“Ukraine will definitely not be able to become a member of the EU in the next 20-to-25 years, and not of NATO either.” Let’s play a guessing game. Who made this statement in early March? Was it:
(a) Vladimir Putin
(b) Sergey Lavrov
(c) Viktor Yanukovich
(d) Jean Claude-Juncker
If the correct answer were (a) or (b), western journalists and pro-Kiev regime activists – which are frequently indistinguishable – would be lining up to dismiss the quote as “Russian propaganda.” Or “Hybrid War.” Or whatever this month’s agreed catchphrase/Twitter hashtag is.
As it happens, Russia has been consistent on one particular point since Kiev’s ’Orange revolution,’ back in 2004 – that the US’s primary objective is to exploit Ukraine’s fratricidal divisions to serve its own geopolitical goals. Which Moscow believes are to push American forces as close to Russia’s borders as possible, in the name of ‘containment.’
Two things have prevented this plan from fully succeeding. Firstly Ukraine’s internal conflicts. Capital city protestors, aided by Galician allies, have now removed two eastern-dominated governments. The second of which was fairly elected. As sentiment in Kiev and Lviv doesn’t reflect the entire country, the regimes these demonstrations created have been unable to consolidate popular, nationwide, support. For example, current President Petro Poroshenko, now enjoys lower approval ratings than his ousted predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich, had before Maidan. The other barrier has been many NATO and EU members’ reluctance to countenance full Ukrainian membership of their institutions.
Thus, Ukraine is drip-fed with aid, and warm words of praise, while getting no closer to joining either club. It’s instructive to note that NATO is more than willing to supply military assistance and funding to Ukraine, but, despite heavy lobbying from the likes of Bernard-Henri Levy, a ‘Marshall plan’-esque economic strategy remains unfathomable to western leaders.
Guns Versus Butter
We hear plenty of, often bellicose, Washington solidarity with Ukraine’s army, but very little about its pensioners, who are expected to survive on average payments of just $14.07 a week, at current exchange rates. This compares to $40.51 in Bulgaria and $41.25 in Russia, where utilities are significantly cheaper.
A guess at (c) would also be incorrect. Yanukovich might have been a terribly corrupt and weak President, but, back in 2013, he did, belatedly, realize one thing: the EU association agreement, which he pulled back from signing, would become an unmitigated disaster for Ukraine. That’s because it involved sacrificing ties with the country’s biggest trading partner, Russia, and replacing them with a far less certain alternative.
Free trade with the EU is largely useless to Ukraine, as things stand. For the past two decades, the country’s ruling classes have stolen everything they could, and moved that money abroad. As a consequence, there has been little or no investment in modernizing Ukrainian industry. That means its products are of insufficient quality to compete in cutthroat European markets.
Confusingly, many activists at Maidan seemed to believe that EU accession was on the cards for Ukraine. It never was. A free trade pact, heavily loaded in Brussel’s favor, was all that was available.
By contrast, Russia offered $15 billion and a 30% discount on gas. This was in response to an IMF demand that Ukraine raise utility prices and slash public spending in return for a bail-out. Post-coup, Ukraine was forced into the latter scenario by default. Since then, nominal GDP has fallen from $183 billion to around $90 billion. Meanwhile, public debt was 94% of GDP in 2015 and annual salaries now average about $2,000, the lowest in Europe. On January 1st, foreign reserves stood at a meagre $12.5 billion.
His Master’s Voice
You’re surely guessed by now that (d) Jean-Claude Juncker is our man. The President of the EU Commission was speaking in the Netherlands, where a referendum on the EU-Ukraine free-trade agreement will be held in April. While trying to assuage the fears of Dutch voters about more, unpopular, easterly EU expansion, he let the cat out of the bag about where Ukraine stands with Eurocrats.
In the heady days of late 2013, EU leaders, like the ultimately deposed, pro-American pair of Carl Bildt and Radoslaw Sikorski, gave Maidan protestors the impression that Brussels was open to Ukrainian membership. Even now, Kiev has NGOs devoted to EU integration and we’ve heard endless talk of Ukraine’s “European choice.” As an aside, given that the EU only controls 44% of the continent’s land area, it’s endlessly amusing when activists say ‘Europe’ when they mean the EU.
Juncker’s words, though an example of rare sincerity from a Eurocrat, are a kick in the teeth to Kiev’s EU-integrationists. While he’s merely confirming what smart analysts have already known for a long time, the fact that someone of his stature is openly dismissing Ukrainian ambitions is highly significant.
The EU Commission President acknowledged that the EU had enlarged too quickly in the past and insisted Brussels “will not make that mistake again.” Interestingly, it could be argued that the haste to admit Romania and Bulgaria back in 2007, and the British media reaction to it, created the circumstances for this year’s Brexit vote. For that reason, the behavior of the UK authorities during Maidan was always quite amusing. We’ve seen Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond promote the idea of Ukrainian membership of the EU, while simultaneously admitting he’d vote to remove his own country from Brussel’s orbit. The hypocrisy is mind blowing.
Ukrainians are living under the illusion that their country is on the road to EU membership and acceptance into the western political and economic system. To achieve these aspirations, they are enduring great sacrifices. The problem is that the EU elite doesn’t want Ukraine to join the club. It’s too big, too corrupt, too poor and too close to Russia. It’s time Kiev’s legislative, and oligarchic, elite told their people the truth. Ukraine’s ‘European choice’ is a fraud, built on false promises.