WORLD AFFAIRS.  It’s not every day that a president gets to look history in the eye. It’s not every day that a leader has to make a choice that will determine both his country’s trajectory and his own legacy for decades, perhaps even for centuries. Most leaders at most times just muddle through their years of rule and end up as footnotes or failures in subsequent historical accounts. Many make the wrong fateful choice and thereby doom themselves to infamy and their countries to disaster. Only few—usually the exceptional leaders—make the right fateful choices.

Given the profoundly unexceptional nature of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, he has no right to stand face to face with history. He’s no George Washington. He’s no Charles de Gaulle. He’s no Margaret Thatcher. Heck, he’s not even Jimmy Carter. And yet, history, like the Lord, moves in mysterious ways, and, lo and behold, it’s Yanukovych who, of all people, is in the unique, and uniquely unlikely, position of being able to propel Ukraine into the world.

Nothing in Yanukovych’s past suggests that he should be even remotely interested in Ukraine’s integration into Europe and eventual membership in the European Union. Ukraine’s current president is the product of one of the most Soviet, most Communist, least Western, least European, and least Ukrainian regions in the entire Soviet Union. He should be looking east. Instead—mirabile dictu—he’s looking west.

Two years ago, when Yanukovych first intimated that he’d pursue EU integration, it seemed like a bad joke or a sly ruse. Now, just a few short weeks before a November summit in Vilnius is supposed to decide whether Ukraine gets to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, Yanukovych’s continued commitment to integration seems to be genuine. Indeed, it’s now conceivable that Yanukovych could pull off a Nixon. Just as it took a lifelong anti-Communist to pursue rapprochement with China and end the war in Vietnam, so too it may take a lifelong pro-Russian politician to move Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into Europe’s.

It’s highly unlikely that Yanukovych and his entourage care greatly about the Ukrainian population’s global integration or about European values. But they understand full well that moving toward Russia and joining the Moscow-led Customs Union means subordinating themselves to Vladimir Putin’s fascistoid regime, and subordinating their wealth, as well as that of Ukraine’s oligarchs, to the far larger capital resources of Russia’s superrich. Simply put, integrating with Russia means being transformed into the impotent vassals of an underdeveloped thuggish state. In contrast, EU integration means subordinating themselves to the EU’s light political touch and inconsistently implemented values, a legal system that won’t encroach upon their ill-gotten wealth, and a civilized form of capitalism that is structured according to rules that Ukrainian oligarchs have long since mastered.

Notwithstanding Yanukovych’s motives for pursuing westward integration, it’s actually a great thing for everybody concerned—for Ukrainians, for Europeans, and for Russians.

Ukrainians will benefit from finally becoming part of a decent, liberal, democratic, stable, and prosperous community, whose decency, liberalism, democracy, stability, and prosperity will progressively rub off on Ukraine. Europeans will benefit from finally having an increasingly decent, liberal, democratic, stable, and prosperous country—which also happens to be one of the continent’s largest and geopolitically most important—in their front yard. Russians will benefit from finally having an increasingly decent, liberal, democratic, stable, and prosperous country—which also happens to like Russian language and culture and be unwaveringly supportive of good relations with Russia and Russians—in their back yard.

Unsurprisingly, the only one to kick and shout against Ukraine’s EU integration is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and that’s because he’s the only loser. Putin’s legitimacy as a charismatic fascistoid leader rests on his ability to claim that he, and only he, can reestablish the lost empire, reclaim the Soviet golden age, and restore imperial Russia’s place in the sun. None of these promises makes any sense without Ukraine. Seen in this light, the panic, demagoguery, and alarm with which the Putin regime has greeted Ukraine’s moves toward Europe smack of desperation—not so much at the prospect of Ukraine’s becoming increasingly decent, liberal, democratic, and prosperous (after all, what normal leader wouldn’t want all his country’s neighboring states to be like that?) as at the prospect of the Russian regime’s own looming illegitimacy and instability.

As the Vilnius summit approaches, Yanukovych should remember that the choice he makes will determine how history views him. If he stays the course, addresses the Tymoshenko issue, and opts for Europe, history will probably overlook most of his incompetence and underscore his bold Nixonian move, perhaps even calling it a stroke of genius. If he blinks and opts for integration with Russia, history will remember him as a Putin clone and consign both of them to the ash heap of failed dictators. 

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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