The outcome of Viktor F. Yanukovich’s trip to Moscow on Tuesday was sobering for Western officials.
After backing away at the last minute from a major trade and integration accord with the European Union, Mr. Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, signed a wide range of economic agreements during a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The European and American policy toward Ukraine — urging it to pursue the path of reform that proved so successful in Central Europe — has reached an impasse. This failure stems from a consistent misreading of Ukraine by the West.
Listening to recent commentary from Western officials, you would think that a new nation has been born on the Maidan in Kiev, that Ukrainians are united in their desire to divorce themselves from Russia and return to the fold of Europe, and that it is only their current leaders — bolstered and bullied by their patrons in the Kremlin — who stand in the way of a “Europe whole and free.” This all makes for a nice sound bite, but it bears little relationship to reality.
First, Mr. Yanukovich and his government are far from the only roadblock to Ukraine’s European integration. No Ukrainian government since independence has taken the necessary steps to reform the country’s economy and political system. Wealth — generated by graft, by skimming profits off of natural gas imported from Russia, and by the seizure of profitable assets — still lies predominantly in the hands of government officials, their families, and their oligarchic allies.
Not only are property rights contingent on holding political power in Ukraine; those in power use the criminal justice system to persecute political enemies as well as economic rivals. Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and Mr. Yanukovich’s archrival, still sits in prison, a victim of selective prosecution.
In retrospect, Brussels’s readiness to sign an integration agreement with a country that had taken few if any concrete strides toward European political and economic standards was more surprising than Ukraine’s refusal to do so.
Ukraine is only ready for Europe in the sense that a bankrupt company is ready for receivership. Its leadership — after over 20 years of independence — has failed to chart a viable strategy for the country.
The game would have been up long ago if Ukraine had not been able to hide its fundamental failings under the shroud of geopolitics. Ukrainian leaders conjure up the Russian bogeyman in their negotiations with the West and the fear of NATO encroachment in their conversations in the Kremlin, with the objective of extracting concessions from both. While this strategy of exploiting its perceived geopolitical significance to gain subsidies and concessions from Russia and the West has lined the Ukrainian elite’s pockets, it has left the country bankrupt, with an unsustainable and largely unreformed economy.
Second, while the protesters in Kiev have put on an impressive demonstration of civic engagement, they are not representative of Ukraine as a whole. Ukrainians, when forced to choose, are deeply divided about the binary options of Russia or Europe currently being presented to them.
An early December poll showed that the number of Ukrainians favoring closer ties with Russia was equal to the number favoring closer ties with Europe. But the regional divides run deep in Ukraine, and the euphoria of recent protests shows no signs of eroding them. Nationwide, 37 percent of those polled preferred membership in the European Union while 33 percent favored the Russia-led Customs Union. In the country’s western regions, that proportion was 73 percent to 5 percent, whereas 46 percent in the east and 62 percent in the south of the country prefer the Customs Union to joining the European Union.
So while Western officials may feel an affinity for the views embodied by the 500,000 protesters in Kiev, they should remember that 12.5 million Ukrainians voted for Mr. Yanukovich in 2010 on a platform of restoring ties with Russia.
Western officials recognized the results of that election and, like it or not, they need to accept the decisions of the government it produced. Throwing the full support of the United States and Europe behind the opposition’s efforts to oust Ukraine’s elected government seems decidedly unwise when a legitimate path for changing that government is available in presidential elections in early 2015.
The West must recognize that Europe cannot integrate Ukraine by opposing itself to Russia. Without the support of its south and east — which are politically, economically and demographically dominant — a democratic Ukraine isn’t going anywhere, and those parts of the country are unlikely to support a European project framed in anti-Russian terms. Indeed, the vision of a European Ukraine as a bulwark against Russia finds no resonance among the majority of Ukrainians.
The deals signed in Moscow earlier this week have been widely portrayed as a Russian victory over the West. In fact, the agreements represent a lifeline for Ukraine’s parasitic model of governance, prolonging a fundamentally unsustainable status quo for perhaps another year.
It is only the geopolitical gamesmanship between Russia and the West that enables this dysfunctional system to continue. The winner this week was that system. Russia, the West, and, most importantly, the Ukrainian people, will continue their 20-year losing streak.
Samuel Charap is a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Keith A. Darden is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University.