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Europe needs Russia and Ukraine together

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First published on OpenDemocracy, as "Recasting Ukraine's Identity" (footnotes available there). I made some of the same points in Kiev last November, during a nationally televised discussion of security and development strategies for Ukraine sponsored by the Ukrainian Forum, an association of Ukrainian civic and political leaders devoted to strengthening civil society as a key resource in state-building.


The latest Russo-Ukrainian gas spat may have finally taught elites in those two countries a vital lesson. Namely, that they gain far more from acting in concert, than either one of them gains from acting against the interest of the other.

The latest statement by European Commission, President Jose Manuel Barroso, that “Europeans” will not forget how Ukrainian and Russian leaders acted during this crisis, reveals more than just impotence. It serves as a reminder that many Western Europeans are still not ready to accept either Ukraine or Russia as part of Europe. It would be wise for both Russian and Ukrainians not to lose sight of this fact, for it both shapes and constrains the policies of European Union toward them.

At the outset of this latest spat, both Ukrainian and Russia political elites made the mistake of assuming that EU leaders cared about the issues. They therefore expended considerable effort to make their case in the media, instead of undertaking direct negotiations.  Ukrainian leaders hoped to mobilize western sympathy by portraying their country as a victim of Russian imperialism, while Russian leaders sought to portray the Ukrainians as thieves. Each then tried to involve their Western European partners more directly, urging the European Commission to send monitors to the pumping stations, inviting the parties to a gas summit, and floating schemes by which European intermediaries might step in to guarantee payments in the event of further payment arrears.

In the end, however, all these strategies failed. Belatedly, and with the greatest reluctance, the EU did eventually send a handful of pump station monitors and observers to the gas summit, but mainly to urge the two sides to get serious about direct negotiations. It was only when Russian and Ukrainian leaders finally realized that the EU would not be drawn into their dispute that negotiations resumed, and within hours both sides reached an agreement that established not only the gas price for this year, but a framework covering the next ten years! [1]

The details of this agreement are less important than the lessons that both Ukraine and Russia can draw from this experience.



One is that the EU is simply not a viable forum for conflict resolution. It has neither the political will, nor the ability to act, even when its economic interests are directly threatened.  It is not a body that leads, it is a body that follows. On purely institutional grounds, therefore, any strategy that expected meaningful pressure to come from Europe was doomed to fail.

Another lesson is that the European Energy Charter Treaty, once touted as the best means of guaranteeing access to gas supplies from Eastern Europe, did not survive its first test. As soon as it became necessary to demand compliance with the treaty’s provisions prohibiting the interruption of flows, or the implementation of “specific conciliation procedures,” nothing was done, even though Ukraine had both signed and ratified the treaty. [2]

Finally, it is now abundantly clear that the prolonged and systemic crisis of Ukrainian politics—of which this spat is just the latest manifestation—is the direct result of a strategic vision that is profoundly at odds with Ukrainian culture.

Consider the following. Five years after the Orange Revolution of 2004, with its accentuated efforts to marginalize Russian cultural, economic and political influence in Ukraine, over 60% of Ukrainians retain a favorable view of the period of national history tied to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. [3]  Three-quarters still regard the Soviet victory in the Second World War as a national holiday, and popular usage of the term “Great Patriotic War,” in contrast to the more neutral Second World War, has actually risen. [4]

Nearly 88% of Ukrainians say they have a positive attitude toward Russia, while two-thirds say they would vote against NATO membership, most because it threatens Russian security. About as many say they want closer relations with Russia. [5]  But perhaps most telling of all is the fact that during almost this entire period by far most popular politician in Ukraine has been . . . Vladimir Putin. His popularity rating among Ukrainians has hovered around 70%, compared to no more than 15% for the most popular Ukrainian politician (Ukrainian president Yushchenko’s rating, meanwhile, fell to a new low of 3% in early 2009). [6]

Clearly the problem is not, as former U.S. Secretrary of State Madeleine Albright has put it, that Ukraine is “a country where nation-building needs a little help.” [7] The problem is that the wrong sort of nation-building is being attempted—the kind that views Ukraine’s centuries old religious and cultural affinity for Russia as an obstacle to be overcome. The result has been a smoldering cultural civil war, in which large swaths of the population are engaged in destroying the very edifice that others are seeking to build, thereby condemning to ruin the structure that they both must live in.

But coming, as it does, in the midst of a global economic meltdown, this latest energy spat may just serve to concentrate the minds of both Ukrainian and Russian political elites on the utter futility of the confrontation that has been imposed on them by this model of misdevelopment. It might even point to the way out.

As long as Russia could afford to provide energy to Ukraine below market prices, Ukrainian politicians could afford to play coy. The end of this era of largesse has forced the latter to call in what favors they could from the West, and so last November, the International Monetary Fund extended Ukraine an emergency loan of USD 16.4 billion. But this pales in comparison to the estimated USD 47 billion  grant that the Ukrainian budget has gotten since 2005—the result of receiving gas at its border at a steep discount, then nearly doubling the price for its domestic consumers, and finally adding on another $100-150 dollars to the price before shipping it westward (at the end of 2008 the price structure was:  an average of $179.5 per thousand cubic meters at the Russian border, $320 for domestic consumers, and $450 dollars for neighboring Romania). [8]

Small wonder then that, looking first and foremost to their own future, Ukrainian politicians are beginning to see the revival of ties with Russia as an attractive survival strategy. The ten year gas contract just signed is not, of course, an economic agreement, for who can predict what economic conditions will be so far into the future. Rather, it is a sign that important segments of the Ukrainian political elite that were once betting on Ukraine’s rapid integration into the West, are now hedging that bet.  

Some will perceive this as a defeat for the West. What they fail to appreciate, however, is that any definition of the West that excludes Russia because of its ostensibly divergent “values,” must perforce exclude Ukraine, whose culture and values are inextricably interwoven with those of Russia. One need look no further than the fact that 40% of the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church are located in Ukraine, [9] and played a key role in the election of the new Patriarch of Moscow.

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)
 

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