When, on Saturday, Ukraine’s new leaders thanked all of those who had contributed to the overthrow of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, the European Union was one of the last to be cited. And deservedly so: At the height of the crisis, the most the union was ready to do was announce sanctions against individual members of Mr. Yanukovych’s regime.
It is true that the foreign ministers of Germany and Poland worked hard to negotiate a truce between the opposition and Mr. Yanukovych. But their determination came not from the belief that a strong Europe stood behind them, but rather from the awareness that the West would not defend the opposition if it came under attack by Mr. Yanukovych’s armed forces or those of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
The events of the last week have made it clear that the European Union is an attractive economic arrangement — but one that is devoid of opportunities for pursuing serious foreign or defense policies.
Such ineffectiveness first became apparent in 2008, when NATO could not decide whether to offer Georgia a clear invitation to join. Russia immediately took advantage of the situation, going to war with Georgia to “protect” the breakaway region of South Ossetia and forcing the country to back off its rapprochement with the West.
Should the West act with similar indecision on Ukraine, we could see the same thing happen again: Russia could well decide to “come to the aid of” ethnic Russians living in Crimea, in southern Ukraine, who are already issuing invitations.
Mr. Putin has even succeeded in establishing a foothold within the European Union itself. After tensions emerged between the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, and the European Union and International Monetary Fund, Russia stepped in, signing an enormous loan agreement on Jan. 14 to boost Hungary’s nuclear power industry. This compounds Hungary’s current dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies: Eighty percent of the oil consumed in Hungary comes from Russia, as does 75 percent of its natural gas.
Russia is likewise placing increased pressure on Moldova, threatening to expel more than 200,000 Moldovan guest workers (unless, it implied, Moldova agreed to join Mr. Putin’s planned Economic Union). We should expect further moves like this in the near future.
Mr. Orban’s case is especially troubling. He was famous for his anti-Russian stance: Until recently he warned against “Gazprom’s armies,” referring to the giant Russian energy company. Today he is inviting them in, and attempting to persuade fellow European Union countries to alter their policies vis-à-vis Russia in a “pragmatic” direction. His volte-face is a signal that in most cases, a surprising re-evaluation of attitudes is possible, and other nationalists, too, might exchange their alliance with the passive West for an alliance with expansive Russia and China.
This is especially likely as nationalist parties make gains across the European Union. Consider Mr. Orban’s closest ally in Europe, the Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is positioning himself for national office (he has already served as prime minister) by promising to give Poles “Budapest in Warsaw”; his supporters continue to attend Mr. Orban’s rallies.
For now there is consensus in Poland when it comes to Ukraine — the only consensus uniting all Polish politicians. Nevertheless, nothing is beyond Mr. Kaczynski in the struggle for political power, even playing at the reversal of Polish alliances.
To those who know Polish history, this would not come as a surprise. The history of the Polish nationalist movement begins with the alliance of the National Democrats, known as Endecja, with Moscow, which was exploited during the 1905 Polish revolution. Sooner or later, Moscow was always able to find “friends” on the banks of the Vistula. Almost every country in Central, Southern and Eastern Europe has had a similar experience.
The West is in a losing position because it can neither reward nor punish. Despite its accumulated wealth, it is not ready to make sacrifices. Within Western societies, economic solidarity is collapsing. Mobilization in favor of other nations is limited to empty words and gestures. In effect, the West is unable to outbid the financial capacity of autocratic Russia or China, even though they are poorer than the European Union or the United States.
And neither the European Union nor America can resort to the same type of brutality employed by nondemocratic regimes. There is also a lack of willpower, because a confrontation with Russia, to say nothing of China, could require sacrifices. The West may have “soft power,” but too often it acts as a “softy power.”
Thanks to Ukrainians, the new situation offers an opportunity to reverse the West’s drift. The West must make clear to Russia that it will not abide further meddling in Kiev’s political course. At the same time, it must offer a hefty package of economic and political support, from cheap loans to financing and training for pro-Western political parties.
The biggest mistake that the European Union and the United States can make is to believe that it is enough to wait for pro-Western forces to emerge. They must finally decide: Do they want to make a joint effort to include Ukraine in the Western fold or not. Indecisive behavior may well bring renewed bloodshed, or even war.
Sławomir Sierakowski is a sociologist and founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, as well as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw. He was a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.
© Author / The New York Times