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Published on: February 8, 2010
Lessons From Ukraine: Mostly About Russia

The apparent victory of Viktor Yanukovych in yesterday’s Ukrainian presidential election is yet another setback to the idea that the world is rapidly becoming a more democratic place.  The candidate whose fraudulent claims of victory in 2005 led to the much hailed “Orange Revolution” of 2004.  Losing candidate Yulia Tymoshenko has vowed to challenge the […]

The apparent victory of Viktor Yanukovych in yesterday’s Ukrainian presidential election is yet another setback to the idea that the world is rapidly becoming a more democratic place.  The candidate whose fraudulent claims of victory in 2005 led to the much hailed “Orange Revolution” of 2004.  Losing candidate Yulia Tymoshenko has vowed to challenge the results in court and has threatened to bring her supporters out to the streets in a replay of the Orange protests, but the reports from international observers suggest that the elections, whatever little irregularities popped up here and there, passed the smell test.  It’s likely that Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s threats are part of the next round in Ukrainian politics as the newly elected President and the Braided One maneuver for power.Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine

All politics is local; the Ukrainians voted the way they did mostly because of domestic political factors.  The two wings of the Orange Revolution wasted the last five years feuding and spatting with one another; Tymoshenko and the outgoing president Viktor Yushchenko could never get over their political and policy differences.  Had the two movements united they might well have won the latest election despite a 15% fall in Ukraine’s GDP since the advent of the global financial crisis.  Most observers think that Yanukovych is a bit more pro-Moscow and a bit more predictable than Tymoshenko; given Ukraine’s economic difficulties and given that it will be hard for the new president to gain effective control of Ukraine’s parliament, Yanukovych is likely to experience some rough sledding in office.

But if the Ukrainians voted mainly for domestic reasons, the international implications of their choice are being widely studied.  In a nutshell the consensus seems to be: Russia up, US and EU down.

Overall, I think that’s right, but the devil is in the details.  It’s going to be important not to ‘overlearn’ the lessons of the Ukrainian election — but it would also be wrong to ignore them.

The first lesson–that US and EU power is waning in the region and that Russian power is increasing–is true up to a point.  The United States made a serious mistake in the 1990s.  The decision to expand NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union made sense from the standpoint of countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, providing them with both the psychological boost of membership in an elite western club at a time when the road to EU membership looked rocky and long and the new post-communist governments were still finding their way.  But there’s a catch.  If you put “No Fishing” signs up on the east side of a lake but not on the west side, it’s a bit like putting “Fish Here” signs on the west bank.  Poland and Bulgaria are NATO members; Georgia and Ukraine aren’t. Russia is fishing.

In hindsight, the choice that we made to extend NATO farther east in gradual steps might have been a mistake.  Russia hates NATO expansion and always has.  To some Russians it looks like the inexorable approach of a hostile alliance that endangers the motherland; to others it is a constant humiliating reminder of Russian weakness and the west’s arrogant presumption after 1989.  The expansion was annoying when it was limited to the former Warsaw Pact Soviet allies; it was maddening and infuriating when it extended to territories that were once part of the USSR like the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.  The prospect of a new wave of expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine, and push right up to the Russian frontier, was a worst case scenario nightmare for Russia.

If we were going to expand NATO eastward, we probably should have done it all at once, making agreements in principle and establishing basic interim security treaties with those countries whose actual entry might have to be delayed.  What we’ve done instead is like pulling a bandage off tiny bit by bit, endlessly prolonging the agony.  We should have ripped the whole thing off twenty years ago.  (We should have also thought much more seriously than we ever have about the likelihood that expanding NATO probably ultimately entailed bringing the Russians in as the only way to stabilize the security situation across Europe.)  Now the combination of Russian opposition (which, among other things, reduces European enthusiasm for expansion), geopolitical instability (do we want to get sucked into a new Russia-Georgian war?) and the general decline of US interest in Europe make a strong new push for expansion unlikely — even if the Yanukovych government wanted to join NATO.

