Last week was supposed to be a landmark time for Ukraine. At least, the EU hoped it might be. Ukraine was set to sign a free trade and association agreement with the EU in Vilnius until talks broke down last week and Kiev pulled out of the deal. Brussels tried to rescue the deal, but was rebuffed by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who seems intent on moving east towards Russia instead. Raymond Sontag reflects on the EU’s failure to lure Ukraine in a piece for The American Interest Online:
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? […]
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.
This deal was one of the most important geopolitical stories going until it disintegrated, and Sontag’s piece does an excellent job explaining why Kiev snubbed Brussels for Moscow. It’s worth taking the time to read the whole thing. The EU brought a baguette to a knife fight, and was harshly reminded of the limits of soft power.