A pro-European perspective has triumphed in large parts of Ukraine. Ukrainians, especially the younger generation, have chosen a European and democratic future. Some paid the ultimate price in fighting for this choice. Most Ukrainians want Europe, but the question remains: does Europe want Ukraine? What will it take to bolster the pro-European orientation of Ukraine’s leaders and public?
The short answer is: a sustained campaign of support by Brussels, one that offers a credible perspective of ever-closer relations with Europe combined with intermediate rewards in exchange for reforms.
There is no doubt that a Europe-oriented Ukraine is in the interest of both the European Union (EU) and individual European states. In belatedly deciding on sanctions targeting the Yanukovych regime in the finals days of Euromaidan protests, and in considering further sanctions on Moscow following its de facto annexation of Crimea, Brussels wants to be on the right side of history. Looking ahead, however, does the EU have the will to offer Ukraine a credible European perspective in terms of sustained engagement and rewards that encourage liberal reforms and bolster the pro-European segments of the Ukrainian political spectrum?
Such European support will be critical, and yet even that does not guarantee a bright future in the EU. Consider the experience of Serbia, a country which underwent conflicts about its pro- vs. anti-European orientation, and which was also courted by Russia. In the end a European perspective prevailed, but only after years of difficult internal battles, and more importantly, following years of European engagement through the negative and positive inducements associated with enlargement conditionality. Most importantly, there was a credible membership perspective, buoyed by extensive aid programs and the demonstration effect of neighboring countries such as Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania, all of which became full members of the EU. Such engagement, and the intermediate rewards that were associated with it (such as visa-free travel) helped to bolster pro-European forces in Serbia, and ultimately even the ultranationalists signed on to the European project.
But Serbia is in the Balkans, a geo-political context where the push for EU expansion was unambiguous, bolstered by the moral impetus to never again repeat the wars of the 1990s. Both the U.S. and the EU pursued pro-democracy policies in the Balkans, unencumbered by Russia, which was weaker at the time and in any case did not consider the Balkan countries part of its privileged sphere of influence. And yet, despite the support, engagement, and positive geopolitical circumstances, Serbia’s entrance into the EU is still years away. Bulgaria and Romania were both admitted to the EU with compromised standards, for strategic and political reasons.
The geo-political context is vastly different in the Ukrainian case. Let us be honest: there is no appetite for further EU expansion among the current members states. “Enlargement fatigue” is likely to be the order of the day for the foreseeable future, even if the current proposals for a large EU-designed aid package of billions of dollars go through. Nor is there an appetite to offer Ukraine meaningful intermediary rewards, such as opening the EU’s labor markets to Ukrainian workers, or loosening the visa regime. There is fierce resistance to allowing Romanians and Bulgarians to work in Western Europe, and they are members of the EU. The Turks never had a chance, despite Turkey being a candidate country since 1999. And the Ukrainian economy requires massive restructuring and reform, something that will take years and enormous investments.
Furthermore, the EU’s support for Ukrainian democrats is likely to be tempered by a desire to maintain good relations with Russia. Whether it is natural gas, banking, Dutch cheese exports, lucrative defense contracts, or negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program and the civil war in Syria, Russia matters, and there is a limit to how much individual European states are willing to antagonize Moscow. For instance, the UK, with extensive financial links to Russia, or the Netherlands, for whom Russia is a major export market, are both lukewarm on sanctions against Russia. Poland is an exception in this regard: due to special historical ties to Ukraine, and owing to its large shared border, Warsaw can and wants to be a true champion of a European, democratic Ukraine.
As for the U.S., Washington would be thrilled if Ukraine was offered a credible EU perspective as a way to bolster its Western perspective and democratic institutions. But the U.S. is not a member of the EU and has little say in the matter. In any case Washington has bigger fish to fry: the Syrian conflict, Iran, Afghanistan, and so on. On all of these issues Russian cooperation is critical, which further diminishes the will of the U.S. to be the long-term guarantor of Ukraine’s democratic future. The $1 billion aid package offered to Kiev is significant, but still pales in terms of what Russia offered the Ukrainians when Yanukovych was still in power. But when push comes to shove, what will Washington do? When Yugoslav forces intervened in the name of protecting ethnic Serbs in Croatia in Bosnia in 1991 and carried out policies of ethnic cleansing, the West waited four years to intervene. If George W. Bush was unwilling to commit U.S. military resources to Georgia, a close U.S. ally and member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, why would President Obama save Ukraine from Russia?
In the longer term, is there the will in Brussels and Washington to put the necessary diplomatic weight, and credible offer of membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions, behind Ukrainian democracy, the kind of will that the EU and U.S. put behind Balkan democracy over the past fifteen years?