Over the past year we have witnessed three global developments that have demonstrated the limits not only of the current world order but also of Western civilization and its ability to confront challenges to that order. All three developments—the Syrian civil war, the Iranian nuclear problem, and the new Ukrainian rebellion—have demonstrated that at best the West can offer only partial solutions to global problems, if indeed it chooses to face up to those problems in the first place.One might be tempted at first to pick the first two of these three developments, Syria and Iran, as the ones with the greatest possible impact. But in fact, of all three it is Ukraine’s destiny, the destiny of a European nation of 48 million people that could hold the key to the future of Russia and other “Eurasian” states, which has tremendous civilizational importance. What I mean by this is that Ukraine and its near- to medium-term future will give us answers not only to the question of whether or not Russia will continue to see itself as an empire, but also to the questions of how committed Europe is to the values it espouses, and how far the West is prepared to expand its influence, if it is to expand at all.The recent Eastern Partnership saga, culminating with Ukraine’s decision to ditch the Association Agreement (AA) with Europe at the Vilnius EU summit on November 29, is a dramatic story with many plot twists: desperate clinging to power, bluffing, predatory instincts, attempts to survive by bullying, naiveté, a lack of strategic thinking, and the drive for dignity and freedom. The lessons of this saga must still be learned if its disastrous repercussions are to be avoided. Indeed we have already seen those repercussions begin to unfold in Kiev, where the riot police brutally dispersed a peaceful “EuroMaidan” rally on November 30, and where, the next day, protesters (some believe they were provocateurs) attacked the presidential administration and the Prime Minister’s office, and occupied city council. The question is this: Is President Yanukovych ready to turn into a Ukrainian Lukashenko, or a Ukrainian Putin? The answer could have geopolitical consequences for the whole region.To understand the “Vilnius story”, one must first put aside the debates about “winners” and “losers” that currently dominates the discussion. The reasons behind this story and the trends it highlighted are far more important. One must be ready to rethink yesterday’s conventional truths; the popular explanation of why Ukraine made an apparent U-turn after it seemed ready to hit the European on-ramp is that Putin’s pressure tactics were successful. The truth is more complicated.To be sure, the Kremlin has indeed been harassing Kiev. In August it even staged a dress rehearsal of what would have come if Ukraine had signed the pact, blocking the export of the Ukrainian goods to Russia. But were these tactics anything more than what everyone had already expected of Putin? Hardly. The Kremlin had made it abundantly clear that Russia was ready to pursue a new foreign policy doctrine: the revival of the Soviet foreign policy posture—the “Brezhnev Doctrine”, in fact, adapted for the new times. This recycled “Putin Doctrine” seeks to create for Russia a galaxy of satellite states. Establishing this galaxy is essential to the reproduction of the personalized-power Matrix; Ukraine, which has always been the jewel in the Russian crown, would not be forgotten. Beginning with the August trade war with Kiev, Moscow has been showing us what tactics it will employ to promote this doctrine. At any rate, there wasn’t any confusion in Moscow about its plans for Ukraine; both Kiev and Europe had plenty of time to prepare for the Moscow offensive and to plan measures that could have at least neutralized the Kremlin’s assertiveness.Yanukovych’s role is another factor that has impacted the situation. Naturally, he is trying to ensure his re-election in 2015. This motive, more than Ukraine’s national interests, has guided his actions so far. He may have thought for some time that the European pact would help him to achieve his personal agenda, but evidently he has changed his view. Or perhaps he was using Europe as an ace in the hole in his long-running poker game with Putin, trying to secure better Russian “deliverables.” Maybe he played both sides, waiting to see who could offer the largest “deliverable.”Just before Vilnius, Yanukovych concluded that European integration would not guarantee his electoral victory and so decided to fall back on Putin’s formula of preserving power by appealing to traditionalist voters. This could have been his plan all along; his longstanding refusal to endorse the most important laws from the Eastern Partnership agenda—the ones that could have undermined his monopoly on power—suggest this possibility. Traditionalist voters demand a union with Russia and retention of the old rules of the game, including the paternalistic state, which would be undermined if Ukraine turned to the West. In this case, then, Yanukovych’s preferences coincide with the preferences of this archaic segment of the Ukrainian electorate.None of this is to say that pressure from Moscow did not also play a role. “Moscow is pressuring me,” Yanukovych complained to everyone in Vilnius. “Ukrainian FM Kozhara in our discussions confirms that Ukraine has succumbed to severe Russian economic pressure in postponing EU