Denis MacShane Says The West Is Ignoring Ukraine

Just five years ago Ukraine was the toast of pro-democracy politicians the world over. The Orange Revolution seemed to be the next strand of the thread going back to the 1989 Velvet and other peaceful European transitions. Despite the bullying of Moscow, the Ukrainians stood their ground and said they wanted to become another Euro-Atlantic nation.

But now, like parents with a sulky, wayward child who just won't grow up, the world's democracies are turning their back on Ukraine. U.S. President Barack Obama will clink glasses with Russian and European leaders in London, Strasbourg and Prague and drop in to say hello to Turkey. But Ukraine, Turkey's Black Sea neighbor, is off his radar. Silvio Berlusconi openly supports Russia every time there is a dispute over gas. Angela Merkel used to visit Ukraine regularly and hold annual Berlin-Kiev summits, but now she ignores the country. Russia's ambassador to NATO, the ultranationalist Dmitry Rogozin, boasted to France's Nouvel Observateur that French President Nicolas Sarkozy "opposed America's desire to see Ukraine join the Atlantic alliance," adding that the French president was "Moscow's ally in Europe." That may be just Russian bombast, but increasingly Kiev looks west and sees no alternative.

Yes, Ukraine faces many internal domestic problems that the EU and the United States are largely powerless to influence. Its economy is a shambles. With 40 percent of GDP linked to steel and aluminum, it is seeing a nose dive into negative growth as exports slump. Ukraine's politicians squabble openly and try to tear each other down. Yet everyone in Kiev agrees that democracy has sunk deep roots. Ukraine has its oligarchs who wheel and deal and buy influence, but they live in their own country and not (as has happened to some of their Russian counterparts) in exile in London waiting for a dose of plutonium to arrive with the coffee or banged up in a Russian prison. There is no state police, journalists at last are free, and Kiev sparkles and looks more energetic and full of well-dressed people, bustling stores, offices and public spaces and new cars—despite the recession. Unlike neighboring Georgia, which remains a favorite of the West, Kiev avoids provocation. It has abolished nuclear weapons. It has sent troops to all NATO missions. Ukrainians have remained calm about Russia's Black Sea fleet, and they are fed up with being linked to Georgia as if they were a double act, when Ukraine has a stand-alone claim to be taken seriously as a European nation that wants to fit in with the Euro-Atlantic community.

There was once real hope that Europe meant it when a procession of visitors from Brussels and other EU capitals said Ukraine was en route to a European future. But the West got frightened last August, after the Russian invasion of Georgia, and bought into the Russian line that plans to admit Ukraine to NATO meant trouble and strife—though this had also been the Russian line on NATO membership for Poland, the Baltic states and Black Sea nations like Bulgaria and Romania. Now this kind of nyetpolitik is getting the upper hand. Earlier this month U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton staged a photo op with her opposite number from Moscow pressing a "reset" button. But reset for Moscow means a free hand to dictate Ukraine's internal affairs.

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Clearly, the Kremlin has never adjusted to the idea that Ukraine is its own nation—"whole and free," to use the first President Bush's phrase about the nations that emerged after the end of Sovietism. Russian leaders still think of Kiev as Russia's "mother," compared to its heart in St. Petersburg and brains in Moscow. And, obviously, Russia matters more than Ukraine to both Obama and Europe. On Iran, on nuclear-weapons treaties, on transit access to Afghanistan, Russian cooperation is the goal of post-Bush foreign policy. But help for Ukraine can come in the form of soft power. EU leaders can visit more and encourage trade and investment. Brussels might end a repressive EU visa regime that means a Ukrainian university professor who used to need only a multiple-entry visa to go repeatedly to universities in Western Europe must now apply for each single trip. The Ukrainian military needs help to modernize, and it should get that help as a thank-you for taking part in NATO missions.

Indeed, with Russia breathing down its neck, the last thing Kiev needs is for Paris and Berlin and Washington to create a new axis of complacency that uses the incoherence of Ukrainian politics to justify accepting the Moscow world view that places Ukraine firmly in Russia's sphere of influence. What's needed now is a new policy that treats Ukraine, warts and all, as a European nation. Instead of listening to the nyet from Moscow, the United States and the EU need to start saying da to Kiev's moderate and modernizing politicians. Certainly this will be hard for Moscow to accept, but bringing Ukraine into Europe—in the full sense of a path toward EU and NATO membership—might even help encourage Russia to see itself as a future partner of the EU and the United States, in place of the scratchy rivalry Moscow now creates in the Euro-Atlantic community.

Denis MacShane Says The West Is Ignoring Ukraine | World