This is how the acute phase of Ukraine’s political crisis ends — it’s all about bringing the struggling country back on its feet in economic terms, not a geopolitical fantasy in the minds of Cold Warriors in Washington and Moscow.
With the European Union’s decision earlier today to deploy €11 billion ($15 billion) in aid, Ukraine’s treasury will now pull back from the brink of sovereign default — a catastrophe that would, ironically, have harmed Russian banks far greater than European banks (Russian investors have a cumulative exposure of nearly $30 billion to Ukrainian debt). That assistance was almost guaranteed from the moment former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled from office after his government unleashed lethal fire on anti-government protesters that had gathered for four months at Maidan Square in central Kiev. Interim president Olexandr Turchinov and interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (pictured above with Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs) are firmly committed to economic reform and Ukraine’s turn toward Europe.
Accordingly, it’s the European Union — and not the United States and not Russia — that looks both most sensible and most productive in the aftermath of last week’s showdown.
Throughout the entire Ukrainian crisis, American and Russian policymakers have routinely disregard the role of the European Union, including some very undiplomatic language from a top State Department official a month ago.
But stabilizing Europe’s expanding periphery is what the European Union does best — and why it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. The earliest iteration of the European Union sutured the wounds among Italy, France and Germany in the 1950s, midwifing the economic expansion of the 1960s. It brought the United Kingdom more closely into Europe in the 1970s, and catalyzed economic reform that transformed Ireland into a high-income country. It smoothed the transitions of Spain, Portugal and Greece from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, and its embrace of the former Warsaw Pact states in 2004 anchors economic and political growth from Prague to Tallinn to Warsaw. EU policymakers today are effectively dangling the carrot of EU membership to Serbia in order to bring enduring peace to the Balkans.
Jean Monnet would be overjoyed today to see the European role in ending Ukraine’s crisis, and the promise of extending peace and prosperity more widely beyond the boundaries of Europe’s core.
Meanwhile, the United States remains mostly irrelevant to the outcome of Ukraine’s political crisis. Despite the stern language of US secretary of state John Kerry over the weekend, the United States has no vital interest in Ukraine or in Crimea. US actions confirm this reality — there are no US warships headed to the Black Sea, and NATO certainly isn’t going to risk inflaming tensions further by engaging Russian president Vladimir Putin. But the rhetoric of Kerry, US president Barack Obama and other members of the Obama administration hasn’t matched the strategic reality of the US position. Sure, Russian overreaching in Ukraine gives the international community an opportunity to take the long-overdue step of kicking Russia out of the G8 — Russia never shared the same tight-knit commitment to liberal market economics, rule of law and democratic institutions as the core G7. But conservative critics who attack the Obama administration for its weakness against Putin miss the mark (Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush famously miscalculated Putin just as much).
It’s also not so clear that Putin is the grand real politic master that everyone thinks he is. You can take the relatively toothless US response to Russian aggression as a sign of just how irrelevant Moscow has become since the height of the Cold War. As Peter Beinhart wrote in The Atlantic earlier this week, the showdown over Ukraine highlights Russian weakness more than American. If we’re still wrangling over the boundary of Russian influence, the line of demarcation has moved from Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. The Baltic states are now NATO members, and the United States now hosts its own military bases throughout central Asia. Though Putin may be attempting to reclaim some of the influence that Russia lost in its 1990s nadir, the fight for Crimea is not the same as the Prague Spring. Nor are any of the ominous references to the 1930s particularly relevant — Putin is not a 21st century Hitler, Ukraine is not Poland and Crimea is not the Sudetenland.
By taking de facto control over Crimea, Putin has gained what, exactly? Crimea is alone among Ukraine’s regions in having an ethnic Russian majority. So while Russia will continue to hold some influence in eastern Ukraine, there’s only a small chance that Russian forces would push beyond Crimea and into other eastern Ukrainian oblasts. If Russian forces continue to hold Crimea, they could face a years-long (or decades-long) resistance from Crimean Tatars. Though the Tatars comprise 13% of the local population, the Soviet government’s forced expulsion of Crimean Tatars to central Asia in the 1940s means that today’s Tatars hold strong anti-Russian sentiment (and rightly so).
Putin’s push into Crimea, moreover, is giving Ukrainians throughout the rest of the country a patriotic cause to unite against Russian influence. Nothing could unite Russian-speakers in the east and Ukrainian-speakers in the west like the threat of a Russian invasion. Putin’s support for Yanukovych, including a $15 billion loan last November, put him on the wrong side of Ukrainian public sentiment, which turned rapidly in February against Yanukovych –no longer against just his reversal on signing an association agreement with the European Union, but also with the horrific underperformance of the Ukrainian economy, the mismanagement and corruption of his administration, his disrespect for the rule of law and, ultimately, his responsibility for dozens of civilian deaths.
By letting Putin take Crimea, the European Union is now free to win the hearts and the minds of the rest of Ukraine. Not with bullets or tanks or threats or rhetoric, but with the kind of tools that can bring Ukraine in from the cold — today, preventing sovereign default; tomorrow, encouraging liberalization, reducing corruption, diversifying energy sources and promoting the kind of GDP growth that’s eluded Ukraine since independence.
Photo credit to Reuters / Alexander Demianchuk.