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The future of Ukraine is the future of Europe

I often say that what happened in Polish-Ukrainian relations after the fall of the Berlin Wall was a geopolitical revolution. I compare it to the French and German reconciliation in the 1950s. While that laid the foundation for a new post-war Europe, a Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation creates the possibility of this construction extending further East. Moreover, the stakes in Polish-Ukrainian relations always were, and indeed continue to be, about more than just Poland and Ukraine.

July 13, 2016 - Yaroslav Hrytsak - Articles and Commentary

ukraine EU

This text does not claim to represent the most outstanding depth of analysis or breadth of perspective. It is more akin to a set of travel notes. In 2015 I spent time travelling by car, bus, train and plane from Shanghai in China to Edmonton in Canada, via Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, the United States and France. I also travelled throughout Ukraine, passing several times through Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, a city that shares a border with the separatist region of Donbas.

 My travels were a result of circumstances rather than choice. If the situation allowed, I would have preferred to stay at home and do research. My frequent trips were caused by the crisis in Ukraine. I needed to travel in order to advise, persuade, appeal and reassure a multitude of different people, ranging from Kissinger in Yale to Russian-speaking, middle-aged women in Odesa who, say that they pray every single day that Galicia will separate from Ukraine and leave them alone. Not that they want Vladimir Putin; on the contrary, they do not. In fact they hate him. What they want is to be left alone, by both the East and the West.

Strategically friendly

Poland is the country with the least amount of representation in my recent travels.  The reason is simple: when it comes to Poland, Ukrainians have an impression that it is a reliable and loyal partner. This attitude is reflected in public opinion: among all the countries considered to be friendly towards Ukraine, Ukrainians name Poland as the most amiable. A few months prior to the Polish presidential election in May 2015, my Polish friends assured me that when it comes to Poland, we Ukrainians have nothing to worry about. Bronisław Komorowski stood firm in his support for Ukraine and his chances of re-election were very high.

Even now, after Andrzej Duda won the election, my Polish colleagues still assure me that Ukraine need not worry. Duda and Jarosław Kaczyński (head of the ruling Law and Justice party) are both “students” of Jerzy Giedroyc, an influential émigré intellectual who was largely responsible for Poland’s views on Eastern Europe. Therefore, it is unlikely that Poland’s Eastern policy will be revised. What is more likely is an intensification of historic discussions in relation to Volhynia (a massacre of ethnic Poles during the Second World War carried out by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – editor’s note). However, this intensification is unlikely to have an impact on the strategic partnership between Warsaw and Kyiv.

To that end, one can compare Polish-Ukrainian relations to those that exist between Poland and Lithuania. However, there is nothing comparable to Volhynia in Poland and Lithuania’s shared past. Yet even without that issue, relations between Poland and Lithuania remain problematic. By contrast, even with the memory of Volhynia looming large, Polish-Ukrainian relations will remain strategically friendly whoever comes to power in Kyiv or Warsaw, particularly in the face of Russian aggression, with the Law and Justice party proving to be more far-sighted in estimating its danger than the Civic Platform was.

These assurances are comforting to me, although only to a certain extent. I agree with the conclusion that in all probability, Ukraine won’t lose Poland and Poland won’t lose Ukraine. However, I see another threat emanating from a change of government: that the Polish-Ukrainian strategic partnership which currently remains “on paper”, ceases to be strategic “in deeds”. The stakes in Polish-Ukrainian relations always were and indeed continue to be more than just about those two countries. Now, they are about more than even Central and Eastern Europe; the very future of Europe is at stake.

If we accept that Europe remains a global player for the next few years at least, then we are talking about the future of the whole world. This is how Henry Kissinger represents the situation in his latest book on the new world order. In his opinion, this order will be founded on the European (“Westphalian”) system. Whatever we may think about him, Kissinger can hardly be called Utopian; his views have always been firmly grounded in realism.

Thinking about reconciliation

I often say that what happened in Polish-Ukrainian relations after the fall of the Berlin Wall was a geopolitical revolution. I compare it to the French and German reconciliation that occurred in the 1950s. While that laid the foundation for a new post-war Europe, a Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation creates the possibility of this construction extending further East. Of course, for this new Europe to be stable, the Polish-Ukrainian axis will have to be transformed into a “Poland-Ukraine-Russia” triangle. Without Russia’s participation, the construct will not last long. However, reconciliation with Russia was not achieved over the course of the last 25 years and there is certainly no chance of it happening now that Russia has resorted to open aggression.

