MUNICH — During these past years of economic crisis, we Europeans learned that our fate was inextricably linked to that of the banks. We’re accustomed to the idea that numbers will decide how the continent fares. A good European, then, is a thrifty European.
And now the pictures from Kiev come crashing in. They show people hoisting the EU flag in the freezing cold. They are being beaten — and shot — by police for this. Both politicians and the people of Europe should take a good long look at these pictures because, as tough as this might sound, it’s not just economic figures that are going to determine Europe’s future: It’s also the blood spilling on the snow in Ukraine.
A community of half a billion people — and by global standards still a very wealthy one — has a responsibility to the world. This sense of responsibility was demonstrated when the EU decided to send military help to the Central African Republic. But in the Ukraine, European isn’t so much about helping others. It’s about helping ourselves.
A revolt stemming from disappointed hopes about a future with the EU touches the very core of our Union. Europeans are partially responsible for the Ukraine’s failure to sign the EU association agreement in November. The EU fell for President Viktor Yanukovych’s Europe-friendly act and underestimated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to sabotage the agreement.
Which doesn’t mean that those responsible for the bloody standoff aren’t within Ukraine. There is, first of all, a corrupt president, who is prepared to damage his country to serve his own interests, and doesn’t shy away from the use of brute force. Then there is the opposition that appears able to find common ground only in radicalism. But because the picture is so bleak, we Europeans should exercise every possible bit of influence we have. There is no civil war in Ukraine — yet. But every civil war has begun just like, or at least similar to, this.
What Putin knows
In Syria, Western diplomacy found itself unable to do much. That can’t happen in the case of Ukraine. If the Franco-German “dream team” — German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius — really want to make a difference, they better do it in Kiev soon, preferably together with Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski. The government in Ukraine can’t be left feeling unaccompanied, just as the opposition can’t be made to feel it’s being left to its own devices.
But that won’t be enough. The West and particularly the EU must show the Kiev leadership what they are willing to do to promote a more reasonable outcome. And there are plenty of possible ways to assert leverage with Yanukovych and his followers in the power structure — for example, entry bans and blocking European accounts. Blocked accounts could prove more effective in Ukraine than they have in Belarus, where the EU has also applied the instrument, because unlike Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, Yanukovych doesn’t have many years of tyrannical rule under his belt. He cannot rely on people following him blindly, particularly where the economy is concerned. The Ukrainian oligarchs look at what it’s going to cost before making decisions.
Putin knows this too. Unlike some in the EU, he is unembarrassed by open pursuit of geostrategic interests. His goal is obvious: He wants to make Moscow the center of a Eurasian Union that would form a counterweight to the EU. The leverage he has is also clear: extreme economic pressure, including blackmail, as indispensable supplier of energy paired with offers of economic aid. The rhetoric of a strategic partnership has long been laid bare by the reality of strategic rivalry. This will make itself felt at the EU-Russia summit this week.
The EU won’t be able to find simple solutions to the Kiev crisis. But if it doesn’t want to lose every shred of credibility it has, it can’t leave Ukraine to fend for itself — let alone allow it to become Russian.