Discussions / War Against Ukraine

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Ukraine’s Precarity

In the early 2000s I was in Romania on a research trip. It’s a lovely country with a harsh modern history. While there, a colleague pointed out a huge public housing complex in Bucharest that the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had built. All the units were empty shells, constructed with neither plumbing nor electricity. This was typical for Ceausescu’s brutal dictatorship, which lasted until December 1989. I knew what had been going on there: the ubiquitous Securitate, the forced pregnancy tests of women workers, the closure of electricity in hospitals.

But in the early 2000s, people in Romania seemed happy, and no wonder. They were slated to join the European Union, and road crews were fixing their highways to bring them up to what everyone referred to as “Eurostandard.” I shared their optimism.

I was also disturbed. I wondered why Ukraine, which had been seeking EU membership since the 1990s, was not so fortunate. In 2002 the EU told Ukraine not to expect membership in the next 10-20 years. I knew Ukraine well, both as its historian and as someone who had spent a long time there. To me, Ukraine seemed to be in better shape than Romania. Kyiv looked more like a cosmopolitan European capital than Bucharest. L’viv’s cafes and concert halls were as nice, and certainly much more affordable, than what I knew back home in Canada.

In my opinion, the exclusion of Ukraine from the EU at this early juncture set the trajectory that has led to Russia’s horrific invasion. It was one of many signals that Ukraine was being relegated to the Russian sphere.

Ever since the Euromaidan of 2014, I had been worried about Ukraine’s precarious geopolitical position. In a better world, one in which Russia would have entered a “common European home” and respected the sovereignty of former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Russia might have become good neighbors. But that possibility was erased already some years before Russia invaded Crimea and supported an armed separatist movement in Ukraine’s southeast.

The whole point of the Euromaidan, in which about a hundred protesters lost their lives, was to express Ukrainians’ desire to be part of the EU and not of the Russian world. Ukraine’s aspirations were rejected. Now, as Russian artillery and tanks devastate the country, Ukraine has made an urgent appeal to be accepted into the EU. So far, this has not happened. As everyone understands, the countries in the EU have been dependent on Russian oil and gas and therefore unwilling to risk offending their supplier. Cultural prejudice has also been a factor.

That left only one ally for Ukraine – the United States. As a person who has closely followed US policy re: the Arab Spring, the war in Afghanistan, and Latin America, I had no faith in such an ally.

Outside any security alliance or the community of European nations, Ukraine now fights alone. Putin’s nuclear blackmail insures this to be the case.

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