A year ago, on November 21, 2013, the Ukrainian government announced that it was postponing the signing of an EU association agreement, scheduled for the East Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, a week later. This seemingly modest bureaucratic move brought about some truly devastating consequences.
A year later, it’s impossible to say that anyone has won as a result. In truth, I don’t even want to settle the account, counting points won or lost. On the one hand, a major European state has seen its sociopolitical fabric torn apart mercilessly, and it’s anyone’s guess what all this may lead to. On the other hand, external forces are witnessing the collapse of their Ukraine-related strategies and plans. Rushing to minimize the damage lest it turn fatal would be the right thing to do for all sides, but even this is not being done.
Unwittingly, Ukraine has become a catalyst for processes that began long before the U-turn performed by the unlucky president, and for a totally different reason. If the Kiev coup and the subsequent dramatic upheavals had not happened, something else of the same sort would have. So, what is the root of the problem?
In the last quarter-century or so, none of the main participants in the European processes have achieved what they wanted. Ukraine itself is a glaring example. A big and potentially very successful European country has failed to find an effective development model, and is constantly on the lookout for someone to solve its problems for it. In all fairness, we should take into consideration the objective difficulties involved in the new state-building effort, given Ukraine’s extremely heterogeneous societal structure and grave economic imbalances. But the majority of post-Soviet countries have encountered these problems as well. Moreover, Ukraine, unlike many others, is endowed with a lot of potential, something that only accentuates the scale of its failure.
Russia cannot boast that the dreams that warmed the hearts of the champions of change in the 1980s and the 1990s have come true either. An objective and unbiased analysis of the past two decades is still ahead.
For now, we cannot calmly take stock of our recent history because there are so many emotions and ideological struggles standing in the way. But one thing is certain: no future-oriented integral development model has taken shape. Russia is stuck between two states of being on its elaborate and chaotic trajectory. It has failed to become an equal part of the world economy, deriving the full amount of dividends from globalization. But it has become integrated deeply enough to feel all the shocks on the world market. At some moment this in-between status came to be perceived as oppressive by both integrationists and supporters of more isolated development. But there has been no movement either way, for a number of internal and external reasons.
The Ukrainian crisis disrupted the trend and created a totally new situation that can develop in different directions. Today, as never before, our future is in our own hands. External sources of growth are either exhausted or have been cut off by sanctions. Russia needs an economic breakthrough strategy based on domestic initiative and human capital. No incentives are to be expected from elsewhere.
The West has approached the Ukrainian crisis in a state of confusion. Both Europe and the US are still being carried by the momentum of their victory in the Cold War. But their ability to effectively implement a program of expansion has been drying up rapidly. The West’s further ideological and military-political leadership is in question because of mounting serious problems, including economic setbacks, growing Russian resistance and disasters in the Middle East.
Ukraine long stood on the periphery of serious strategy. The West’s Ukraine policy was more inertia-driven and involved an automatic eastern expansion of integration institutions that was not backed by a clear understanding of end-goals. The important players in the West were not under any delusion regarding the quality of the Ukrainian political establishment or its ability to govern. So, no one was going to put a serious stake on Kiev. However, this didn’t prevent them from doing preparatory work just in case something will change in the future.
Brought about by internal antagonisms, the grave political crisis in Ukraine has rapidly escalated into a standoff between Russia and the West, both eager to show “who is in charge.” The events in Crimea tested the West’s relevance, forcing it to take a stand. But the aforementioned quality of the Ukrainian political reality has not changed, and thus the West is confronted with the need to resolutely support the country and forces, the prospects of which could not be trusted.
The former, transitional model of relations in post-Cold War Europe no longer exists. No new model is in place either, and everyone is hoping to engineer a stopgap by giving a facelift to the situation from the latter half of the 20th century. This is certain to lead us to a new impasse, because the world has changed beyond recognition. But an attempt of this sort seems inevitable. Hopefully it will be the last of its kind.