How much does Ukraine really matter to the West?

Michael Petrou explains why the turmoil is more than a simple contest between democracy and authoritarians


On May 11, 2005, American President George W. Bush stood before a cheering crowd of tens of thousands in the Georgian capital Tbilisi and praised them for rising up and overthrowing their Russian-backed government in the Rose Revolution 18 months earlier.

“Because you acted, Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world,” he told them. “The path is not easy,” he continued, speaking of maintaining democracy, but he pledged Georgians “will not travel it alone. The American people will stand with you.”

Three years later, responding to a Georgian attempt to retake the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, Russia invaded and occupied large chunks of Georgia. Georgians, in this war, were very much alone. Politicians in Washington and European Union capitals were happy enough to celebrate Georgia’s pro-Western aspirations when doing so didn’t cost them anything.  With Russian planes bombing Tbilisi, those same politicians were secretly glad Georgia wasn’t a NATO member and they’d have been forced to act on their declarations of solidarity.

And that’s kind of how things have gone of late as countries in the former Soviet sphere struggle to plot a future that brings them closer to either Russia or the West. We’re happy to cheer. We’re willing to bluff and bluster. But when Russia puts serious money on the table, we walk away, revealing our lack of will and coherent strategy.

And so it is with Ukraine. The turmoil there is more complex than a simple contest between democracy and authoritarianism, Brussels and Moscow. It is foremost an internal conflict, but it is one that is influenced by the actions of Russia on one side, and Europe, Canada and the United States on the other.

The difference is that Russia’s position is clear and forceful. The view from the Kremlin is that Ukraine is a Russia province—“not even a state,” Vladimir Putin once told George Bush. To keep Ukraine close to Moscow, Russia has so far offered it $15 billion in subsidies and bought another $2 billion in bonds. It’s all in.

Western persuasion has been softer. The trade and cooperation agreement Europe had offered, and which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych declined to accept, is significant but far less than the clear path to full EU membership desired by many in Ukraine seeking an alternative to Russian hegemony.

And the truth is extending membership to Ukraine would not be a uniformly popular position among current EU member states. Part of this is expansion fatigue and resentment in some western EU states toward economic migrants from the east. But part of it is also fear of further degrading relations with Russia. Europe has to live near Russia. It relies on Russia for much of its oil and gas, and it is vulnerable to the sort of energy blackmail Russia has previously engaged in.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been robust in defence of opposition forces in Ukraine. Canada has already imposed travel restrictions on some Ukrainian officials it accuses of “silencing” the opposition. And, like Europe and the United States, Canada has kept open the option of targeted sanctions. But the stakes for Canada are lower. It doesn’t have the same carrots to offer Ukraine as does the European Union, nor is it as exposed to Russian retaliation.

The United States was once willing to champion the integration of former Soviet bloc countries into the West. That’s no longer the case. Europe is largely on its own. But it is hobbled by conflicting goals: bringing Ukraine closer, and maintaining a functional relationship with Russia. In the weeks ahead, it may need to choose.

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How much does Ukraine really matter to the West?

  1. About as much as Syria or Iran or Palestine or anywhere else.

  2. $15B . . . you could almost buy WhatsApp for that.

    • Perfect comment!

  3. Russia is “all in” at $17 billion? I’m pretty sure that we could easily outdo that- $17 billion is chump change to western nations. Lets just make them a better offer- say three times as much. It could come out of the Pentagon budget, as the strategic ramifications would save ten times that much money over the medium term.

    • hey if they can borrow a trillion a year im sure they can print off another 50 billion lol

  4. Your confusing yourself that none of these people we have in the west don’t move the goal posts, and until we, ‘all’, understand this, will be yet to find our once true democracy.

    The sad part is all these places that saw the west on TV, in their own way’s achieved it, but with the birth of the net, and readily available access to information, and understanding, we reach the basic generation of us:

    From people state even Obama’s age to the recently installed, man at the top in Italy, aged 39. The elite, to which if we dare mention, have us trained is conspiracy don’t care, therefore, what works here today, if somewhat controlled by the winds of trade the next, is classified as optional. Therefore while it matters to us, that X amount of people have starved, died, or no longer remember a constitution the way it was, if your sat on 420 billion, and enjoy torture, then without full and final removal, we the people are eth-you-see f** ed.

    In supposition of this, we observe the realities to other known lesser democracies built on some form of relation, and laugh: Answer me this: How can 2014 moving forward with all the cards that we’ve got, ever understand how the head of Europe can allow EU politician, and inclusive of a US senator McCain, to stir up people in a square, allow them to discuss the rigors of our so called lives, then turn around to the Scots, and tell them, if they gain Independence, are not allowed to come in?

    Georgia today, is therefore not the Georgia, Bush addressed. Please note, these are my own personal observations as an Englishman, who has lived abroad, and terms of any responses, merely just adding to the plot. In layman terms, my present verdict can not or will not be changed until we all do exactly what sane governments want.,

    Thank you very much.

  5. Michael, the important point you didn’t make, is that the government of the country was democratically elected. Everything else is secondary. The west’s strategy is clearly to isolate Russia, as was the case in Georgia, nothing else. Our esteemed prime minister keeps calling Ukraine democratically elected government ‘regime’. This ‘regime’ was elected by most Ukrainians. Harper’s regime was elected by minority of Canadians. There is a lot of BS flying around these days.

    • How legitimate were those elections? As long as ballot boxes thrown into rivers (which has allegedly happened in Quebec, and more than once), are seen as legitimate election practises anywhere – no amount of apple polishing will result in those elections being legitimate.

  6. Instead of tossing in a few words, why not summarize what Brussels offered the Ukrainian government.

    Plus, don’t fall into the trap of equating the EU with Europe. Why not pay attention to those who see Brussels in a poor light, because they are not just found in the UK Independence Party.