Over the 22 years of Ukraine’s independence, people have grown used to its endless maneuvering. Ukraine began by proclaiming the goal of European integration, which was common to the logic of Eastern European development after the fall of communism. But it also tried to maintain a special relationship with Russia. This was a dichotomous but logical stance. Ukraine could not break with Moscow all at once due to its history and the complex makeup of its population, unlike the post-Soviet countries such as the Baltics, went further than cutting their economic relationships with Russia.
However, Ukraine only maintained its special relationship with Moscow because Russia allowed it. It was very difficult for Moscow to admit that Ukraine, which no one had ever considered separately from Russia, had become a foreign state. For a long time Russia believed that these two fraternal states could not be broken up like that.
Simply put, the model of Russian-Ukrainian relations after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 can be described as follows: Two sovereign states that cannot believe that they are independent from each other. That nagging internal doubt created a deep mutual suspicion and also the conviction that their relationship could not be anything but “special.” The U-turn that Viktor Yushchenko attempted turned out to be a political fiasco and confirmed the destructive consequences of such an approach.
But one cannot sit on the fence forever, although Ukraine would gladly use the opportunities and advantages offered by both partners. It still has a long way to go before it becomes a united political nation capable of clearly formulating its own interests. So an “irrevocable decision” is fraught with distress, as the case of Yushchenko has shown. But Ukraine will have to choose, because this is what its partners are demanding.
Russia is changing. Its former desire to maintain its abstract leadership in the post-Soviet space is giving way to more practical plans. Although not a perfect organization, the Customs Union is the first serious integration project in the post-Soviet period. Its members have both privileges and obligations, and so there cannot be nominal partners with ambivalent status. Russia would like Ukraine to join the Customs Union, but not at any price.
The EU also wants Ukraine to make a choice. Brussels was the first to tell Ukraine that it will have to decide and that it is impossible to combine both vectors. The association agreement is not a form of integration or a promise of eventual EU membership, but it stipulates that the associated country accepts EU rules and standards. This will seriously limit Ukraine’s room to maneuver but the EU does not care, even if Ukraine loses access to its basic markets and quarrels with its main energy supplier as a result.
The reason the EU is pressuring Ukraine is obvious. Given the crisis and the unofficial decision to not admit new members, Brussels needs to show that the EU is continuing to develop and has retained its position as the main center of gravity in Europe. The agreements it offers to the Eastern Partnership countries do not impose any obligations on the EU but create institutional conditions for keeping its neighbors within the sphere of its influence, at least until the EU understands what it wants from Ukraine or Moldova.
By accepting a new form of relations with the EU, Ukraine will make a definitive choice. It will be unable to maintain its transitional “special” relations with Russia based on the lingering belief that they are not quite foreign to each other. The transition to trade rules used in relations with all other countries will be the final act of Moscow’s recognition of Ukraine’s independence. The two countries may eventually find some other, more comfortable form of bilateral relationship, but they will have to start from scratch.
This will be a painful time, especially for Ukraine, but independence comes at a price, as the Baltic countries that lived through a period of economic Social Darwinism in the 1990s know. The main condition is that such decisions be taken judiciously and following a careful analysis of possible consequences, rather than under the influence of political slogans. But this does not seem to be the case for Ukraine and its politicians.