European Council on Foreign Relations

Back-to-Front Ukraine

So the negotiations with Ukraine have collapsed. The idea that a solution might still be found in the few days before the Vilnius Summit may be part of the problem. The mass protests in Kiev and the authorities’ ham-fisted reaction might still change the picture; but for the moment we have a mess. So whom should we blame?

The EU should not be too hard on itself, except in one specific respect. It bent over backwards to give the Ukrainians ‘enough time’. It made additional offers. Stefan Füle, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, was ready to fly to Kiev with, according to the FT, ‘a package including expedited trade support, promises of new gas supplies and backing for resumed aid from the International Monetary Fund’. Many of these were good ideas in themselves, but cumulatively they only created a bidding war that allowed Ukraine to wriggle free of its commitments rather than stick to them.

The underlying problem is a deadly paradox. Broadly speaking, the Central European and Baltic states that joined the EU in 2004 were keen to join. They did the hard work of accession because of the greater long-term benefits of membership. In Ukraine, the current elite at least has it the other way around. Ukraine’s leaders expect us to disburse benefits to them before, during and after signing any agreements. The benefits must come first.

Ukraine’s leaders talked of needing structural funds of maybe $20 billion. Prime Minister Azarov mocked the idea of a billion euros in aid: “What is a billion euro? It's nothing. It helps a beggar on the porch”. Most recently, Azarov has claimed that Ukraine needs between “150 and 165 billion Euros” to help with modernisation.

At the same time, the Ukrainian leadership has blamed Russia’s pressure. Ukrainian President Yanukovych contacted the Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė to claim that his hands were tied because the economy in east Ukraine would collapse under the weight of Russian trade sanctions if the EU Agreements went ahead. Ukraine is now demanding that Russia replace sanctions with subsidies. But just because Ukraine seems to have rejected Europe, it does not therefore follow that an alternative deal with Russia will stick. The Russians may simply baulk if the same enormous sums are quoted to them.  

So, whatever the Plan B, the EU will have to think hard about how to deal with a back-to-front country like Ukraine, that expects the rest of the world to pay for it to change, rather than the other way around.

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