So here we are: stuck with a security fault line in Europe, while the Russians will continue to fish where there aren’t any signs.

Yanukovych and Putin

If the American dream of pushing NATO out to the Russian frontier is now fading away, the EU’s hope of transforming its neighborhood by its power of attraction is also running into trouble. Since 1989, the EU’s chief diplomatic trump card is its ability to offer other countries access to the world’s largest market and membership in a very generous and prestigious club.  For the mostly poor and formerly communist countries to the east and south of ‘Old Europe,’ the chance to get into the EU (which meant, among other things, free access to better paid jobs in the west for their young) was the most exciting opportunity ever.  Country after country made extensive efforts to remodel its laws and business practices to meet European requirements and standards.  The hope of joining the EU is one of the few powerful forces for peace and democracy in the tempestuous Balkans; even the Serbs are willing to send the occasional Serb accused of war crimes for trial if there is no other way to keep the membership process on track.

Unfortunately the next two major  countries for the EU to take on–Turkey and Ukraine–are so big, so poor and each in its own way so different from the other members that it’s not clear that Europe can or will ultimately be able to bring them on board.  Personally, I strongly favor EU membership for both Turkey and Ukraine (and Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia) in the long run.  Combined with a much deeper partnership with Russia, nothing could do more to stabilize the politics and build the economies of this part of the world than the credible prospect of EU enlargement moving forward.  But the EU has lost some of its appetite for expansion.  Greece’s financial shenanigans not to mention the failure of some of the new members (can you hear me, Bulgaria and Romania?) to deal with entrenched corruption have renewed west European stereotypes about the dodgy and untrustworthy East.  Germany and France fear that their power will be further diluted if big new countries like Ukraine and Turkey join the club.  Deep disquiet in Europe about the possibility of living peacefully with Islam has reduced the attractiveness of Turkey as a new member.  It looks as if no new invitations to the ball in Brussels will be coming out anytime soon; countries like Turkey and Ukraine are thinking about other plans for Saturday night.

The eclipse of the US project (based on NATO expansion that is no longer realistic) and the EU project (based on expansion) leaves the Russian project of re-integrating the Soviet space looking better, and there is hope in Moscow and fear elsewhere that the Empire of the Czars is once more on the march.  It’s more of a lurch than a march; even with its oil and gas wealth, Russia isn’t rich enough to build a new empire where the czars and the commissars ruled.  Russia’s influence in Ukraine will surely grow now, more because of commercial relations and deals as because of geopolitical power.  But even if EU membership is a long way away, Europe is a much more attractive market than Russia and Ukraine’s new government is not going to give up the hope that trade with Europe can promote Ukraine’s recovery and growth.

And, from a US standpoint, there is not much that Russia can do in Ukraine that seriously threatens American security or vital interests.  A Russian military takeover of all or part of Ukraine (Crimea is the most likely target) would not threaten the balance of power in Europe and, by forcefully reminding countries like Poland how much they need that NATO umbrella, would probably drive Europe as a whole toward a closer relationship with the US.  Despite its new feistiness under Putin, Russia remains a country in decline.  It’s population is declining; it’s economy isn’t gaining ground; and its relative position compared to the Chinese superpower in the east is getting dramatically worse.  In the next few years Russia is much more likely to be worried about growing Chinese influence in Central Asia and the continuing Islamic insurgencies in the Caucasus than it will be busy plotting the entrance of its tanks into Kiev.  It is also likely that the new techniques of natural gas extraction that have dramatically increased estimates of US reserves will expand production in western and central Europe, sharply reducing western Europe’s dependence on Russian gas in the coming decade and probably also reducing Russia’s future earnings as gas becomes less scarce.

