Ukraine wobbles between Russia and Europe

“Ukraine,” Russian President Vladimir Putin once told his American counterpart George W. Bush, “is not even a state.”

Putin didn’t mean Ukraine is some sort of anarchic basket case like Somalia. It is a state, in Putin’s mind, but that state is Russia.

This isn’t a new or uncommon idea. “My family always called the Ukrainians little Russians,” Michael Ignatieff said years before he launched his political career — comments he probably never anticipated one day regretting when he made them. (The Conservatives — illogically, to my mind — attacked Ignatieff for his alleged anti-Ukrainianism when he was leader of the Liberal Party.)

But even Ignatieff’s statement is somewhat misleading in so far as it can be applied to the attitudes of Russian political elites toward Ukraine. The country is not seen as subservient vassal, but as a component part of a greater Russia.

This has been the case during the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and today as the Kremlin seeks to push its sphere of influence beyond its formal borders. Ukraine is the spiritual home of the Cossacks, whose mythology is enjoying a bit of revival in Russia of late, and the quite literal home of several member of Putin’s inner circle who were born there.

All this goes some way to explaining why the stakes are so high surrounding a political and economic “association agreement” between Ukraine and the European Union that may or may not be ratified shortly.

The proposed deal would fall short of Ukrainian membership in the European Union. But it would deepen political and economic ties, and create a free trade pact between the two bodies. It is seen as a move that would pull Ukraine closer to Europe and consequently further from Russia.

Russia, which wants Ukraine to join its own customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, is not happy. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych quietly visited Moscow earlier this month for talks with Putin. One European politician suggested to Maclean’s that Putin has put a metaphorical gun to Yanukovych’s head to pressure him not to sign the deal.

European leaders imposed a number of criteria on Ukraine before the agreement can be implemented. All have been met, save one. European politicians believe the Ukrainian justice system is selective in its targets — specifically opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, currently incarcerated on charges of abuse of power related to her time as prime minister.

Were Tymoshenko to be released, Europe would be ready to implement the deal. But she’s still in jail, with less than two weeks to go before a EU summit meeting in Vilnius, where it was expected the deal would be ratified.

This is particularly frustrating for Poland. The country sees itself as the leading advocate within Europe for the democratization and Europeanization of former Eastern Bloc countries, funding scholarships and civil society initiatives in places like Belarus. But Poland also shares a long border with Ukraine and feels uniquely invested in which way Ukraine tilts politically.

“There is only one way — to the West,” says Jacek Michalowski, head of the Polish Presidential Chancellery, who was in Ottawa last week. “If this agreement will be signed, Ukraine will be close to Europe. If not, we will wait two years, and probably in two years we will sign.”

It’s unlikely that Putin believes Ukraine’s drift toward Europe is this inevitable. And while Michalowski says the agreement will also benefit Russian business interests, he acknowledges that the Kremlin likely sees it as an attempt to weaken Russia.

“But if Russia is so self-oriented, we cannot take it into account in our way of thinking, says Marcin Bosacki, Poland’s new ambassador to Canada.

Poland’s European proselytizing on its eastern borders is a bit of a lonely fight. Some Western European governments feel the EU has already moved too far east too quickly. And America, which under Bush championed “New Europe” in the east and challenged Russia for influence in the former Soviet sphere, has largely disengaged.

As for Canada, Ukraine is a “country of focus” for Canada’s international development efforts. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, the goals of this aid include democratic development.

Michalowski says Poland and Canada “understand each other very well” regarding efforts to spread European-style democracy eastward in Europe. But he’d like to see cooperation between Ottawa and Warsaw increase.

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