A geopolitical battle of sorts is being waged between Russia and the West over Ukraine—but it’s an uneven struggle. By all appearances, Russia cares more about losing Ukraine than Europe and the West care about gaining it. Moscow has fought hard to slow Ukraine’s effort to draw closer to the European Union, even imposing trade sanctions last summer as a foretaste of what Kyiv could expect if it signed an EU association agreement. Why the hard ball tactics? Vladimir Putin’s image of Moscow includes a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. If Ukraine draws closer to Europe, that leaves a huge hole. Moreover, pulling Ukraine closer to Russia matters to Putin in domestic political terms; it appeals to the conservative Russian constituency that forms the center of his political base. In December, Putin thus offered Ukraine $15 billion in credits and a whopping 30 percent cut in the price of Russian natural gas sold to Ukraine, a thinly veiled bribe to persuade President Victor Yanukovych to slow Ukraine’s relationship with Europe.
The European Union does not see Ukraine in the same geopolitical terms. If it had, EU officials would have signed the association agreement when it was completed two years ago. Instead, they conditioned signature on Yanukovych taking steps to move Ukraine back toward a more democratic path. Furthermore, EU member-states hold diverse views on Ukraine. Some countries, including Poland and others in Central Europe, want the Union to work hard to engage Ukraine, hoping to have a comfortable neighbor on their eastern border. Others want to avoid creating false expectations in Kyiv about possible future membership. And still others, such as Spain and Portugal, regard Ukraine as far away from their interests. As for the United States, it has let the European Union take the lead on engaging Ukraine, given Washington’s full foreign policy in-box and Ukraine’s desire to draw closer to the Union. The U.S. government would like the current crisis resolved in a way that allows Kyiv to deepen its links with Europe but has shown little interest in making this a new bone of contention with Moscow.
—Steven Pifer is a former ambassador to Ukraine whose career as a foreign service officer centered on Europe, the former Soviet Union and arms control. He is director of the Brookings Institution Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and a senior fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institute.