The Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovich is at a crossroads, and the European Union, with U.S. help, must make it easy for him to make the right decision.
Ukraine had agreed to sign a political and economic pact with the European Union but at the last minute, under heavy-handed pressure from Russia, Yanukovich balked. Angry Ukrainians took to the streets in protest two weeks ago. The government thought at first the protests would quickly blow over; instead they’ve only grown, as have the protesters’ demands, one of them now being that the government resign.
To Russian President Vladimir Putin, bringing Ukraine, with its 46 million people, into the Kremlin orbit is vital to his diminishing hopes of restoring Russia to its role as a major player in world affairs.
Putin is trying to force Ukraine to join his pathetic little Eurasian Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. There are few requirements to joining that union other than following Kremlin directions and receiving discounted natural gas in return. Putin this week showed his new, more autocratic side and intentions by closing a news agency, RIA Novosti, and replacing it with one led by a Kremlin cheerleader and ferocious antigay campaigner.
If Ukraine signed on as a candidate member of the EU, it would have tariff-free access to a market of 500 million and the right of its people to travel freely in Western Europe.
The EU is much the better deal and most Ukrainians know it. But with EU membership comes requirements for economic, social and judicial reforms. Instituting these reforms in a country with little tradition of the rule of law and Russia trying to sabotage them every step of the way will be difficult.
The obstacles can be overcome by a generous application of Western funds. The EU, with U.S. help, should undertake to make good the punitive trade losses Russia will undoubtedly inflict on Ukraine in reprisal.
Ukraine is close to bankruptcy. If Ukraine opts for the EU, the International Monetary Fund, again with considerable U.S. help, should bail out Kiev and institute free market economic reforms.
Bailing out Ukraine will be expensive, running into the tens of billions of dollars. But, recall, if this had happened during the Cold War it was a bill we wouldn’t have thought twice about paying.
Moreover, the issue is more than just thwarting Russia just for the sake of doing so. EU membership would do a lot for Ukrainians who would benefit from trade, travel and the dignity of being treated as citizens of a free country rather than a Kremlin puppet.