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.