President Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine must have thought he was opting for an easier life when he decided last week to renege on his decision to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. Staying connected to the Russian-dominated former Soviet Union had seemed a better choice. Ukraine is the second-largest Slavic-Orthodox state after Russia, and Russians have long looked to Kiev for the eleventh-century origins of their state and religion.
The late American scholar Samuel Huntington called the former Soviet Union, with some other Eastern Slavic states, an “Orthodox civilization.” President Yanukovich must have thought he had avoided a clash with the West, which is, in Huntington’s view, quite a different civilization.
It seemed economically safer too. Ukraine’s creaking industry and infrastructure, its often-opaque banking system and its rudimentary service sector would have been a massive undertaking in moving toward European norms.
If it was a safer choice, it was taken under duress. Russia doesn’t do soft power. It shook a big stick of trade embargoes and steep energy price increases, which “would have crippled and possibly crushed a Ukrainian economy only three weeks away from insolvency,” as James Sherr of the Russia and Eurasia Program put it.
Russia’s was a threat of immediate disaster. By contrast, the EU’s proposed agreement involved a long, slow and arduous rise to meeting European standards, with many bankruptcies, tens of thousands of unemployed Ukrainians and hard winters ahead. The government of Ukraine calculated that its severely depleted stock of political capital would not survive the disillusionment that would result when the costs of the transition were made evident.