The young Ukrainians who overthrew the pro-Russian President Yanukovich and waived the flags of the European Union deserve better than the illusion of European help in lieu of concrete support. But the illusion is still there that tomorrow Ukraine will be admitted to the European Union and that this will solve all the problems of a democratic Ukraine.
Apart from the impending danger of a dismemberment of Ukraine – once the delicate balance upon which coexistence rested has been disrupted – Ukraine faces a dramatic economic situation. The country desperately needs financial aid in excess of 35 billion dollars over two years. It is hard to see how Europe, still struggling to emerge from a depression, may come up with such a huge amount, no matter how generous the helping hand of the United States and the International Monetary Fund.
Realistically, there is no prospect of a sustainable economic and financial salvation for Ukraine without substantial Russian participation in providing not only the essential energy but commercial and financial contributions. Herein lies the challenge: to stabilize the situation first and to negotiate with Russia a “political price” for Russian energy, a step that the new leadership in Kiev can hardly avoid. These are the hard facts that the young Ukrainians thirsty for freedom from Russia’s impositions are not inclined to accept, convinced as they are that not just freedom but economic well being are now at hand. It is hard indeed to accept reality.
At this stage, it is obvious that the new government in Kiev must avoid making a move as hopeless as asking for an armed intervention from Europe.
It is important to remember than in 2008, when pressure was building up toward the admission of Ukraine in NATO, large demonstrations in Sevastopol, Sinferopoli and Yalta shot down the idea with posters carrying the message “down with NATO.” Talk of a rapid admission of Ukraine to the European Union with the consequent prospect of entry into NATO is beyond the reality of the new facts on the ground that Putin has quickly and cleverly established in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
The problem that Ukraine faces together with other nations of Eurasia has been described by a report of the World Bank under the title “Diversified Development.” The collapse of the Soviet empire dramatically altered the East European markets and frustrated the emergence of stable economies based upon the right combination of manufacturing and technology. The result was a loss of productivity that Ukraine could in part compensate with exports to the European Union until the economic crisis hit those nations.
Ukraine was faced with a difficult choice between the European Union market and the Russian customs union. Yanukovic chose the latter, a choice that in no small way was also the consequence of the inability of the European leaders to act decidedly together and with the necessary foresight.
A nation of 50 million people is an important market and neither one of the two blocks can afford to lose it. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to envisage Ukraine with one foot in Western Europe and the other in the Russian sphere of influence. Furthermore, the reality for some time to come will be that the Russian oil and gas pipelines will continue to run through Ukraine.
Russian control over the oil spigots, until the time when the South Stream pipeline will come on line, is obviously bad news for the nations of the European Union. This is why most of the burden is on Europe, and it is up to Europe, with strong support from the United States, to stand up to Putin’s intimidation and to play the card that President Obama has already laid on the table, that there will be a “cost” for Russia if in his turn Putin plays the military card in Ukraine.
In the last analysis, the Russian President is playing a risky game as his actions threaten to undermine the nationalistic legitimization that Putin has been working on since the disappearance of the Soviet system.
The hostility of Ukraine, even without strong ties with the Western European countries, would jeopardize the “Euro-Asian” design that Putin has been pursuing. Given the dramatic turn of events in Crimea, it does not seem likely that Ukraine may be saved by the West in short order, but at the very least the European Union and the United States may help prevent an economic catastrophe in Ukraine. The rest is up to the Ukrainians who cannot ignore the ethnic, linguistic and historical cleavages that threaten the territorial integrity of the nation.
Waving the European Union’s flag is not the solution. The national coexistence is endangered and cannot be salvaged with illusions.