Why Ukraine Will Continue to Move West

In Brussels last week, NATO foreign ministers met to hash out details on whether Ukraine and Georgia should be allowed into the military alliance, and to figure out how even to make that decision without appearing to appease or provoke Russia, which has bitterly opposed it. Finally, after two days of diplomatic wrangling and 22 drafts of a communiqué, Western Europeans, led by Germany and France, finally succeeded in blocking U.S. efforts to offer Ukraine and Georgia a formal path into NATO. But this obscures a simple fact: support for NATO membership has been waning fast among Ukraine's political elite, with little more than 10 percent of parliamentary deputies actively backing accession. Meantime Ukrainians have their eye on a bigger prize. Close to 50 percent of Ukrainians, and all the major political parties, now favor joining the European Union—up from 30 percent four years ago.

If this trend continues, it would represent a fundamental shift in Ukrainian thinking. For years the nation has been split between a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russian-speaking east. The sides are roughly matched in terms of population and share of GDP, and the divide has created a series of fragile coalition governments and the sense that it would be forever torn between its two big neighbors: the European Union and Russia. So why is this changing? In part it is the result of a concerted effort by the pro-EU, pro-Western parties that came to power in the Orange Revolution five years ago. They have done their utmost to create a Pan-Ukrainian consciousness, for instance by instituting a national holiday commemorating what Orange leader President Viktor Yushchenko calls a "genocide" of Ukrainians at the hands of Russian commissars during man-made famines in the 1930s, and by enforcing Ukrainian language instruction from kindergartens to universities. They have also, perversely, tried to draw Ukraine away from Russia and toward the West by some less-than-democratic means. Earlier this year Yushchenko tried to ban Ukrainian cable companies from showing Russia's Channel One, Rossia and Ren-TV, purportedly because of violations of advertising rules, but in reality because of a desire to cut off voters from Kremlin propaganda. In November Ukraine's security service forced Ukrainian lawmaker Valery Konovalyuk to cancel the showing of a pro-Russian film about the August conflict with Georgia, claiming that the film "disseminates unproved, untrue information prepared by the Russian secret services."

Another factor behind Ukraine's increasingly pro-EU orientation is the Kremlin's saber-rattling. Moscow's repeated threats against Ukraine, its claim to enjoy "special rights" over its "near abroad" and its incursion into Georgia have disillusioned even Ukraine's Eastern-looking politicians. Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of Kiev's Centre of Political Studies and Conflictology, served as 2004 campaign manager to Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin's favorite, and took a strong pro-Moscow line at the time. Now he says "the Russian way of treating Ukraine is arrogant." Ivan Lozowy, an independent analyst in Kiev, says the Russians ought to realize that they are pushing Ukraine away. "Ukrainians like Russia, feel close to Russia," he says. "But when it comes to political and economical issues, they trust Europe more." Even Yanukovych now sees his country's politics as an extension of Europe's, not of Russia's. In 2004, Moscow backed him in his run for Ukraine's presidency, spending millions of dollars and dispatching the Kremlin's finest political "technologists" to help him win. His loss to the pro-Western Orange revolutionaries marked the nadir of Russia's post-imperial fortunes. But now Moscow's man has adopted many Orange policies. "Ukraine," he says, "should be a reliable partner for Europe in Europe's relations with Russia"—not the other way around. His power base in the east is also increasingly aware that while Moscow's and Kiev's economies are deeply intertwined, largely through gas exports, Ukraine must continue to foster economic links to the EU.

Russia's aggression has also pushed the EU into tightening its embrace with Ukraine. Last week European Commission President José Manuel Barroso unveiled an Eastern Partnership scheme, the EU's biggest commitment ever to its Eastern neighbors, and one with clear geopolitical undertones. The ambitious program will give Ukraine and five other former Soviet states access to €350 million of financial aid, free-trade pacts, hassle-free visas and a slew of Brussels-funded projects to encourage better state institutions and assistance for small businesses.

Still, Ukraine is decades away from the real prospect of EU membership and isn't even close to starting formal accession talks, which means a prosperous, democratic Ukraine may be far in the future. But a Ukrainian consensus that it belongs in Europe and that it shares basic European values—including respect for its Russian ethnic minority—is rapidly emerging. With NATO off the table for the time being, Ukraine can focus on its European goals, and if it succeeds, even incrementally, it will go a long way toward liberating itself from the Kremlin's orbit, no matter what the tough guys in Moscow may do or say.