Nothing characterizes the madness of the situation around Ukraine better than the words of Josep Borrell, the head of EU diplomacy. In a recent interview with TF1 he said with disarming infantilism the following: “I am ready to admit that we made a number of mistakes and that we lost the possibility of Russia’s rapprochement with the West,” <…> there are things that we proposed and then could not implement, such as, for example, the promise that Ukraine and Georgia will become part of NATO”.
These words could not fail to stun: such an honest admission of past mistakes, the man-made consequences of which are witnessed by the whole world, and the complete unwillingness to even verbally indicate their readiness to redeem them.
In fact, what Borrell said is an admission that the European Union still has not got a long-term strategy for Ukraine. Nor has it been seen in the actions of the U.S., despite the established view of the all-powerful hand of the U.S. empire playing all the chess games for the long haul.
Over the past thirty years in the corridors of the White House, as well as among the Brussels bureaucracy, the complete lack of interest in Ukraine has alternated with bursts of militant enthusiasm in the spirit of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s famous maxim (“without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire”).
Moreover, the very change of this optics was not so much deliberate as conformist, i.e. inertial, and was always subordinated to global objectives: attempts to contain Russia or, conversely, the desire to establish more predictable relations with it. This explains the specifics of the new confrontation which has unfolded along the line Moscow-Brussels-Washington.
All these years Russia has invariably voiced a realistic demand to take its strategic interests into account. But in response, the abstract logic of the impossibility of a “new Yalta” and the universality of the principles of the liberal world order has been offered – without a solid understanding of why the West needs a “pro-Western” Ukraine in principle. Hence this strange indecisiveness of the Euro-Atlantic community toward Kiev, which has only increased the general tension, as well as thoughtful deafness to the warnings of skeptics about the consequences of endlessly ignoring Moscow’s interests.
In the new confrontation of the twenty-first century, unlike what we saw in the twentieth, there has never seemed to be anything but a frank zero-sum game.
The Dream of a Greater Europe
Indeed, looking back over the past thirty years one can reveal a surprisingly chaotic picture, devoid of any coherence. Even the first symbolic contact between the Western world and Kiev was impactful.
“Americans will not support those who seek in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred”. These words, spoken by George W. Bush to Ukrainian parliamentarians during a visit to Kiev three months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, were often recalled afterwards, especially in light of the White House-supported ultra-right policies adopted by Kiev after the 2014 coup.
Then, in 1991, the president was immediately criticized in the US press, so he had to demonstrably change his attitude towards Kiev as soon as the opportunity presented itself. When the Ukrainian SSR announced a referendum on its independence, America was among the first to express its willingness to recognize the new state.
By the way, the initiator of this gesture was Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense. Later on, he was a prominent supporter of the Ukrainian theme, which he thought to use in case of a hypothetical strengthening of Russia. However, it is significant that at the time this line of action almost immediately receded into the background.
Ukraine, which had broken away from the Soviet Union, was as distant as it was uninteresting to Washington and Brussels. For the former, it presented no electoral benefits, and for the latter, no economic profitability. At that time the geopolitical focus of the West was on Central and Eastern Europe. In the post-Soviet space, Russia and its energy riches were of the greatest interest.
At that time, the idea of a “Greater Europe” stretching from Lisbon to the Pacific Ocean seemed like a beautiful and inevitable future. Of course, there was a place for Ukraine inside this “Great European House”, but not as a priority. That is why, by the way, all the talks about the EU’s rapprochement with Kiev, which in the first years of independence the latter so liked to boast about, were declarative.
As American researchers Timothy Colton and Samuel Charap point out, if “the 2004 European Commission report emphasized the EU’s status as the largest donor to Ukraine” and “spoke of future integration in the abstract way”, the European Commission’s similar document on Russia, by contrast, described the ways to further integration comprehensively and specifically.
The only thing Europe could not part with was the Cold War phobias Brzezinski played on, convincing it that sooner or later Moscow would show its imperial ambitions again. The policies of post-Soviet Eurasia towards the West were based on the exploitation of these fears.
Many U.S. diplomats recalled that in the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington sought to maintain its presence in all the capitals of the new republics, at all levels. Ritual phrases about respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the post-Soviet republics were regularly heard from officials. However, neither the United States nor Europe wanted to have any real influence on the internal political life of these countries.
But the leaders of the post-Soviet border states did not sit idly by: they regularly managed to attract for themselves financial aid as part of various Western programs. And Kiev was the most virtuoso at exploiting the weaknesses of then flourishing West.