How Vladimir Putin Cowed the Ukrainian Government

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 28 2013 8:00 PM

Chicken Kiev

Vladimir Putin cowed the Ukrainian government with sticks and carrots the EU can’t match.

Kiev, Ukraine
Protesters clash with riot police during a rally to support EU integration in central Kiev, Ukraine, on Nov. 24.

Photo by Sergii Polezhaka/Reuters

WARSAW, Poland—This week, Ukrainians learned that their country really does lie on a fault line between two civilizations. This does not mean they are enduring a "clash of civilizations" or a religious conflict of the sort once famously predicted by Samuel Huntington: Ukraine is more correctly described as a country lying between the civilization of institutions, and of the rule of law, as epitomized by the European Union and the civilization of arbitrary rule, as embodied by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Nor is their conflict really a "clash" or a battle in any traditional sense. Although its foreign ministers do sometimes jointly deploy military force after long and complex deliberations, that's rare and unusual. And although the EU is very rich—taken as a whole, it's the largest economy in the world—there are rules and procedures governing EU cash, which can't be distributed on short notice, and the EU's use of trade boycotts.

In other words, the EU can't offer the most enticing sort of carrot when it is creating a relationship with a neighbor, and it can't proffer an impressive stick. Instead, it can propose a mild, undramatic association agreement, designed to promote wider contact and trade. The president of Estonia tells me that his country's own association agreement, signed in 1995, was so mild that it had little immediate impact. The only real change became visible years later. At that time, thousands of Estonians were suddenly able to study at European universities. Those who did so are now the leaders of a far more prosperous country.

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For five years, the EU has been negotiating a similar pact with Ukraine. This agreement contains clauses on copyrights, the registration of patents, and the resolution of trade disputes. It notes that the word "champagne" is restricted to beverages produced in the region of Champagne. Overall it is remarkably boring, for the rule of law is invariably boring in its search to avoid dispute.

In the run-up to what was to be the final signing ceremony in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week, the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, decided he nevertheless prefers drama. Last week, he abruptly suspended all association agreement negotiations. Many have mistakenly concluded that this is because the EU asked Yanukovych to release Ukraine's former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, his primary political opponent, from prison. In fact, Tymoshenko herself asked that her fate not affect the final outcome.

Instead, Yanukovych abandoned five years of negotiations following a meeting with Putin, a politician who is playing a different game, according to a different set of rules. Unlike the EU, Putin has sticks: He has imposed a trade boycott since August. Unlike the EU, Putin offers carrots: He has hinted at lower gas prices, and maybe other things. Unlike the EU, he can alter his policy abruptly: Although he tacitly consented to this negotiation process a few years ago, Putin has instead concluded that a Ukrainian-EU treaty is a humiliation for Russia and a personal loss of face. He might also perceive an economic and ideological threat: A Ukraine governed by the rule of law would be a tougher market for Russian companies desiring to be treated above the law. A Ukraine ruled by institutions instead of personalities might also seem an appealing alternative for disgruntled Russians.

Following that meeting with Putin, Ukraine shifted tactics. Yanukovych began fishing for nonexistent European carrots. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov demanded a better deal from the International Monetary Fund, another organization with rules, procedures, and managing directors who cannot help but observe Ukraine's stubborn failure to carry out the most rudimentary reforms. On Wednesday, Yanukovych also demanded, in effect, 160 billion euros from the EU. Ominously, he used the language of personal affront. The EU, he said, had "humiliated" Ukraine with its pathetic offer: "We are a serious country."

The trouble is, that's not how a serious country negotiates with an organization of 28 members whose bureaucrats care deeply about mutually acceptable copyright regulation. Perhaps the EU should learn to play more aggressively, to wage its own trade wars against Putin. Perhaps Ukraine's dramatic about-face—which follows a similarly abrupt Armenian change of heart—will force EU leaders to learn new tactics. But right now it can't and they won't.

The tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have taken to the streets of Kiev in protest against their president's decision clearly do understand the benefits of a dull trade agreement with the EU. They are profound and long-term. They involve slow changes rather than cash on the table. Unfortunately, these European Ukrainians find themselves led by politicians who don't understand the nature of the EU civilization—or whose personal and financial stakes in the current system are so great that they don't want to try.

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