When Ukraine decided against signing a cooperative agreement with the EU last week, one could all but hear a collective groan go up across Europe. Apparently under pressure from Russia, Ukraine’s leaders suspended negotiations over the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). The deal would have boosted the country’s chances for further EU integration and prevented it from joining a Russian-led Customs Union. The disappointment of many Ukrainians, on full display in the streets of Kiev for the past few days, is understandable. For them, closer ties with the EU carry the promise of better jobs, democratic politics and a country that looks more like Western Europe and less like the corrupt, economically struggling place it is today. These street protests, which began nine years to the day after the start of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, are an expression of anger that the revolution’s promises have not been met.
But that Western leaders have reacted with such astonishment and dismay is far less understandable. Russia’s success in dissuading Ukraine from closer relations with the EU should not have come as a surprise. Russia, it turns out, had much more to lose than the EU had to gain, and it acted accordingly. The Kremlin has met each of Ukraine’s steps toward an EU deal with punitive economic measures and, had the agreement been signed, much more severe sanctions could have been expected. The EU, for its part, offered few inducements and the agreement actually would have imposed significant economic hardship on Ukraine in the near term. Beyond this, EU leaders thought it wise to prod Ukraine to improve its human rights record as a precondition to the agreement.
Given the all-too-obvious constraints Ukraine’s leaders faced, why didn’t EU leaders anticipate that they’d opt out of the agreement? And why didn’t EU leaders anticipate that Russia would tip the balance of power in its favor in a place it very much wants in its sphere of influence?
The problem is that many in the West see “balance of power” and “spheres of influence” as antiquated and less-than-legitimate concepts and therefore largely ignore them. Rather than viewing international politics as driven by competing interests, they see it as driven by the process of ever more countries adopting Western-style democracy. Accordingly Western leaders assume that East European states integrating with the West is a natural process in the post-Cold War world and that anything running counter to this integration is a perversion of that process. This disregard for traditional power politics and the assumption that European integration is a natural development are significant blind spots for Western leaders. And these blind spots hamper their ability to realize the very worthy goals of European integration and democratization.
Russia, of course, does not share this view of the world. Russian leaders openly call the former Soviet Union their “sphere of privileged interest” and use what leverage they have to get their way there. Western leaders and commentators’ contempt for Russia’s kind of foreign policy is on full display in their statements on Eastern Europe. When discussing his policy toward Russia in 2009, Barack Obama said of Moscow’s approach to its near-abroad, “there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence…These assumptions are wrong. . . . The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over.” Or as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it when chiding Russia for pressuring Ukraine out of the DCFTA: “The cold war should be over for everyone.” And publications like the New York Times and Washington Post are never far behind, reliably printing editorials that mock Russia’s leaders for their barbaric, obsolete view of the world. The message underlying all these comments is that in the modern world countries don’t pressure other countries to get what they want; or at least countries should only pressure other countries in the name of building democracy.
Russia’s leaders, among others, are highly skeptical of claims that Western powers are pursing a new, enlightened foreign policy. Where the West has seen an expansion of democracy and markets in post-Cold War Europe, Russia has seen an expansion of Western power at the expense of its own interests. Until recently, Russia’s resistance to EU and NATO expansion has not been sufficient to thwart it. But this is changing. As these Western blocs stretch east toward countries like Ukraine that have strong cultural and economic ties with Russia and that Moscow see as in its sphere of interest, the limitations of the West’s approach to foreign affairs become clear.
The trouble with Western foreign policy is not that it promotes democracy and human rights. The trouble is that, in abandoning traditional ideas of international relations, the West has left itself poorly equipped to pursue its interests or promote its values. Simply put, “balance of power” and “spheres of influence” are just as real today as they were in the 19th century or during the Cold War. Believing that we’ve evolved beyond these things does nothing to diminish their reality. As Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted in the wake of the DCFTA’s collapse, “Ukraine government suddenly bows deeply to the Kremlin. Politics of brutal pressure evidently works.” Indeed it does work and EU leaders must learn to operate in a world where this is the case.
The shock over their failure in Ukraine may have been enough to shake EU leaders from their illusions. As Mats Persson, director of the London-based Open Europe think tank put it, “The lesson is that EU’s soft-power diplomacy has hit its limits. Playing carrot and stick doesn’t work when you come up against a real hard power like Russia. This is a highly significant moment.”
Ukraine’s rejection of closer EU ties does not need to be final. Indeed, presented with the right inducements, Kiev could perform another about face and sign the DCFTA at an EU summit this week in Lithuania. In any event, if the EU deems bringing Ukraine into its orbit worth the effort, it should devise a strategy to accomplish this. It should not assume, as some continue to do, that the union’s broad appeal together with historical forces will simply make that happen. If, on the other hand, such integration is not important enough to spend the necessary resources, the EU should admit as much and not hold out promises it cannot keep. The hopes that people in places like Ukraine pin on Western integration are very real and should not be encouraged unless the West’s commitment to them is equally real.