This does not mean that we should not think about how such a reconciliation could take shape. After all, the architect of the new Europe, Robert Schuman, started talking about French and German reconciliation in the early 1940s, during the Second World War, long before it actually took place. The prerequisite for such reconciliation was to be Hitler’s collapse. Similarly, the prerequisite for Polish-Russian and Ukrainian-Russian reconciliation should be the fall of Putin’s regime. The Russian president only understands the language of force. In his view, reconciliation is for weaklings.

Some experts, including George Soros, estimate that Putin’s regime will last for only two more years. Even if we accept this optimistic estimation, two years is too long for Ukraine. Devastated by war, corruption and a post-revolutionary crisis, it could fall during this time, perhaps even more than once. We should deliver justice for Ukraine. After all, it stood in the face of the “Russian spring” of 2014.

Putin’s actions in relation to Ukraine were not spontaneous. Russia’s strategy of attack was developed in Moscow back in 2009, after the war in Georgia. It was prepared to be activated if Ukraine began taking real steps to leave the Russian sphere of influence and move closer to the West. According to this strategy, Putin’s intention was to get half of Ukrainian territory under Russian control, to the east and south of the Kharkiv-Odesa line. There lies the industrial heart of Ukraine and its access to the Black Sea. The remainder of Ukraine, its agricultural centre and west, was irrelevant as far as Putin was concerned.

Despite this, the most that Putin was able to achieve during the “Russian spring” in Ukraine was to annex Crimea and cut off Donbas, and even then, it was only one-third of that territory. As a matter of fact, Putin sustained a military defeat in Ukraine. It appears to be his greatest defeat thus far. However, the war is not over yet. As we know from history, you can win every battle and still lose the war.

I often compare the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war with the First World War. In that conflict, victory was achieved not through large-scale military operations but through attrition; the side with the strongest defence in the rear won. If Ukraine stands alone in its resistance to Russia, its chances of success are extremely low. However, Russia stands no chance of achieving its aims if Ukraine is granted access to western resources. That is why Polish-Ukrainian understanding was of key strategic European importance until 2014, when Russian aggression was initially launched against Ukraine. Now, in the face of the Russian threat, Polish-Ukrainian understanding remains important, although its significance is fading. This is because Poland does not possess the resources that Ukraine needs in order to hold out. Poland is, and hopefully will remain, part of the West, but it cannot replace the whole of the West by itself when it comes to aiding its neighbour.

Of course, the “West” is a relative notion. It disappears and re-appears, in keeping with the consensus, which also disappears and re-appears, between Washington and Brussels, on the one hand, and within the EU, between Brussels and other European states on the other. Putin expected that he would be able to disrupt these blocs and then negotiate with each part separately. Fortunately, this strategy failed. The existence of collective sanctions against Russia is empirical evidence that the West exists. It is very important within the framework of our subject matter that the West’s solidarity developed as a reaction to Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Lasting change?

To a certain extent, the situation in 2014-2015 is a repeat of the situation that came about after the first Ukrainian Maidan (the Orange Revolution). Then, the West also manifested the necessary minimum solidarity to support Ukrainian democracy. The primary difference between 2014 and 2004 is that Berlin’s position has changed. Previously, Germany had hoped that political and economic modernisation was possible in Russia and that this would move the country closer to the West, both politically and economically. Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency was seen as a guarantee of this; the term “modernisation” was central to many of his public statements. Germany viewed Ukraine primarily through the perspective of Russia; Kyiv’s interests were of marginal significance when compared to what was taking place in Moscow.

Now Germany, represented by Chancellor Angela Merkel, is addressing the Ukrainian matter separately from the Russian one and treats Ukraine as important in its own right. One can only imagine what would have happened to Ukraine if Gerhard Schröder had remained in office and the EU’s position towards Ukraine was determined by him, together with Silvio Berlusconi in Rome and Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris!

