By SYLVIE KAUFFMANN
Published: December 23, 2013
PARIS — On Aug. 1, 1991, President George Bush delivered a memorable speech in Kiev, Ukraine. Poland was free, Germany was reunited, the Soviet empire was falling apart. Yet President Bush, obsessed with stability, warned the Ukrainian people against independence. They should not, he lectured, give in to “suicidal nationalism.”Five months later, the Soviet Union was no more. The New York Times columnist William Safire called Mr. Bush’s remarks “the Chicken Kiev speech” for its “colossal misjudgment.” America may well be misreading Ukraine again, but in a different way.
The United States was caught off guard when, four weeks ago, President Viktor F. Yanukovich of Ukraine buckled under pressure from Moscow and announced that he would not sign an association and trade agreement with the European Union. No one in Washington had anticipated that Mr. Yanukovich’s decision would unleash demonstrations on a scale not seen in Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
After the initial surprise, American leaders reached into the Cold War toolbox. Warning calls were made to their Ukrainian counterparts, stern statements issued, sanctions threatened. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Maidan, as Kiev’s Independence Square is known, and handed protesters bread and cookies, those weapons of soft power. Senator John McCain, ever the heroic warrior, gave a rousing address to the pro-European demonstrators. “America is with you,” he said.
But this is not a Cold War fight between the free world and the evil empire. This time, Europe is on the front line; America’s priorities are elsewhere.
The events in Ukraine are a test for the European Union because they bring to the fore questions of Europe’s identity, borders and power. The crisis also highlights the fact that Europe lacks a unified strategy toward its ambitious Eastern neighbor, Russia.
All this explains why the European Union has reacted in a very different — more subtle, less confrontational — way than the United States.
Stunned by Mr. Yanukovich’s move, the Europeans quickly realized that they had misjudged his sincerity, overestimated the impact of their “Eastern partnership” offer (designed to bring former Soviet republics closer without offering full membership to the union) and underestimated the determination of President Vladimir V. Putin to keep Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence.
“Brussels was naïve,” said Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former Polish president sent by the European Parliament to negotiate with Kiev.
This extraordinary story is also about Russia’s power and identity, and Mr. Putin won’t let Ukraine go easily. What can Europe do? It can’t buy Ukraine; nor can it openly promote regime change — Mr. Yanukovich, after all, is an elected leader. But Europe has other assets.
Its diversity, often seen as a burden, is one. At the time of President Bush’s “Chicken Kiev speech” in 1991, the European Union was still the 12-member European Community, an elite club of rich countries. In 2004, the year of Kiev’s Orange Revolution, the European Union absorbed 10 more members, including six former Warsaw Pact countries. Today, some of the younger members — Sweden, Poland, Lithuania — are important players in this drama, bringing new expertise to Brussels.
Stefan Fule, who, as the European Union’s commissioner for enlargement, handles negotiations with Ukraine, is a 51-year-old Czech, trained in the 1980s at Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations. The European Union’s ambassador to Kiev is an accomplished Polish diplomat, Jan Tombinski. This is the new Europe, already bringing East and West together.
Also on Europe’s side is prosperity. In 1990, Poland had roughly the same gross domestic product per capita as its neighbor Ukraine. Today, Poland’s is three times higher — and there for all Ukrainians to see. If, one day, the Ukrainians catch up with the Poles, their Russian counterparts will take note.
Above all, the European Union is a force for democracy: For all its recent economic misery, the European Union retains a formidable power of attraction to citizens on the outside. A sea of protesters proudly waving the star-studded blue flag of Europe may have been a startling sight for Europeans, but for these Ukrainians, the dull bureaucracy of Brussels meant the rule of law, government without corruption and solidarity — and they were ready to fight for this Europe.
Ukraine cannot become the European Union’s 29th member state tomorrow. But the revolt in Maidan shows that there must be a clear prospect of joining the European Union once proper conditions are met, even if that is 30 years away.
European leaders must also work out how to deal, collectively, with Mr. Putin. For some member states, that means seeking the moral high ground instead of putting business interests with Russia first. Europe can outwit Mr. Putin, but it will take strategic thinking, patience and subtlety — rather than a show of force from America’s Cold War playbook.
Like the citizens of Kiev, the European Union is in for the long haul. It should actively support Ukraine’s maturing civil society by opening up: It can provide Ukrainians with visas and scholarships and offer training in political dialogue, social solidarity and clean government — all things that Russia’s rulers comprehend very little.
When Mr. Yanukovich went begging to Moscow on Dec. 17, Mr. Putin offered him a big fish, in the form of $15 billion in loans and discounted natural gas, which Ukraine’s president happily took home. The European Union will not give Ukraine a big fish, but Europe can teach Ukraine how to fish for itself. We owe this to all the pro-European protesters in the freezing cold of Maidan.
Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde.