BERLIN – The European Union has probably never experienced anything like it before: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government pretended to negotiate an association agreement, only to back out at the last minute. EU leaders felt duped; in Moscow, however, the mood was celebratory.
As we now know, Yanukovych’s real motivation for the negotiations was to raise the price that Russia would have to pay to keep Ukraine in its strategic orbit. Only a few days later, Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a Russian loan worth $15 billion, a cut in natural-gas prices, and various trade agreements.
From Yanukovych’s point of view, this agreement made sense in the short run: the gas deal would help Ukraine survive the winter, the loan would help keep it from defaulting on its debt, and the Russian market, on which the economy depends, would remain open. In the medium term, however, by rejecting the EU and embracing Russia, Ukraine faces the risk of losing its independence – on which the post-Soviet order in Europe depends.
In terms of its strategic orientation, Ukraine is a divided country. Its eastern and southern regions (especially Crimea) want to return to Russia, whereas its western and northern regions insist on moving toward Europe. For the foreseeable future, this domestic conflict can be resolved, if at all, only with a lot of violence involved, as the ongoing mass protests in Kyiv suggest. But no sensible person can seriously desire such an outcome. Ukraine needs a peaceful, democratic solution, and this will be found only within the status quo.
The EU’s behavior demands explanation. Yanukovych had always been the Kremlin’s ally. Indeed, his election in 2010 marked the end of Ukraine’s pro-European Orange Revolution, which had defeated his effort to steal the presidential election in 2004 and keep Ukraine in the Russian camp. So why did the EU press for an association agreement, without being able to offer Ukraine anything comparable to what Russia offered?
The answer can be found in the relationship between Europe and Russia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia not only lost its status as a world power; within Europe, it was forced to withdraw toward a frontier that it had extended westward since Peter the Great – ultimately to the Elbe and Thuringia. After Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation, he followed three strategic goals, which he continues to pursue: an end to post-Soviet Russia’s strategic submission to the West; reestablishment of sovereignty over most of the ex-Soviet republics, or at least enough control over them to stop NATO’s eastward expansion; and gradual recovery of Russia’s status as a global power.
These goals were not to be enforced by the Red Army, but by Russia’s economic potential, especially a strategic energy policy supported by vast oil and natural-gas reserves. This would require securing control over these resources. It would also require establishing new export routes to Europe that, by circumventing Ukraine, would make the country vulnerable to blackmail, because a cutoff of gas supplies to it would no longer trouble Europe. The ultimate goal would be to regain Russian control over the Ukrainian pipeline network. At that point, Ukraine could be coaxed into joining Putin’s “Eurasian Union,” a Russian alternative to the EU aimed at keeping ex-Soviet countries within Russia’s sphere of influence.
Apart from using the Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines to disconnect Ukraine from Russian energy exports to Europe, the Kremlin successfully blocked European access to the hydrocarbon-rich Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Virtually the only way that countries like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan can export their output to the West is via Russia’s pipeline network. The sole exception, the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey, was pushed through by the United States; Europe has done nothing similar.
None of this is exactly a secret in Western capitals; on the contrary, Putin’s ultimate goal – a far-reaching revision of the post-Cold War strategic order in Europe – has become increasingly clear as Russia has moved closer to achieving it. But neither the EU nor the US has been willing or able (so far) to formulate an effective response.
The EU’s Ukraine initiative was supposed to be an attempt to provide such an answer. Europe played for high stakes, because if Ukraine does lose its independence in one way or another, European security will be at risk – a risk nowhere more keenly felt than in Poland and the Baltic states. With Yanukovych’s rejection of the association agreement, the EU has lost its bet.
Putin cannot be faulted for skillfully pursuing his interpretation of Russian interests. The blame for the outcome in Ukraine falls squarely on the EU’s leaders, who represented European interests so badly. Grand gestures and paper-thin statements cannot mask Europe’s neglect of its own strategic interests, which will not be helpful in its relations with Russia. If Europeans want to change this, they will have to invest in their interests and devise an effective approach to ensure that these investments pay off.
This is true not only with respect to Ukraine. At the end of 2013, Russian diplomacy can look back on a year of impressive successes: Syria, the interim nuclear agreement with Iran, and now Ukraine’s rejection of Europe. Whether Europe’s leaders see the connections and understand the consequences remains a serious question. That fact alone gives rise to considerable concern.