Implications of Victoria Nuland’s Candid Remark
As a friend and admirer of both Russian and Ukrainian peoples and culture, I have been following the dramatic events in Kyiv since November with both sympathy for the Ukrainian protesters and concern that none of the offers from the outside will actually help them solve their most fundamental long-term problems. However, I took some limited comfort from reports that Washington would defer to and support the European Union in its efforts to guide Ukraine to a better future.
Assistant Secretary Nuland’s comments to Ambassador Pyatt reveal that this may not be the case. It would seem that the United States may be competing with representatives of the European Union for influence on the composition of a new Ukrainian government. If that is in fact the policy of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, I believe it needs to be re-assessed without delay.
Most of the press and punditry comment on the protests that have erupted in Kyiv since President Yanukovych refused to sign the EU association agreement in Vilnius have pictured the struggle as one that will determine the future of Ukraine. If Ukraine begins to meet the EU terms it will become a prosperous, democratic “Western” country. If, on the other hand, it accepts a loan and cheap gas from Russia, it will be a Russian vassal with no real independence. All sides to this turmoil seem to assume that this is the choice being made. I think they are all wrong.
Association with the EU will not automatically or even easily solve Ukraine’s problems. Aligning the Ukrainian economy with Russia, on the other hand, will not mean permanent subjugation. It will perpetuate the present uncompetitive nature of Ukraine’s economy and become a serious drain on Russia’s finances and very quickly bring an increase in anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, including the East. Current Russian policy should carry the tag line: “how to turn even friendly, Russian-speaking Ukrainians against Russia.”
To understand why I believe this is so, consider the following basic facts:
1. Ukraine’s most serious problems are internal, not external. They must be solved by Ukrainians, not by outsiders.
2. Ukraine will never be free, prosperous and democratic unless it has friendly relations with Russia.
3. So far, no Ukrainian leader who can unite the country has emerged and all the political parties have their strength almost entirely in either east or west.
4. The interference of outside powers has exacerbated the regional division rather than healing it. The Yushchenko government following the “Orange Revolution” was no more successful in uniting the country and modernizing the economy than has been the Yanukovych government– though it may have been not as blatantly corrupt.
So what if President Yanukovych had signed the EC association agreement? The money available from the IMF would not have staved off bankruptcy very long and would have required unpopular austerity measures affecting ordinary people much more than the oligarchs. The government would resist creating an independent judiciary—which in any case takes decades, not months or years—and very soon there would be complaints that “democracy doesn’t work.” (Of course, Russian policy would do all it could to make sure nothing worked very well.) The upshot would be that, most likely, in a year to 18 months, and maybe even sooner, most Ukrainians would blame the EU and the West for their misery.
And if the Russian promise of a loan and cheap gas is renewed to some Ukrainian government, that too would do nothing to promote the reform and modernization the Ukrainian government and economy desperately need. Ukraine would be a basket case and a serious drain on Russian resources. And Ukrainians, even those in the East, would begin to blame Russia for their misery. “If only we had signed that EU association agreement…!”
In sum, I believe it has been a very big strategic mistake—by Russia, by the EU and most of all by the U.S.—to convert Ukrainian political and economic reform into an East-West struggle. There will be no winners if Ukraine is considered an appendage of one side or the other.
At this late date, developing a cooperative approach with Russia to assist Ukraine in becoming a more united and more prosperous state, would seem a hopeless task. Given present attitudes on both sides, it would be a hopeless task for the United States acting independently of the EU, which is one reason the EU should take the lead.
In both the short and long run only an approach that does not appear to threaten Russia is going to work. All the parties need to go back to square one, assess the realities, and start thinking about how Ukraine and Russia can move both their economies into the 21st century.