Ukraine, Russia, and the EU: Between Scylla and Charybdis

Ukraine—like so many of the other former “captive nations” of the Central and Eastern European Intermarium—faces a choice between Scylla and Charybdis: an increasingly bold and aggressive post-Soviet Russia, and a socialist-liberal EU hostile to the sovereign nation-state. Meanwhile, Obama’s America is indifferent to the region, and visions of a CEE geopolitical bloc are stalled and obstructed. 

By Paweł Piotr Styrna | December 18, 2013

Ukraine’s decision to forego the signing of a “free trade” agreement with the European Union in favor of the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union came as a shock, but only to those who haven’t been paying attention to the larger geopolitical trends in Central and Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, supporters of European “integration” are irked and disappointed by this admittedly significant setback to the EU’s heretofore smooth eastward expansion. In the large Central-Eastern European country, dismayed and angry pro-EU Ukrainians protested in the capital of Kyiv, even demanding the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych, while the pro-Moscow, post-Soviet government resorted to unleashing hundreds of hooligans—bussed in by the ruling Party of Regions—on the pro-European demonstrators.

The situation has now spiraled into a full-blown political crisis—the biggest in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution of 2004—with the masses of pro-Western demonstrators turning Independence Square—now dubbed Euro-Square (Euromaidan)—into a de facto fortified camp and repelling attempts by the regime’s riot police (the elite Berkut unit) to disperse them. In response, the post-Soviet government sought to erect a tent city of its own supporters. However one views EU “integration,” the determination and fighting spirit of the Euromaidan protesters is quite impressive, no doubt because they are fueled by nationalism. The crisis may quite easily become a second Orange Revolution and lead to regime change; unless the Yanukovych-Azarov oligarchy is willing to spill much blood to crush it. As Homini Sovietici they might not be at all averse to such brutal measures, but they are also aware that it would further weaken their bargaining position vis-à-vis Putin’s Russia.

The Euromaidan fortifications (Source: AFP/Viktor Drachev)

This polarization is rooted in Ukraine’s history. Thus, the inhabitants of the western and central parts of the country (all the way to Kyiv) are more pro-Western and European-oriented. The denizens of the east and south, by contrast, are more Russified and Sovietized. The latter group—with its post-Soviet nostalgia and instinctive attraction to Moscow—is now in charge. But there is more to the story.

Geopolitical dilemmas

If we set aside the political and ideological factors, we will notice that Ukraine—like so many of the other former “captive nations” of the Central and Eastern European Intermarium, i.e. the region situated between the Black, Baltic, and Adriatic Seas (e.g. Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Baltics, etc.)—faces a choice of the lesser of two evils as in Greek mythology such as between Scylla and Charybdis.

The former is an increasingly bold and aggressive post-Soviet Russia whose vengeful, KGB-trained autocrat has been working to rebuild the Kremlin’s vast empire. The latter is de facto a kind of imperial project in all but name. The EU-federalists throughout Europe do not hide their ambitions to transform the continent into a super-state and to abolish the sovereign nation-state. Such goals can sound very threatening to “captive nations” that only a generation ago managed to throw off an oppressive and murderous foreign yoke. This was why propaganda campaigns designed to bring the former Soviet Bloc countries into the EU promised their populations—struggling with unemployment and poverty—access to jobs in the West and a large influx of EU assistance funds, in addition to implicit protection against Russian imperialism. As some in the Baltics, Ukraine, and even Poland viewed it: Brussels is far away and Western Europeans, including the Germans, are sophisticated and push their agendas in “white gloves,” whereas the post-Soviet Russians—as personified by Putin—are brute, barbaric, and proudly thuggish.

How the West undermines itself and helps its enemies

However, Moscow’s imperialism began to appear somewhat less terrifying to the largely socially conservative Central and Eastern Europeans as the EU—and the West in general—pushed such issues as “gay rights” as an inseparable element of “human rights.” Europe’s promotion of “multi-culturalism,” in spite of growing evidence of its stark failure, and radical secularism, in spite of the increasing Islamization of Western Europe. By contrast, Vladimir Putin—who portrayed himself as a defender of Christianity and traditional morality, and who stated that Muslim minorities must respect the customs and laws of their host Christian majorities—seemed to speak the language of common sense. By promoting a socially radical agenda, the leftist governments of Western Europe and the U.S. only undermined their nations’ position in the world and lent credence to the old Soviet propaganda line of the “degenerate, rotten West.”

Obama’s indifference

The Obama administration’s disinterest in Central and Eastern Europe, a function of the “reset” with Putin’s Russia, was interpreted a “second Yalta,” as another betrayal of the eastern borderlands of the West. Many Poles, Ukrainians, and other Central and Eastern Europeans felt that Obama’s sudden reversal of U.S. policy—exemplified by the scrapping of the Bush-ear Missile Shield on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in league with Hitler—meant that America would not come to their defense once Russia decided to draw its sword. After all, without the U.S., NATO is a paper tiger. The EU itself has no common military or foreign policy … and if it did, there is no guarantee that its objective would be to contain Russian aggressiveness. Some of the main players within the EU—Germany, France, and Italy—are quite close to the Kremlin.

