Note to Russia: Ukraine Would Be Better Off Going It Alone
Last week, heaps of Ukrainian goods got stuck at the Russo-Ukrainian border, following the Kremlin's issuance of a "Marry me or else" ultimatum to Kiev — in case the latter finalizes its association agreement with the European Union. Unequivocal in its intent, Russia has been pressurizing Ukraine into opting for Eurasian integration in lieu of forging closer ties with Europe. And while the two Slavic countries widely benefit from trade and cultural ties between each other, Russia’s political relationship with Ukraine has been deteriorating since the Orange Revolution, which pushed Ukraine westwards. If Russia wants to keep Ukraine within its orbit, the Kremlin should take threats off the table and let the Ukrainian government decide which route of integration to pursue instead of corralling Kiev into Eurasian Customs union.
During a summer music festival in Odessa, a reckless behavior of the U.S. rock band Bloodhound Gang's bass player, who shoved a Russian flag into his underwear in front of a jubiliant Ukrainian crowd, ratcheted up pressure between Kiev and Moscow. Perhaps, the American was not aware of political divisions between the two countries when he was desecrating the flag amid whoops of joy. But his actions certainly underlined the problems facing the two post-Soviet nations: Ukrainians view Russia as an aggressor against the sovereignty and political independence of Ukraine, whereas Russia views Ukrainians as pseudo-Europeans, who wish to join the European Union out of spite, that is to distance themselves further away from Russia. But this has not always been so.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, despite notable disagreements over Sevastopol and gas transfers, Ukraine had been receiving substantial political and economic support from Russia. Not only did Moscow provide president Leonid Kuchma with political advisers during elections, the Kremlin frequently made a number of economic concessions to Ukraine – including renegotiations of gas contracts – to retain influence over its western neighbor. What Russia overlooked, though, was the possibility of an opposition victory in the 2004 presidential elections. As a consequence of election fraud perpetrated by Kuchma’s protégé – Viktor Yanukovich – thousands of Ukrainians occupied the central square in Kiev protesting against election rigging. This marked the end of the Kuchma regime and presented Russia with formidable challenges of dealing with a pro-Western government in Kiev.
While previous disputes over gas revolved around prices, after the Orange Revolution in 2004, the Kremlin began to use its gas supplies to Europe as a political weapon against the new leadership of Ukraine. This policy eventually led to two major energy crises, also called the “gas wars,” in 2006 and 2009, when the flow of Russian gas via Ukraine was halted, resulting in gas outages across southeastern and eastern Europe. In the main, Russia’s coercive tactics against the Yushchenko government yielded some results: the Orange Revolution’s momentum subsided, and Viktor Yanukovich came to power in 2010. Ukraine’s new president, who was once considered Moscow’s close ally, however, stopped short of pursuing closer integration with Russia. Why? Ukraine does not want to be subjected to political control exerted by the Kremlin. Hence Ukraine’s European aspirations closely linked with independence from its eastern neighbor.
Whither Ukraine-Russia relations? Unfortunately, the Kremlin is not inclined to give up its coercive diplomacy towards Ukraine anytime soon. According to a recent piece published by the Economist, in addition to gas blackmail, Russia is planning to tighten the screws on the Russian businesses of Ukrainian oligarchs, who have been calling for European integration, in an effort to corral Ukraine into Kremlin-led Eurasian Union. Short-sighted and quintessentially imperialistic, this policy will push Ukraine even further from Russia instead of forcing Kiev into submission. To achieve its ends, the Kremlin needs to recalibrate its understanding of Russia-Ukraine relations by letting the Ukrainians shape their own destiny. Force and cooptation are bad instruments for integration, and it is high time for the Kremlin to learn from past mistakes and come up with fresh ideas. First, Russia should develop a clear framework for Eurasian integration akin to the EU’s four phases of economic integration. But whether integration, not regional hegemony, is Moscow’s real goal remains a question worth contemplating.