Ukraine's decision to freeze its signing of a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union in favor of a closer relationship with Russia constitutes a stunning triumph for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a major geopolitical defeat for the West, a stinging rebuke to the EU, and a tragedy for the long suffering Ukrainian people, a strong majority of whom see their country's destiny as part of Europe.
Since Ukraine gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union, its government has distinguished itself by corrupt, dysfunctional, and occasionally comical misrule. Nevertheless, the well-endowed country of forty-six million has enormous potential. As has often been noted, without Ukraine Russia will remain an upper mid-level power; with a subservient Ukraine firmly in its sphere of influence, Russia could hope to reclaim its status as a great power.
Led by Poland and Sweden, the EU created an Eastern Partnership Program in 2009 with the aim of integrating post-Soviet republics Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine into the Western democratic, capitalist system with eventual membership in the EU an implied, although not promised, long-term goal.
Realizing that this process signaled a powerful competing model to his neo-authoritarian "sovereign democracy," Putin launched a counter-offensive to dissuade the six countries from concluding association and free trade agreements with the EU, scheduled to be signed this week at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Natural gas to Ukraine was cut off, temporarily depriving supplies to western customers. Earlier this year Moldovan wine and Ukrainian chocolate suddenly were found to be unsanitary and deemed unfit for importation to Russia. Kremlin emissaries made dark threats of broader trade sanctions to come if the six continued on their westward path. Several weeks ago Armenia became the first to crack under the heavy handed pressure, bowing out to join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. But plucky Moldova, the poorest country in Europe with Russian-led troops on the soil of its breakaway eastern region, has stood firm and, with Georgia, is prepared to sign the agreement in Vilnius.
Ukraine, however, is the core of the Eastern Partnership. Optimists hold out hope that its President Viktor Yanukovych, not known as a Jeffersonian democrat, is merely engaging in eleventh-hour brinkmanship to induce the EU to compromise on human rights provisions. More cynical observers give credence to rumors of massive bribery by Putin. In either case, Kyiv's exit effectively scuttles the Eastern Partnership project.
Official Brussels is in a state of shock. The EU's premier foreign policy initiative, led by two of its most talented and high-profile figures, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, and backed by the economic clout of the world's largest economic grouping, was thought to be irresistible. The basic flaw in the logic was that while Russia utilizes carrots and sticks in its international policy, the EU "doesn't do sticks," as one prominent European diplomat put it. The giant carrot of potential EU membership as a one-size-fits-all inducement has been exposed as no match for a ruthless opponent's Machtpolitik working on corrupt recipient politicians, more concerned with their own political survival and private bank accounts than their peoples' interest. One hopes that Brussels will learn this lesson and re-calibrate its policy elsewhere, such as in the Western Balkans.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have already taken to the street in Kyiv to protest Yanukovych's course change. Meanwhile, the West must make clear to Russia that there is a price to pay for its thuggish intimidation tactics. The United States and the EU should bring a case against Moscow at the World Trade Organization for violating a central tenet of the WTO that a member may not use economic measures to achieve a political aim. Further, within environmentally responsible limits the U.S. should encourage accelerated development of its abundant shale gas reserves for export to Europe to undercut Putin's economic blackmail. Finally, NATO ought quietly to re-emphasize to neutral Finland and Sweden -- the latter which lately has been the target of Russian military air incursions -- that the surest way to guarantee their independence and stability in Europe's far north is to join the Alliance with its Article 5 common defense.
No one in the EU or the U.S. wants to re-create dividing lines in Europe. The door to genuine cooperation with Russia must remain open. But a business-as-usual attitude after the Ukrainian debacle will only encourage Putin to continue his bullying elsewhere.
Michael Haltzel, Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, was European policy advisor to Vice President (then-Senator) Joseph Biden from 1994 to 2005.