping Putin’s destructive ambitions. Ukraine’s conflict bears out a critical reality: the Atlantic Community and Russia need each other. It is therefore urgent and essential that the US and Europe do not leave Putin with a free hand.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This commentary was updated on March 2, 2014.