Washington also failed to envision and support a strong bloc of Central and Eastern European states between Russia and Germany. Such an Intermarium regional alliance would not only constitute a pro-American asset in Europe, but could also furnish sufficient strength to deter Moscow’s expansionism – even if Western Europeans chose to stand aside.

Only recently—about two weeks after the demonstrations first broke out—did the Obama administration wake up. Thus, on December 11, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement calling Yanukovych’s crackdown in Kyiv “disgusting.” What concrete steps will result from this are not clear, however. Will this statement show any more strength and seriousness than the British and French diplomatic notes submitted to Hitler in protest of his Anschluss of Austria in 1938? Even more importantly, does the administration have any alternative vision to Ukraine’s eventual EU membership? Is the U.S. prepared to offer countries such as Ukraine a better option than the neo-Soviet empire or Festung Europa? Has Washington conceptualized any plans to contain Moscow’s neo-imperial designs—which any student of history would know was all but inevitable—or to neutralize the strong anti-American currents within the European Union? The expansionist appetites, it seems, apparently haven’t been discouraged by the Eurozone financial crisis.

The missing Intermarium confederation

Of course, it would be unfair to expect the U.S. to do for the Intermarium nations what they have failed to do for themselves. When times were better, they placed excessive hope in the belief that America and Europe would defend them, thereby diminishing the urgency of geopolitical, military, and security matters. Post-communist and liberal forces in the region either viewed the EU as the great panacea and the “end of history,” or feared antagonizing Russia. Let us also not forget that Moscow’s network of agents in Central and Eastern Europe did not suddenly disappear after 1991, and the Kremlin’s assets continued to sabotage anything that might harm their Muscovite masters’ interests, including an Intermarium alliance. Conservative and anti-communist groups that supported such an arrangement were, for many reasons, unable to translate their vision into reality.

The greatest setback was, of course, the death of Poland’s president, Lech Kaczyński, and almost 100 members of Poland’s patriotic and pro-Western elite, in the suspicious Smolensk Crash, which occurred in Russia in April 2010. Many suspected foul play on the part of the post-Soviets, especially since Putin hated Kaczyński for his Intermarium strategy, seeing the crash as a warning for the “near abroad” not to challenge the Kremlin’s designs.

Poland’s Ukrainian dilemma

The late President’s twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, refuses to be intimidated, however. As the head of Poland’s largest opposition party, he headed to Kyiv to rally the pro-Western demonstrators and to show Ukrainians that Poles care about their destiny. By contrast, the liberal government in Warsaw stood by, perhaps overwhelmed by a situation which compels it to choose between Brussels and Moscow. After all, it is not always possible to be obsequious towards both. Kaczyński was thus attacked for participating in a mass protest alongside radical Ukrainian ethno-nationalists associated with Oleh Tiahnybok’s Svoboda Party. Given that Svoboda’s ideological predecessors, the fascistic OUN-UPA, murdered tens of thousands of Poles during and after World War II, many in Poland are very uncomfortable about this. On the other hand, this unsavory group was only one element of the broad protest movement. It is clear that Kaczyński’s support of pro-Western Ukrainians is intended to endorse their aspirations in spite of the Svoboda-type radicals, which he showed by positioning himself between two more moderate opposition leaders: Arsenyi Yatseniuk and boxing champion Vitalyi Klichko. It seems that his goal was also to bolster pro-Polish sentiments in Ukraine. In fact, his presence in Kyiv reportedly elicited pro-Polish cheers from the crowds.  The bottom line is that for Kaczyński, post-Soviet Russia is simply a much greater threat than radical ethno-nationalists in Ukraine.

Marching in Kyiv (from left): Oleh Tyahnybok, Arsenyi Yatseniuk, Jarosław Kaczyński, Vitalyi Klichko

Apart from Moscow’s hostility, the pro-Intermarium movements often also confront a frosty attitude toward their geopolitical vision in the West. The EU, quite naturally, would prefer to deal with individual Central and Eastern European countries, rather than with a united bloc. Official Washington, in turn, distrusts pro-Intermarium political leaders, such as Jarosław Kaczyński of Poland and Viktor Orban of Hungary, seeing them as trouble-making nationalists balancing on the verge of fascism. The post-communists and their liberal allies, on the other hand, are viewed as moderate and reasonable.

Hence, in the lack of an Intermarium alternative and strong American support, the former “captive nations” between the EU and Russia—such as Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia—feel that they have very little geopolitical maneuver room and are increasingly opting for Russia.

Post scriptum: In this context, some have suggested the existence of a Chinese alternative. After all, China has been penetrating the region, and Lukashenka’s Belarus has sought to benefit from it. It is clear, however, that Moscow is extremely possessive about nations which it perceives to fall within its natural sphere of influence.  Its commitment to keeping rival powers at bay (be it the Americans or the Chinese) will certainly exceed Beijing’s commitment to establish a foothold there.

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.