The Russian government recently concluded a landmark agreement with Ukraine that fundamentally alters the political landscape of Eastern Europe.
Since the Orange Revolution of 2004, Ukraine had been headed by the pro-Western Victor Yushchenko, who was committed to the earliest possible membership in NATO and the European Union.
He touted this course as an alternative to closer ties with Russia and, in the most recent presidential elections, asked voters to face up to this stark choice. They did. He got just over 5 percent of the vote while his long time rival, Victor Yanukovich, who advocated closer ties with Russia, became president.
Mr. Yanukovich quickly appointed Ukraine’s former ambassador to Russia as his foreign minister, re-established a “strategic” dialogue with the West’s longstanding pariah, Belarus, replaced the commander of the Ukrainian Navy known for opposing the presence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, moved to give individual regions the right to use Russian as an official language, and reversed his predecessor’s stance on such controversial issues as relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, the Stalin-induced famine of the 1930s, and the honoring of Ukrainian World War II independence fighters.
The coup de grâce of this whirlwind diplomacy was the nearly instantaneous ratification by both countries of a landmark agreement signed in Kharkov last month.
In exchange for extending the lease of the Black Sea Fleet another quarter century, Ukraine would receive a 30 percent discount on the price of Russian gas, part of which is to be applied to the cost of the lease.
In addition, the Black Sea Fleet, which already provides 15 to 20 percent of local revenues to Sevastopol, will increasingly shift to using Ukrainian providers for essential goods and services, thus making Russian taxpayers the long-term guarantors of the region’s economic prosperity.
In exchange, Russia no doubt expects even greater opportunities for investment in the region.
Ukraine also has declared that it regards the Black Sea Fleet as an essential part of Europe’s security architecture, “a guarantee of security among the nations of the Caspian basin” as Mr. Yanukovich put it.
The old assumption that NATO suffices to guarantee European security has thus been replaced by a new paradigm that focuses on Russia’s centrality to European security.
This is a significant geopolitical victory for Russia and sets the stage for more elaborate collective security arrangements between Russian and Ukraine, within the context of a new European collective security system.
The speed with which President Yanukovich has reoriented foreign policy has stunned European and American observers, but should we really be surprised? It was always wishful thinking to believe that Ukraine — where almost any poll taken in the past decade shows a 90 percent favorable view of Russians, and nearly one in five still holds out hope of the two countries becoming one state — would be so easily torn away from Russia.
If anything, Mr. Yushchenko’s efforts to equate “pro-Western” with “anti-Russian” probably did more to undermine the popularity of the Orange Revolution than any other factor.
So, what options now remain for the West? Some advocate fighting this rapprochement by increasing the economic and political pressure on Kiev. This course, however, would most likely result in political paralysis, the collapse of the economy, and might end in violence.
Others have succumbed to resignation, a sentiment that Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, has dubbed “Ukraine fatigue.” Although the Ukrainian elite might not quite want to become part of Russia, since it so obstinately refuses to become part of the West, we might as well let Moscow deal with the problem.
Few, however, seem to see that there is a third option — embrace Ukraine and turn it to the West’s advantage. Replace the misguided “divide and conquer” strategy that the West has been pursuing in the region with a new one that aims at the simultaneous integration of the Slavic cultural component of Europe into pan-European institutions.
Make Ukraine Europe’s indispensable partner for bringing Russia into the European Union. Rather than placing the two countries on different tracks, reward them both for moving along the same path.
Given the deep historical ties, it was probably always a fool’s errand to try to set Ukraine against Russia, especially by forcing it to chose over Europe. As Mr. Yanukovich correctly stated in his inaugural address, this is a “false choice.”
With a new approach that is not bound by ideological cobwebs from the past, we can have both countries join Europe together. It’s time to ask just how much true pan-European unity, which requires Moscow as its anchor, is worth to Europeans.