One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ill-concealed goals is to try to rebuild at least part of the old Soviet empire and reassert its once-considerable influence in European affairs.
New discoveries of natural gas in Europe have forced Putin, now lacking the fearsome power of the late, unlamented Soviet Union and its ability to switch off Europe’s energy supplies at will, to turn his attention to countries he can bully.
Unfortunately, the chosen victim of the moment is Ukraine, a close neighbor, natural trading partner and, up until 1991, an unwilling member state of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine’s sin, in the eyes of the Kremlin, is that this fall Ukraine will enter preliminary negotiations on becoming a candidate member of the 28-nation European Union, a customs union that former Soviet satellites – the Baltics, Poland, Hungary, among others – rushed to join with almost indecent haste after the breakup of the USSR.
Russia believes that, instead, Ukraine should join its own Moscow-led Customs Union, consisting of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The choice between joining Russia’s little trading bloc, one surely subject to the economic and political whims of the Kremlin, and a democratically run customs union many times its size would seem to be a no-brainer.
And it is, except that Russia is threatening a trade war, blocking the sales of certain popular Ukrainian products in Russia and holding up Ukrainian exports at major road and rail crossings into Russia.
Even pro-Russian groups within Ukraine, including the current government, are outraged. Ukrainians, who have a long and unhappy history with Russia (the Bolsheviks starved the country into submission in 1932-33, killing millions), should know that if they give in to the bullying this time, the coercion will only get worse the next.
The European Union should step in, accelerate Ukraine’s membership talks and buy the products the Russians are boycotting. If Russia is so anxious to be treated like an adult country, it should act like one.