Future historians will have to determine the moment when Berlin changed its approach towards Ukraine. I would assume that it started when Putin returned to power in 2012, since this was the moment when it became clear that all hopes for Russia’s modernisation were in vain. An acquaintance of mine, a journalist at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, tried to persuade me in the early 2010s that Ukrainians needed to take into account a sharp change in Germany’s Eastern policy. Without this change Berlin would not green light the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. However, it is difficult to say how lasting this change is. This issue was discussed at a conference on German-Ukrainian relations which took place at the University of Toronto in October 2015. One of the lead German experts argued that this change would last as long as Putin, or someone like him, remained in power. It is not a matter of Merkel and Ukraine, she argued, but the fact that Putin is seen as the enemy by a younger German political elite. This is because they were taught to value public work and contributions to public life. Therefore, they will never forgive Putin for his reprisals against civil society in Russia. Based on my personal experience of frequent trips to Germany and my participation in various events organised in Ukraine by a variety of German Stifungen, I have also noted a change in the German opinion-forming elite: in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the majority identify with Ukraine.

The bad news is that Ukraine is currently on the verge of becoming a failed state. The good news is that it can count on the West for support. As most historians would agree, external factors are often crucial for the success of revolutions. In the case of Ukraine, the Revolution of Dignity should not merely aim to hold out, but also to modernise Ukraine along western lines. In other words, it has to do what Russia has failed to achieve. Only then, can its victory be considered genuine and complete. The success of Ukrainian modernisation will put an end to Putin’s ideology of Russkiy Mir (“Russian world”), which is based upon an assertion that Orthodox states like Russia and Ukraine have to follow their own Sonderweg, separately to the West.

No choice but reform

Ukraine’s victory could potentially have a wide-ranging impact on Eastern Europe. Should this be the case, the first country to feel it would be Georgia. That is why Georgian reformers have relocated to Ukraine en masse; they think that is where the second phase of the Russo-Georgian War is taking place and that Ukraine’s success will also be Georgia’s victory. This knock-on effect is also noticeable in some of the post-Soviet Central Asia states. Local democratic forces in states like Kyrgyzstan are now looking to Ukraine in the same way that the Ukrainians looked to Poland for inspiration back in 1989-1991.

Despite this, Ukraine’s biggest problem is that it cannot handle modernisation on its own. In addition to the present crisis, it is still in the grip of its past, a mixture of Orthodoxy, colonial heritage and communism, which weighs it down like an anchor. This is evidenced by the lack of any radical reform occurring in the last two years. Yet Ukraine has no choice but to reform, for a lack of change threatens its very existence.

Ukraine is far more likely to successfully manage these issues when it joins the EU, or if not, then at least the common European legal and economic sphere. Receiving an equivalent of the Marshall Plan is also hugely important in this regard. Without this plan, post-war Europe would never have become what it is now. Post-war Ukraine also needs a similar plan to enable it to achieve its modernisation ambitions. Each reform has a price. This is not a metaphor, but a real price calculated in real numbers. The Ukrainian budget does not have these kinds of sums. It can barely make ends meet and the money it receives from the International Monetary Fund is not spent on radical reforms, but rather used to fill the gaps in the Ukrainian budget and prevent a default.

This brings us back to Polish-Ukrainian relations. Ukraine desperately needs a strong and united Europe, while the new Polish government seems to be pursuing an agenda aimed at limiting the EU’s strength and solidarity. Whilst Kyiv urgently needs to move towards Berlin, Warsaw is currently demonstrating a determination to move away from it. Personally, I think that Poland currently resembles a suicidal state. Instead of playing big-league politics, it is going back to the idea of small regional blocs like Międzymorze (Intermarium) or the Visegrad Alliance. I prefer not to discuss the fact that the Polish prime minister made a gross exaggeration in a recent speech where she said that Poland had accepted “a million refugees from Ukraine” and that is why it cannot accept Syrian refugees now. Discussing this would mean accepting the scale of thought that the current Polish government is operating on. I prefer to focus on the wider context.

I once developed a very politically incorrect classification of states for my own personal use: ones which could serve as a model for Ukraine and which could not. As a basis for my classification, I chose the “idiot proof” test i.e. whether government systems could be ruined by an idiot, regardless of how hard they tried. For example, the United States is idiot proof because it survived two presidential terms led by George W. Bush. Libya failed this test, as did Russia during the Yeltsin era. In my opinion, Poland is now undergoing this test. I hope that it passes. As a Ukrainian I want it pass as soon as possible, both for its own sake and for the future of the world, Europe and Ukraine.

Translated by Olena Shynkarenko

Yaroslav Hrytsak is a Ukrainian historian, professor of history at the Ukrainian Catholic University and member of the Ukrainian think tank “Nestor group”. He is also a member of the New Eastern Europe editorial board.

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