Memo to international community: Ukraine is awkward – get used to it

  • Memo to international community: Ukraine is awkward – get used to it
Issue 114, July 2018.
Memo to international community: Ukraine is awkward – get used to it
As Ukrainians prepare to celebrate the twenty-seventh anniversary of the country’s independence, there is no escaping the fact that independent Ukraine has become an extremely awkward actor in the world of international relations. It is simply too big, too strategically important, too unknown and too unexpected to fit into most people’s perceptions of modern Europe. Almost nobody saw independent Ukraine coming back in 1991, and there remains a sense that nobody knows quite what to do with the country. This uncertainty leaves Ukraine stuck firmly in geopolitical no man’s land. The country currently finds itself in an unenviable position, locked in an undeclared war with Russia while being denied any hope of a roadmap towards future European Union or NATO membership. As each year passes, this failure to address the international implications of Ukrainian independence in an adequate manner is becoming more and more costly for all concerned. 
Over the past 27 years, Ukraine’s arrival on the international scene has succeeded in upsetting the carefully calibrated balance of power across Eurasia. As independent Ukraine has found its feet and gained in confidence, the processes set in motion in 1991 have threatened to rob Russia of preeminence in regions Moscow regards as its historic heartlands, while at the same time massively expanding Europe’s reach eastwards. Like an uninvited guest at a dinner party, Ukraine has upset the entire seating plan and forced the hosts to impose on virtually everyone else. The response so far has been more improvised than systematic.    
During the 1990s, the scale of the shift in the European geopolitical landscape caused by the emergence of an independent Ukraine was not yet fully apparent. All roads still led to Moscow and it seemed possible to continue dealing with Ukraine as an unofficial imperial appendage. However, this proved to be a transitional phase within a much more profound process that has proceeded with the quiet relentlessness of a glacier. The 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity both reflected growing Ukrainian desire to escape from the Kremlin orbit and rejoin the European community of nations. These revolutionary flashpoints highlighted the broader emergence of a post-Soviet generation in Ukraine with no allegiance to the old empire. They also exposed the redundancy of attempts to understand Ukraine by viewing the country through the outdated Russian prism.  
Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen its independence and secure a European future now lie at the very heart of a rapidly escalating Cold War between Russia and the Western world. This makes Ukraine arguably the greatest single cause of geopolitical friction on the planet today. Indeed, were it not for Ukraine, the political boundary separating Europe and Eurasia would have long since been settled, with the border running between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea from Estonia in the north to Romania in the south. Everything would be neat and tidy. Instead, Europe must deal with the aggression of a paranoid Russian state whose siege mentality is rooted in a failure to accept the reality of a separate and sovereign Ukraine.  
Why has the outside world been so slow to accommodate the arrival of an independent Ukraine? Other formerly captive nations like Poland, Hungary and the Baltic States did not experience such problems following the Soviet collapse of 1991, but they either had long prior histories as independent nations or, in the case of the Baltic States, were compact enough to be absorbed into the European community with a minimum of fuss. Ukraine, on the other hand, was an implausibly large country with no history of statehood that had spent the previous few centuries shrouded in Russian imperial obscurity. This lent the emergence of an independent Ukraine in 1991 a novelty factor that completely overlooked the epic qualities of the country’s long quest for statehood. It also forced the international community to revise their understanding of Eastern Europe dramatically - a process that is still very much in its early stages. Various EU institutions have now reluctantly acknowledged Ukraine’s European status, but there remains huge resistance to any suggestion that the country may qualify for EU membership at some point in the distant future. NATO has similarly shied away from the promise of future membership, leaving Ukraine in international limbo. 
This international uncertainty has not prevented the consolidation of Ukraine’s own nation-building efforts. The country has grappled with a national identity crisis since 1991, but over the years the formerly blurred boundaries between Russia and Ukraine have slowly but steadily given way to the emergence of a distinctively Ukrainian sense of self. This process received a huge boost in 2014 when Ukrainians faced the biggest threat to independence since 1991. Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine forced millions of ordinary Ukrainians in the country’s traditionally Russophile south and east to decide how they saw themselves and to determine where their loyalties ultimately lay. To the surprise and chagrin of the Kremlin, the vast majority chose to embrace their Ukrainian identity. This was the moment of truth for the modern Ukrainian state, and the country passed the statehood test emphatically.  
With independent Ukraine now firmly established on the map of Europe but in desperate need of direction, the time has come to stop treating the country as some kind of problematic new arrival or temporary aberration. The international community needs to take a step back and acknowledge that today’s Ukraine represents a once-in-a-generation geopolitical challenge on a par with the 1990s European reintegration of the Warsaw Pact nations or the post-WWII Marshall Plan. It is a challenge that requires vastly increased resources and a far more ambitious long-term vision than what we have seen thus far. The subsistence levels of support and limited integration incentives the West has provided over the past few years will not solve the problem of Ukraine’s geopolitical vulnerability. On the contrary, this arms-length approach will only serve to encourage further Russian aggression, both inside Ukraine itself and throughout the post-Soviet region. Nor do further delays make any strategic sense. Integrating Ukraine will be awkward in the extreme, but failure to do so will mean even greater problems.