Bringing reformed Ukraine in from the chill of purgatory

During the next few weeks, the European Union will make a decision that will have crucial implications for the Continent’s future. It is imperative that they not get it wrong, not only for the sake of Europe, but for American interests as well.

That decision is whether or not to offer an association agreement and free-trade pact to Ukraine, a former republic of the Soviet Union. A final decision by the EU’s ruling executive body, the European Commission, will depend on whether Ukraine has instituted economic, legal and political reforms consistent with further integration toward Europe.

No one doubts that Ukraine’s performance presents a mixed picture. Under President Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s progress in these areas has been uneven but generally moving the right direction, as it was under his predecessors prior to 2010. For example, international observers were critical of irregularities during last year’s parliamentary elections, but the results — including the election to parliament of a controversial nationalist party opposed to Mr. Yanukovych — were seen as reflective of the actual votes cast.

The real issue regarding the association agreement and free-trade pact is something of a surprise. Mr. Yanukovych came to power with strong support from Vladimir Putin’s Russia and was expected to take Ukraine closer to a pro-Moscow orientation. That has not happened.

Perhaps partly to placate Russia, Mr. Yanukovych has made it clear that Ukraine will not become part of the NATO alliance. A few years ago, I spoke in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, at a conference on this topic. I think staying out of NATO is the right call, as the large majority of Ukrainians are opposed to membership in any military bloc. However, Mr. Yanukovych has also ensured continuing cooperation with NATO in peacekeeping missions and in the alliance Partnership for Peace.

More telling, though, is the current government’s clear preference for a pro-Western, and pro-EU economic orientation. This is critical when it comes to the all-important issue of energy, on which not just Ukraine but the EU have had to dance to Moscow’s tune on natural-gas supplies and pricing, with the threat of cutoffs an ever-present reality. To his credit, Mr. Yanukovych’s ruling “Party of Regions” has pressed full-speed ahead with developing shale fracking technology, over the objections of the supposedly “anti-Russian” opposition.

Even the economy and energy don’t tell the whole story. As anyone familiar with Ukrainian attitudes knows, the issue of whether the two EU agreements gets signed this fall is a major historical and geopolitical turning point. It, in fact, boils down to a choice of civilizations. Will Ukraine become part of Europe or go back to Russia? As a country of almost 50 million people in a vital geostrategic crossroads, Ukraine would greatly bolster Russia’s comeback as a major power if it were reincorporated into a Moscow-led bloc. That would be bad not just for the EU, but for the United States, too.

Some in the EU seem to understand that. Recently, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and the EU’s high representative on foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, jointly voiced their opinions of Ukraine’s great importance to the EU. “We can’t lose Ukraine,” Ms. Ashton was quoted by the Estonian news service. Mr. Ansip agreed, and as the leader of a country that itself used to be part of the Soviet Union, that carries some weight.

On the other hand, some European leaders are not so sure. Elmar Brok, a prominent member of the European Parliament, disagrees, insisting on further progress on legal reforms before committing to the association agreement and free-trade pact. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is thought to be skeptical, given Ukraine’s size, poverty relative to the EU and ongoing issues with corruption.

In the end, it may boil down to a question of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. Does Ukraine’s promise outweigh what no one denies are continuing deficiencies? Or looked at more dynamically, can further and faster progress be expected if Ukraine is locked into a relationship with the EU? The answer to that won’t be known for certain unless and until the agreements are signed, and the door is open to Ukraine’s historic choice for Europe.

By the same token, if Europe decides to slam the door shut, there is no uncertainty. For Ukraine, the only other game in town will be Russia.

Ultimately, the question is whether Europe will do what’s in its own self-interest, and that of the United States. Let’s hope the answer is yes.

Conrad Burns is a former Republican U.S. senator from Montana.

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