Why Ukraine debate has Cold War echoes
December 12th, 2013
11:27 AM ET

Why Ukraine debate has Cold War echoes

By Kavitha Surana

Editor’s note: Kavitha Surana is an intern with Fareed Zakaria GPS. The views expressed are her own.

As the protests in the heart of Kiev continue, one thing is clear – a process that began as an overture aimed at drawing a cluster of post-Soviet countries towards greater political and economic integration with the European Union has escalated into a tug of war over Ukraine’s identity. But the refusal so far of Ukraine’s government to sign an association agreement that would have boosted cooperation with the European Union has raised another question – is the region facing a renewed era of Cold War-style confrontations?

Certainly, in the lead up to last month’s Eastern Partnership summit, which was supposed to see Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine sign up for closer ties, Moscow signaled that it intended to play hardball on the issue. It restricted imports like chocolate and steel from Ukraine and wine from Moldova and Georgia, briefly halted gas flows to energy-dependent Ukraine and hinted that further discomfort would be on the horizon if the agreements went forward.

“Russia kept ratcheting up the pressure,” says Andrew Weiss, a specialist on the region who served on the National Security Council staff under President Clinton and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. “All of this looks like it’s politically motivated and not grounded in solid economic concerns. The signal was very clear that Russia would go to the mat so that Ukraine, especially, would not sign this agreement.”

Such opposition is likely in part an emotional response to the protracted disintegration of the Soviet Union’s once far-reaching empire. After all, Ukraine is the country with the closest historical and cultural links to Russia.

“Russia never saw Ukraine as a different part of the country, just a different region,” says Lucian Kim, a Berlin-based journalist who has been covering Eastern Europe for almost two decades. “From Russia’s perspective, there’s a hole in the country if they don’t have Ukraine.”

Will Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute, agrees. “Russia believes its power would be significantly diminished if it didn’t have Ukraine on its side. It sees this as a crucial part of its international stature,” he says. “To lose Ukraine has a symbolic value. It has been portrayed as: no Ukraine, no Russian Empire, and no great Russian influence.”

But Russia’s attachment to Ukraine isn’t just emotional – there are strategic reasons Moscow might be concerned, not least the worry that any deal with the countries on its border risks letting the European Union into its backyard.

“For Putin, it really is a zero sum game,” Kim says. “If a country very similar to Russia can become Western, it upsets Putin’s idea of Russia as something special, beyond East and West.”

Putin may have famously blasted “American exceptionalism” in a New York Times op-ed in September, but he has also seemed to cling closely to the idea that Russia represents a unique third way to the East-West model. Perhaps with this in mind, Russia has accelerated plans to establish a Eurasian Customs Union with its neighbors that would facilitate multilateral trade integration.

The union would be built upon the foundation of Russia’s current customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. But while Armenia – dependent as it is on Moscow economically and for its security – has already indicated that it plans to follow this path, Ukraine still hangs in the balance.

The problem facing countries like Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and even Ukraine is that rather than being a partnership between equals, the union would almost certainly be dominated by Moscow and its security interests.

“The economic stakes are very low,” says Yanni Kotsonis, associate professor of Russian and Slavic History at New York University. “You’d think that Russia would join into a world system, but they tend to be economically nationalistic and protective and they haven’t been very good at entering into global economy.”

“They also haven’t understood the difference between exercising hegemony over a region and simply militarily and economically dominating a region.”

But even as it pushes its agenda in the region, some believe that Moscow’s muscular diplomatic approach may end up backfiring. “These tactics are going to have a very negative impact on Russia’s relationship with Europe, its main trading partner,” Weiss says. “It fosters the idea that Russian policy is irresponsible and disruptive.”

Many Ukrainians appear to agree. According to the Wall Street Journal, a poll last month found that 45 percent supported the EU association agreement, while only 14 percent backed the Eurasian Customs Union. Such views have prompted thousands of Ukrainians to take to the streets in protest over the refusal of President Viktor Yanukovych, who has close ties with Moscow, to sign up to the EU-backed deal.

“There’s a new generation of Ukrainians who were born and grew up in independent Ukraine, they are not looking at Russia and saying they want to be like Russia,” Kim says. “They are looking at Europe, saying: we want to have this prosperity, this rule of law, this meritocracy.”

A diplomat from the European Union said Thursday that Yanukovych had indicated he intended to sign the deal. Yet whatever happens next, Kim suggests that Ukraine’s government is not the only one that has had a significant stake in the outcome.

“Putin is thinking strategically,” he says. “He understands that if Russia definitively loses Ukraine then there’s no more buffer zone with the West.”

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Topics: Ukraine

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