agreement”, tweeted Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt. Again, yes, there has been and there will be pressure from Moscow, and cajoling too! But the Kremlin simply helped Yanukovych to make the choice—or rather to justify the choice he had already made—that was most likely preserve the regime. In this situation Putin has been instrumental in helping Yanukovych to achieve his personal agenda.If Yanukovych thinks that, after winning the 2015 elections with the help of the paternalistic base and the Kremlin’s neutrality (or even support), he will have a broader field for maneuver and can turn to Europe, then he is wrong. Will Europe be eager to sit down at a table with a man who just delivered it a slap in the face? Hardly. Will Putin be inclined to let him off the hook easily? Hardly. And will the Ukrainian people give him breathing room? Hardly. And with respect to this last question in particular, Yanukovych has successfully provoked the most active part of Ukrainian society, including even part of the elite, to rebel against his rule. To have the families of members of his own administration taking to the streets means that his own gang is crumbling. In Vilnius, Yanukovych began to dig his political grave; by using violence against the protesters in Kiev, he was placing one foot in it.Finally, Vilnius has demonstrated the extent of the West’s paralysis and loss of mission. Yanukovych’s behavior shocked the unprepared Western capitals; this only shows how little they understand the processes underway in Kiev (and in Moscow). A couple of weeks before Vilnius, the West was sure that its Ukrainian jewel was about to be ensconced in the European crown. Well, the experts obviously didn’t deserve their lunches. The West continued in its complacency even after Moscow began to intimidate Ukraine. If the West wanted to embrace Ukraine, and if it didn’t want to ready an economic package as a safety net in case Moscow began to tighten the noose, then its leaders could have at least escalated their rhetoric in defense of Ukraine. Did Merkel call Putin to say “Keep your hands off Ukraine!”? Did U.S. leaders—at least Vice President Biden—place a call to Yanukovych to talk him through his hesitations? One may doubt whether this would have had any effect on Moscow’s position, since the Kremlin is used to Europe’s inability (as the Kremlin sees it) to match Russia’s skills at hardball. But it was at least worth a try.Berlin, a principal European actor currently immersed in its own problems, proved unable to consolidate the European position or react to the pressure from Moscow. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bundestag speech before Vilnius in support of EU politics in the East now looks more like an appeal to her German audience, with no impact on either Kiev or Moscow. As a matter of fact, it was the lack of strong German support for the robust Eastern Partnership that made the project vulnerable from the very beginning.Could Merkel’s latest idea, of the European Union talking to Russia on Ukraine, work? There are two questions in this context. First, does the European Union (and does Germany) have any trump cards up its sleeve to talk with Putin, and what are they? Second, does it have a mechanism to neutralize Kremlin pressure on Kiev? The talk between the two sides over Ukraine evokes unpleasant memories of the past, including that of the Yalta tradeoff. Europe has to have really powerful arguments in its dialogue with the Kremlin in order to prove that these historical parallels are groundless.One more factor must be mentioned: In many ways, Kiev’s behavior was also the result of the absence of an unequivocal position in Washington. The American reaction to Kiev’s refusal to sign the agreements was too little, too late, and it only reconfirmed America’s lack of interest in the region. The U.S. made the mistake of ceding to Europe the task of trying to integrate Ukraine into the West. American absenteeism was a mistake.Not only were Western leaders late in reacting to the Ukrainian developments; there is an even more substantial problem: the systemic weakness of the Eastern Partnership project itself. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was correct in saying that the project failed to provide sufficient incentives for Ukrainian modernization. The Polish and Swedish initiative to create the Eastern Partnership was no doubt a positive step that proved that these two countries care about what is happening in the eastern part of Europe. But the program, at least after it passed through the Brussels “pipeline”, was structured with incompatible goals, leading inevitably to paralysis. First, the Eastern Partnership became hostage to the European Union’s reluctance to irritate Russia. Second, Brussels focused on cooperation with authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments, or with governments (like Ukraine) that have begun to move toward personalized rule. Third, bureaucratic and technocratic approaches prevailed. Fourth, the free trade zone and visa facilitation mechanisms have proved insufficient spurs for political liberalization. As the experiences of Azerbaijan and Belarus showed, the Eastern Partnership program did not prevent member states from moving toward harsh authoritarianism. Fifth, the Eastern Partnership lumped six countries together that had little in common beyond the fact that they were post-Soviet. Each is moving along its