Ukraine in the Mirror of the Mind

As the world knows, Kiev backed out of an association agreement with the European Union at the last moment, probably as a continuation of its long game of trying for a better deal by playing Moscow and Brussels against each other. This is a common strategy for “in-between” countries; it won’t work forever but, if well played, it can leverage a better end deal. If poorly played, however, it can produce nothing but bad feelings. The Kyrgyz Republic played the same game with Russia and the US over the Manas Air Base, eventually winning a better payment from the US. Egypt is doing the same today.

But such a simple explanation will not do for the anti-Russia brigade. It’s all about The Chess Masters in the Sky. And we see Kiev’s choice cast in Manichean terms: it is a “principal[led], some even say civilizational, choice between Europe and Russia, democracy and dictatorship, sovereignty and subordination, prosperity and poverty, modernity and mayhem. Indeed, the contrast between what Ukraine can expect from her Western and Eastern neighbors could not be starker.”. All this may be Gospel to most Westerners, but in Kiev they have to seriously ask themselves whether the EU is really the best path to Ukraine’s future. And, a sub-question: is last week’s offer the best we can get?

The other assumption is that it’s all Moscow’s doing. “EU leaders Friday revived Cold War rhetoric Friday, accusing Russia of bullying Ukraine into ditching a landmark deal so the former Soviet republic would stay locked in Moscow’s orbit.” (Sic and much repeated: does anybody read this stuff before re-typing it?) This Tartuffian fanfarade was soon followed in the report by real evidence for Yanukovych’s motives: “Yanukovych complained that the EU hadn’t offered enough in financial incentives to secure his signature.”. But ils ne passeront pas!We may not give in to external pressure, not the least from Russia” said one EU “president” (there are three of them). But the assertion that Moscow made them do it is directly contradicted by many Ukrainian spokesmen: Prime Minister Azarov said the IMF’s conditions were “the last straw”; an official statement declared the EU had not paid enough attention to “Ukraine’s needs”; many feared costs would go up; concerns about Ukraine’s independence were expressed; the EU’s moralistic additional demands were rejected. Nonetheless Russia “blackmailed” Ukraine; Putin is holding the police line in Kiev; Yanukovych “gave in to Russian pressure”; it’s Russian “blackmail” and so on.

So, the established view is that wicked Russia dragged helpless Ukraine away from the light of civilisation and back into barbaric darkness. The argument is founded on the arrogant assertions 1) that the EU represents the first and Russia the second; 2) that Russian conditions are threats but European threats are conditions; 3) that Russian financial incentives are bribes but European bribes are financial incentives. This conceit could not be more baldly put than in this New York Times editorial: “Europe’s use of trade leverage to encourage democracy is constructive and reasonable. Russia’s attempts to bludgeon former vassals into continued economic dependence are not.” In truth 1) the direction is not so obvious from Kiev in 2013; 2) are consequences of choosing one and not the other; 3) Kiev wants money. Kiev has a hard decision to make especially since Brussels refuses Kiev what it recently allowed Ottawa: a foot in two camps. (Vide Armenia).

Well, maybe 20 years ago, when the EU had a future and Russia did not, Kiev’s choice would have been easy. But that’s not the way it looks today. I invite the reader to consider the figures given by Mark Adomanis (who adheres to the curious practice of discussing such issues with facts rather than assuming the answers). The EU’s GDP/capita has been flat for a decade and its unemployment rate is getting worse. Russia, during the same time, is getting steadily better in both respects (yes, from a lower base than the EU but a higher one than Ukraine. Which is what is relevant in the circumstances). The economic part of the choice is by no means so obvious. The values part of the choice is not so obvious either to a country not enamoured with the latest European human rights diktats.

The next observation to be made is that all this is rather contemptuous of Ukraine whose leaders who are assumed to have no will of their own. Of course we have seen this common trope of the anti-Russia lobby before. The Ossetia war, for example, was described as between Russia and the West – Georgians were pawns and the Ossetians not even mentioned. From the viewpoint of “stratospheric analysis” there are no small players; indeed there are always only two players; the others are mere pieces moved by The Chess Masters in the Sky. But, in the actual world they are actors and good analysis should take their calculations into account. One would have thought that the collapse of the “Orange Revolution” and “Rose Revolution” would have taught somebody something about what pawns feel about their pre-arranged futures.

Ukraine is a divided country: I speak of “Russian Ukraine” and “Polish Ukraine” to conveniently describe its two different influences. And, as long as people are not willing to let Ukraine be what it actually is – part of each – these divisions will be perpetrated and strengthened. First the West demanded it join NATO – although few in Ukraine actually wanted to; now it demands that it turn its back on Russia and become the EU’s next reserve of cheap labour and cheap real estate. But Ukraine faces both ways: it is unnatural to expect it to face only one way. It didn’t work during the so-called “Orange Revolution”, why would it work any better today? Especially since the Western option is much less attractive now than it was then. And, after government replacements in Greece and Italy and bank raids in Cyprus, who can honestly say that the sovereignty cost for Ukraine would be higher in the Customs Union?

Amusingly, what is missing in these spins of Russia the bully trying to hold onto its crumbling empire is the fact that Moldova and Georgia did sign agreements with the EU at the Vilnius summit. But how could that have happened? How is it that Moscow’s “bullying” only works on its biggest neighbour but not on its smaller ones?

It surely couldn’t be that Kiev quit the agreement for its own reasons, could it?

In all likelihood, the game is not over and Kiev is calculating its next move in its attempts to leverage money out of Moscow or Brussels, or both; Yanukovych is back talking to Brussels.