So this is not Russia on the march or a new Cold War.  But it’s an issue and it points to a core problem in both US and EU foreign policy.  Neither one of us has a clear vision for our future relations with Russia.  “Objectively,” as our old Marxist friends would say, the US and Russia have a lot of interests in common.  Now that Russia is no longer a threat to the European balance of power, the major reason for US-USSR hostility has disappeared.  Given the common interests of the two countries in preventing an apocalyptic ‘clash of civilizations’ with Islam and in preventing China from dominating Asia, the interests we share are more important than the issues that divide us.  As the United States redefines its goals in Central Asia (we seem more currently interested in getting out of the region on decent terms than in remaking it in our image), one major irritant in the relationship is set to disappear.

Yet other issues keep us apart.  The Russians deeply resent the decline in their international position since 1989 and blame us for much of what happened.  The creeping authoritarianism of Russian politics creeps us out.  And Russia’s efforts to reassert itself as an independent and significant force in international politics almost always involve some kind of obstruction of something the US wants to do.  The Obama administration’s desire to ‘reset’ the relationship with Russia is the right thing to do, but it won’t be easy to accomplish.  The Russians most want from us an acknowledgment of their power and stature, and the only coin they can accept for this is a set of policy concessions that we don’t want to make.  The one thing we want most from Russia is the kind of wholehearted acceptance of the values and practices of liberal society in their domestic and foreign policies that the Russians will and perhaps can never make.  On both sides, emotions and values limit our ability to develop a realistic alignment and adjustment of interests.

The Ukrainian election doesn’t change much in this picture.  Both the Americans and Russians want things from Ukraine that we aren’t going to get, just like we want things from each other that we aren’t going to get.  That was true before the Ukrainian election and it is true today.  Managing unhappiness isn’t an inspiring project, but that’s what Americans and Russians are going to have to do for the foreseeable future.

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  • kth

    If the elections passed the smell test, then how is that a setback for the idea that the world is becoming more democratic? Not that democracy is the end-all and be-all of a healthy state or healthy relations between states, just that it is a huge mistake to think that greater national self-determination (kinda what I think of when I hear the word ‘democracy’) will result in more pro-Western governments. Probably quite the opposite.

    (here via the Larison link in the trackback just above).

  • http://francisfukuyama.com Frank Fukuyama

    The outcome is not as bad as it seems because Yanukovich has become a very different politician from the one he was in 2004–he has tried to distance himself from Moscow, supports EU membership, and by all accounts is a fairly competent administrator. There’s no reason why an incompetent Orange Coalition should have been rewarded with victory.

  • Pingback: Lessons From Ukraine: Mostly About Russia – Walter Russell Mead’s Blog – The American Interest « BYU German Delegation()

  • Amalia

    If Russia starts acting up, I don’t think it will be to the West. Nordstream, thank you Schroeder, will circumvent the Baltics, Ukraine and Poland and provide a less vulnerable method of gas delivery to central Europe. Outside of pique, Russia has little to gain from interfering in the western near abroad. The oblast of Koenigbsburg and sizeable minorities in Estonia and Latvia already provide Russia with a pretext for interference, if needed.

    If Russia reinvents itself again, I would look for a militant form of Christian Orthodoxy and a renewed interest in the Caucus and perhaps Turkey. Russia has rehabilitated Uncle Joe alongside the Orthodoxy Church. The RFR has been increasing funding for seminaries and monastaries since Putin took power and Christain militancy is one quite cheap and two less threatening to Europe than a reemergence of unadorned autocracy.

    Putin has recognized publicly the demographic problems; he even taxed beer, for Goodness’ sake. He needs a national movement to galvinize his moribund society and a national crusade to the South might do it. Russia is the heir of Byzantium and would include Constantinople currently if not for the West’s meddling. The war in Chechnia and the Bulgarian’s expulsion of the Turks in the 1980s have shown that the international community does not care overly about extreme human rights’ abuses perpetrated by Russia.

  • http://marinademchuck.wordpress.com/ Marina Demchuck

    Hello, from Ukraine !

    This the very interesting Blog and topic about my nation !

    Our new President was democratically elected, as much as someone can be here in Ukraine anyway !

    Our people, mostly in our Eastern region strongly support our new man, our previous leaders spent much time in the squabble, so, we will see what happens !

    Sincerely,

    Marina.

    UA.

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