The entire world is always going to Hell.
There’s always a crisis, always an epoch-shattering catastrophe in the offing. There’s usually a potential genocide, frequently a flashpoint in danger of becoming a shooting war, and invariably the fall of a friendly or unfriendly regime that will have immediate effects and more subtle, far-reaching ones. There is nothing new under the sun.
But there’s very rarely an opening there for the taking, begging to be taken, that can make so many differences. It takes a very special breed of fool to keep turning it down, time and again.
Most of this generation’s world leaders are specially-bred fools.
As I’ve noted before, the signal features of this generation of leaders in the West are a profound belief in their own understanding of Realpolitik, and a simultaneous failure to apply that policy in any effective way. While there are opportunities to be had the world over, it is in Eastern Europe that some of the greatest openings lie.
With Europe’s economies and governments in hibernation or a downward spiral, with a culture of entitlement burning down a culture of interdependent unity, with former Soviet states trying to escape the orbit of a revanchist Russia determined to control Europe through virtual control over natural gas, drawing former Soviet slave states into the European Union should be the first and foremost project Washington and Brussels have for the continent.
Ukraine would like to be part of that world. Despite not-so-subtle recent threats and cuts in gas supplies from Russia, despite repeated signs of contempt from the U.S. and E.U., Ukraine continues its bid for closer ties and future membership in Europe. Its leadership has clearly cast its lot with the West, even if the West has not properly understood this.
While Ukraine has flirted with Russia in the past — most recently during former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s attempts at foreign policy — its current President, Viktor Yanukovych, has not deviated from a Westward course during his time in office. While he has made this extremely explicit in his policy and speeches to date, his most recent speech to the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, is worth noting for the manner in which he continues to explicitly tie Ukraine’s future to the European Union.
“Our path to the EU has no alternatives,” he told Parliament. “I count on lawmakers’ serious and productive legislative work to support the process of our integration.”
Furthermore, he called for a decreased regulatory hand on business development, and chose very particular language in doing so. The President of Ukraine declared that “obsolete Soviet-era repressive rules of law governing the state-citizen and state-business relations must be finally cancelled.”
That’s right. The President of Ukraine said that, after committing himself to closer ties with the European Union.
While we take it for granted that the word “Soviet” is a synonym for almost every negative adjective in English, it is rare to see the leader of a former Soviet Socialist Republic making this tie so explicitly. It is especially important because in an era in which a wounded-but-returning Vladimir Putin stakes his personal appeal on a neo-Soviet Russian Empire reborn, and Russia’s foreign policy is explicitly aimed at broadening Russian hegemony in effect if not in name, this sort of language is something the foreign policy elite in Washington should take note of.
It is also more than symbolism. Ukraine’s governance has been uneven since before the Orange Revolution, but the last year has seen real improvements: Election reforms tailor-made for approval by the European Union, pension reforms, infrastructure investment for modernization, and now across-the-board economic reforms designed to liberate the economy from the weight of the crushing regulatory state.
This is a rare moment. By welcoming further Ukrainian integration into Europe, Washington and Brussels would send a message to the other states of the former Soviet Union still caught in Russia’s orbit: There is a welcoming future for you with the West. Markets and peoples could be pulled from Russia’s grasp forever with minimal effort. A Russia determined to dominate Europe through territory, people, and natural gas, would be stymied.
This is the cold, logical, Realpolitik choice.
Instead, as has become customary, these cool-eyed, gritty foreign policy types who don’t believe in idealism are dashing this opportunity because they are upset that Tymoshenko is in jail. They may not realize that a look into Tymoshenko’s recent past shows that she was as much a part of the problem in Ukraine as part of any solution.
Regardless of the merits of the Tymoshenko trial (and her proclivity to make even medical exams into a propaganda moment), or the fact that she is actually Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine, we are witnessing the spectacle of some European leaders tanking their own futures over an idealism they angrily reject.
Rational people might wonder why former Soviet states would want to join this gaggle of lunatics, but they do. The question now is whether the lunatics in Brussels come to their senses enough to have them.
Matthew Lina is a Junior Scholar at the soon-to-be-launched Center for the Study of Former Soviet Socialist Republics, a think-tank dedicated to advancing free markets and democracy in the former Soviet bloc. Follow him on Twitter at @MattLinaCXSSR.