Walking on Ukrainian Eggshells

At times, you have to wonder where Europe’s strategic and economic sense has gone.

Consider Ukraine, most of whose citizens clearly wish to become Ukrainian-European and have their country join the European Union. Some of whose citizens died for that this week.

Until this week, however, Europe was doing all it could to repel them. Last autumn, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych bitterly disappointed his compatriots by backing off his promise to sign an association document with the EU. The conventional wisdom is that he succumbed to Russian pressure—after all, it’s Russia that supplies Ukraine with its oil and gas. But Russian President Vladimir Putin was also offering Ukraine $15 billion, while the EU was offering it nothing, and telling Yanukovych that any real progress in integrating his country into the Union would depend not only on cleaning up Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt government but also on imposing austerity conditions on its already economically-beleaguered citizens.

For Yanukovych, $15 billion vs. austerity (and in his mind, austerity would lead to revolution) wasn’t much of a choice. As Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine scholar, put it, in its competition with Russia, the EU brought a baguette to a knife fight.

At one level, Europe’s reticence at welcoming Ukraine was understandable. With a thoroughly corrupt government and a divided and underdeveloped political culture and civil society, it’s not clear to whom, exactly, Europe would funnel material assistance. And while the opposition to Yanukovych was largely democratic, it also contained its share of radical nationalists. (Then again, the share of radical nationalists has been rising in most EU nations as well in the face of a protracted recession and racial diversification.)

Nonetheless, the EU’s initial response to Ukraine was strategically and morally bankrupt. A large and diverse nation that had been subjected to Tsarist, Stalinist, Nazi and Soviet rule until 1992, and that had been oscillating between a fledgling democracy and an inefficient authoritarianism since then, was petitioning for entry into the democratic world. Under those circumstances, to answer, “We’ll take you only if you lower your standards of living” is to miss history’s call. Either Ukraine would turn to Russia and reluctantly bolster Putin’s obscurantist Orthodox International, or it would opt for a ramshackle combination of democracy and poverty that would only leave democracy discredited. That first option looks gone for now, but the second is still very much in play.

At the insistence of Angela Merkel’s German government—Europe’s de facto banker—inflicting austerity on nations in economic distress has been the European way since the financial collapse of 2008. It has spurred the rise of a neo-Nazi movement in the EU’s most economically desperate nation, Greece. It has led hundreds of thousands of talented young Spaniards and Italians to leave their homelands for more prosperous places. As a tool for nation building, austerity has proven itself a total disaster.

In the past few weeks, Europe seems to have awakened to the Ukrainians’ pounding on its door. Its leading foreign ministers negotiated a deal between Yanukovych and the protestors for early elections. When the protestors went beyond that and overthrew the government—apparently bringing the parliament and the army along with them—Europe (and the United States) welcomed the new regime. But Europe’s embrace will be a cold one—and ultimately a repellant one—if it can’t come up with the resources to help Ukraine modernize its infrastructure and create jobs. At a time when many EU nations are still limping along economically themselves, that will require some courage and vision from Europe’s leaders. But if they can’t help aspiring democrats build a democracy in Europe’s own backyard, they shouldn’t be in the business of running Europe at all.