Ukraine’s refusal to sign a partnership agreement with the European Union, corroborated at the recent summit in Vilnius, represents a crystal-clear confirmation that Vladimir Putin is not prepared to allow Ukraine, which with its geographical weight and population is an indispensable component of the empire it borders, to abandon the orbit of Russia. The Kremlin’s pressure on Kiev, especially in the economic area, has grown exponentially in the measure that this agreement became a real possibility, until it was finally derailed.
Putin has enjoyed the invaluable cooperation of the Ukrainian president, a man of known authoritarian instincts. Viktor Yanukovych, who is keeping the opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in prison, and whom the Russian president supported in 2004 against the “orange revolution,” is now showing his true colors as he represses, with unusual violence, the mass demonstrations in Kiev calling for his resignation and that of his government, and a future anchored in European values. Like other leaders of former Soviet republics, the unpopular Yanukovych, who is up for re-election in a little over a year, is more concerned with consolidating his power and that of his clique, than with the national interests of a country that is deeply mired in political crisis, and on the brink of bankruptcy.
The Ukrainian turndown is a heavy blow to the EU policy aimed at gradually integrating into its system of values those countries which remain within the Kremlin’s orbit. After receiving negative answers, first from Belarus and then from Azerbaijan, to the approaches of Brussels, the desertion in September of Armenia — which chose to join the Customs Union sponsored by Putin — augured ill for Ukraine. Only the most ingenuous could keep up the pretense that Moscow would give the green light to a romance between Kiev and the EU, merely because the proposed model of rapprochement with Europe conceived five years ago by Poland lacks a military dimension, in that it does not include NATO membership. As if the EU’s promotion of democratic values and political transparency did not represent a frontal challenge to the system that Putin embodies and defends.
Putin’s victory in connection with Ukraine, however provisional it is supposed to be, will oblige the EU to rethink the strategy and indeed the content of a project for regional rapprochement which is more of interest to the people governed than to the governors of doubtful democracies: who, according to all the evidence, are far more attentive to the hints and pressures coming from the Kremlin than to the siren song of Brussels.
It was supposed that with their independence from Moscow, an assortment of former Soviet republics had, with time, gradually acquired the sovereign capacity to choose their partners and allies. Ukraine has now noisily hammered in the lesson that this is not the case. And in passing, it has shown up the insufficiency of the EU’s mechanisms, and its lack of the vigor necessary to resolutely oppose the Kremlin’s harassment of its former satellites.