own path. Moreover, Belarus and Azerbaijan were already authoritarian before the Partnership, although Azerbaijan has become significantly worse. Sixth, European leaders went too far in making it clear that the Eastern Partnership wasn’t a guarantee of EU membership, which begs the question: What does it lead to?Just as was the case with the EU-Russia partnership, instead of encouraging the new rules of the game in the spheres of administration and government, the Eastern Partnership became a support factor for the initiatives spearheaded by increasingly undemocratic and illiberal regimes.It has now become evident (regrettably, not evident for everyone!) that one of the major premises behind the Eastern Partnership is wrong. We have in mind the fact that many in Europe believe that the Eastern Partnership should serve as a bridge between Europe and Russia. They keep saying that the Partnership should not be treated as a zero-sum game, and that its members can be involved in alliances with Russia. But is this “driving two horses” act possible when the Kremlin has declared that Russia has to be a “unique civilization”, ready to contain the demoralized Western system?! If this is the case, then no matter how much Brussels wants to avoid it, zero-sum politics with Russia is unavoidable. We are dealing with two civilizations built on incompatible principles. Moscow itself has put an end to the ambiguity. That means that the new independent states can no longer play at being simultaneous partners with both Moscow and Europe.In truth, we are not only talking about a geopolitical choice for Ukraine and for other newly independent states, but also about a civilizational choice. Europe, it appears, is not ready to frame the question in such terms. Doing so would have forced the European Union to alter its approach to Russia, which it is not prepared to do. By suggesting a new “Triad” round of talks between Europe, Russia and Ukraine, Yanukovych is trying to preserve the ambiguity that will allow him to continue his previous policy of vacillation.In short, Europe’s error lies not in forcing Ukraine to make a choice, as some analysts have suggested. Europe, rather, has erred by failing to convince Ukraine to make the right choice, and by failing to provide Kiev with additional incentives, including financial ones, to help its political leadership make this choice.If Europe proceeds in its current bureaucratic mode, rejecting normative dimensions and trying to be pragmatic, it is bound to lose to Moscow in the struggle for influence over the newly independent states. Moscow has learned to play such games much more effectively. Thus, Europe has to choose a new strategy.What will that strategy be? The European Union needs to diversify its relations with the Eastern Partnership member states (Belarus and Azerbaijan should be treated differently from Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia; dealing with Armenia possibly requires yet another approach). The principle of conditionality should be stressed (loans and assistance should be granted as a reward for accepting new rules of the game). The European Union must engage in a dialogue with civil society and assist in its development. It should not limit itself to dealing with the state. Fortunately, the Kremlin is doing everything in its power to force Brussels out of its political lethargy.Finally, let us a turn to the issue of EuroMaidan as one more spillover effect from the Vilnius saga. Ukrainian social activism has become a powerful factor in both Ukraine’s domestic and foreign politics. Both leaders, Yanukovych and Putin, deserve credit for awakening Ukrainian society and its younger generation. Europe hasn’t seen such student demonstrations since 1968. The authorities’ crackdown on popular dissent has generated a powerful tide that could overthrow Yanukovych’s rule. Ukraine has just proved that it is really not Russia by demonstrating that significant part of its society has acquired a new, Europe-oriented national identity. EuroMaidan will mark a significant change in Ukrainian society, and its impact may change not only the Ukrainian political regime but its trajectory too.Ukrainians fighting for the chance to make a European turn are giving Europe a chance to renew its mission and help Ukrainian society. The most important help Europe can give is to prevent confrontation and violence and help Ukrainians find a peaceful road map out of the current political crisis.Moscow, of course, is watching the Ukrainian developments now with dread and fear. In 2004, the Orange Revolution forced the Kremlin to turn to openly authoritarian rule. Today a new tide sweeping across Ukraine could force the Kremlin to ramp up even more the crackdown inside its own borders and its assertiveness outside the country in order to stem the tide of Russian anger. But as the Ukrainian example shows, the suicidal statecraft of corrupted regimes ends in the people’s anger sooner or later. Keeping these tides from growing into a tsunami of violence could be Europe’s new mission in the region.
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The recent Eastern Partnership saga, culminating with Ukraine’s decision to ditch the Association Agreement (AA) with Europe at the Vilnius EU summit on November 29, is a dramatic story with many plot twists. The moral of that story must still be learned if its disastrous repercussions are to be avoided.