- - Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The prospect of Ukraine signing an association agreement with the European Union in late November at the Vilnius, Lithuania, summit is gaining greater interest, particularly as a result of the political tensions surrounding the issue.

The EU has set a number of conditions regarding Ukraine’s signing of an agreement, including the ending of selective justice, which refers to the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She was arrested in 2011 for her alleged abuse of power in signing what Ukrainian authorities claim to be an unfavorable energy deal with Russia in 2009. Her incarceration, however, is widely viewed as a political act undertaken by President Viktor Yanukovych against a political opponent.

While Ukraine’s parliament is moving to bring Ukraine into closer conformity with EU requirements, the Tymoshenko issue continues to be a sticking point. The EU has sought a full pardon for Mrs. Tymoshenko, and an agreement has reportedly been reached whereby she would be released for medical treatment in Germany for back problems. Mr. Yanukovych, however, is insistent that Mrs. Tymoshenko be subject to imprisonment if she should return. As the EU and Ukraine wrestle over the issue, it is worth examining the historic impact that Ukraine’s association with the EU can have.

Bringing Ukraine into the European fold will reshape the geopolitical situation in Europe, reinforce the move toward a concerted regional policy on energy issues and start a process of political and legal accountability in Ukraine that will help strengthen democracy and civic society. In the case of Russia, it will force an internal accounting that can only have a favorable impact on its own political and economic development.

Europe has long sought to stabilize its eastern front, one that has been historically fraught with empire conflicts and ethnic struggles. Russia has been in the midst of many of these struggles, and Ukraine has been at the center of the Russian empire. Bringing Ukraine into Europe will deprive Russia of a key component of its historic empire and strengthen European and Ukrainian security without the more emotionally charged debate for Russia as to whether or not Ukraine should become a member of NATO.

This development would have a positive impact on Russia. Deprived of the chance to control Ukraine, Moscow’s foreign policy will be less influenced by efforts to restore an imperial past and will help make Russia a more stable and reliable regional and world actor. It can also help Russia focus its efforts on domestic political and economic reform.

While in the short term, the Russian reaction may be to use gas supplies and other economic means as punishment against Ukraine — as Moscow has done in the past — Russia will find that the economic and political costs will not be worth the effort. Russia is the world’s biggest oil and gas supplier to the EU, and the EU, overall, is the largest trade partner of Russia. Furthermore, the EU accounts for about 75 percent of foreign direct investment in Russia. These energy, trade and financial links underscore the limits of Russian maneuverability. This reality, coupled with Ukraine’s moves toward greater energy independence, will diminish the appeal of energy as a political tool against Ukraine. The EU and Russia already have had an energy dialogue, and early this year agreed to a road map aimed at examining mutual cooperation in the energy sector. Bringing Ukraine into Europe can lead to a greater effort by the European states and Russia on how to handle the energy issue for the benefit of all

Getting an agreement with the EU will help strengthen Ukraine’s democracy. Ukraine has all the rudiments of a stable, democratic state, however flawed some of the characteristics may be. European standards and rules for accountability will be in place by which Ukraine will have to abide. As a result, Ukraine will also become a more attractive venue for investment and business, giving it an opportunity to fully realize its vast economic potential. An EU agreement can raise Ukraine’s gross domestic product by more than 10 percent in the long run as a result of the removal of tariffs and increased trade, and the introduction of European standards that will improve product quality, productivity and competitiveness.

Ukraine’s movement toward the EU should not be seen as aimed against Russia. Ukraine fully understands the historical and economic ties between the two countries and wants to maintain good relations with Russia.

This is a historic moment for Europe. There is an opportunity for all states involved to look to the horizon to see how a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Europe can be created, and to help Ukraine and Russia move forward on this journey.

Roman Popadiuk served as the first U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He is currently a principal with Bingham Consulting in Washington, D.C.

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