Are Ukrainians Europeans?

By Elizabeth Pond

Ukrainian desire to be European tragically matured at the wrong time

Protests pressing the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to drop the country’s fealty to Moscow and sign an association agreement with the European Union instead sparked the present crisis. With Russia now threatening to invade Eastern and Southern Ukraine as well, perhaps the obverse question is even more relevant: Does the West think of Ukraine as European?


Are Ukrainians Europeans? This is a question I began asking randomly in Ukraine in the early 1990s. The answers were mixed then, as might be expected in a country that had statehood thrust upon it overnight in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In western Lviv, a town that during the 123-year partition of Poland belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire, the answer was a clear “yes.” In eastern Donetsk, founded in the 19th century under the Russian empire, the answer was a clear “no.” In the central capital of Kiev there was no consensus.

However, in one morning’s epiphany, I saw a Kievan bus advertising “wedding gowns from Europe,” and took the shrewd promotion industry’s judgment as a definitive “no” — combined with a longing to enjoy the European lifestyle in some utopian future.

Fast-forward to 2014, and what has looked at times like a realization of that utopian dream now at times looks like the utter destruction of it. For the first time in history a whole cohort of 20-somethings has grown up in a Ukrainian state. These young people have watched next-door Poland — which started on a par with Ukraine economically only 23 years ago — shoot up to living standards triple their own as Warsaw accepted European political and economic norms and curtailed corruption. They have seen Russian activists for democracy move to Ukraine to be able to speak and write freely.

They — with the support of their elders in the growing middle class in the west and their own generation in the east — voted with their feet last winter. They camped out on Kiev’s Euromaidan for three freezing months and braved the government snipers who eventually killed more than seventy of their number. The whole purpose of their protest was to press the Ukrainian kleptocracy to drop its fealty to Moscow under President Viktor Yanukovych and sign an association agreement with the European Union instead.

The tragedy of the Ukrainian longing to be European — Gallup and other opinion surveys in 2013 and again in March of this year found a majority in both west and east favoring a unitary Ukraine oriented toward Europe — was that it matured at the wrong time. To be sure, it benefited from the 23 years in which citizens have come to take for granted the existence of the Ukrainian state that finally emerged after centuries of East Slav subordination of younger-brother Ukraine to older-brother Russia.

But it collided with the surging of President Vladimir Putin’s resentment of Russia’s loss of empire in 1991 into a determination to avenge this humiliation by old-fashioned military might. In a pattern reminiscent of repeated Soviet suppression of uprisings in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956), and of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia (1968), Moscow at first pushed for a forceful end to the demonstrations and then, with the annexation of Crimea, executed the first direct land grab in a neighboring state in Europe since the end of World War II.

The Ukrainians’ rising sense of a new European identity was also poorly synchronized with America’s exhaustion of wars overseas and leadership fatigue — and with the EU’s intrinsic believe that all disputes can be solved by soft power alone. 100 years after Europe sleepwalked into World War I, in a contest in which Putin’s existential stake and local military superiority would always trump the West’s local military inferiority and third-order stake in Ukraine in any escalation, the US and the EU flatly ruled out putting NATO boots on the ground.

This left Ukraine facing a Russian army surrounding it on three sides that Kiev’s interim Interior Minister Arsen Avakov describes as a hundred times stronger than Ukraine’s army. And it leaves the West with only economic sanctions to deploy in defense of Kiev. These sanctions may prove to be effective in the long term. In the short term, however, they have not deterred a small core of Russian commandos from their creeping seizure of official buildings in eastern Ukraine, a destabilization of the region to prove Putin’s claims that Ukraine is a failing state.

It is not yet clear how ongoing Russian intimidation will influence Ukrainians’ new sense of belonging to Europe. One independent Russian commentator, Oleg Shro, argues that by making Ukraine an enemy, Moscow is only uniting patriotic Ukrainians in “Russophobia” in a mirror image of Putin’s own soaring domestic popularity after his annexation of Crimea.

It is true that the east Ukrainian population has not rallied in the numbers anticipated by the Kremlin in support of the takeover of at least nine local police and administrative headquarters by well-armed masked gunmen in identical unmarked uniforms, suggesting they were Russian commandos. Yet the “spetsnaz” special-force spearheads followed an effective plan B in the past two weeks: they seized poorly defended security posts; set up barricades and checkpoints; distributed captured weapons to a spectrum of local mercenaries, criminals, and the disgruntled; surrounded the posts with babushkas nostalgic for Soviet stasis; kept behind-the-scenes command; and dared the reluctant Ukrainian army to shoot its way through the old women to oust the occupiers. Efforts by Ukrainian security forces to retake the posts have failed.

As preparation for potential full-scale military intervention accelerated in the last few days, the pro-Russian forces staged an alleged attack by Ukrainian “fascists” whom they accused of maltreating ethnic Russians in what could be a pretext for a Russian invasion. Evidence of the purported attack outside of Slovyansk included on-the-scene TV clips that were marked as having been filmed a day before the supposed attack and even a convenient business card of a Right Sector leader in the nationalist Ukrainian southwest. Russian TV stations ran the footage again and again. A local pro-Russian supporter petitioned Putin to send in “peacekeeping” troops to protect Russians in eastern Ukraine. Russian officials pointedly resurrected a historical term for the region, known as “Little Russia.”

Ukraine is now in a fluid period when popular sentiment in the east could go either way. Ethnic Ukrainians and Russians both know from their own travels that life is as hardscrabble over the Russian border as it is in the Ukrainian rustbelt, and the majority may continue to prefer life in a Europe-oriented Ukraine over life in Russia.

Yet increasing Russian threats, which are not being counteracted by the Ukrainian government’s reassertion of control, could trigger a contrary dynamic. They are beginning to create an aura of inevitability about a Russian takeover that could induce many in the population to wager that Putin will win and adjust their allegiance preemptively. Moreover, they could trigger bitterness among the Euromaidan million over the perceived abandonment by their idealized West, which did not defend them militarily.

At this point, therefore, the obverse question must be posed: Does the West think of Ukrainians as Europeans? In April 2014 the answer to this question remains as open as the answer about Ukrainians’ own European identity.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of The Rebirth of Europe. She has reported on Ukraine over the past three decades.




This article was originally published by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.