Ukraine won’t be in the EU or NATO any time soon. Here’s why

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Jean-Claude Juncker

In Die Zeit on-line, March 8, 2016
Translated from German by Tom Winter March 10, 2016

Original headline: “Neither Russia nor Europe”

Jean-Claude Juncker sees no chance for a quick admission of Ukraine into NATO and the EU. Giving it the choice of either Russia or the EU was a mistake.

For most German newspapers, the exciting message was not even worth mentioning. Just the FAZ accorded 13 lines to the statement by the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at that. Therein was what Juncker let out in a speech at The Hague. His exact words were: “Ukraine will definitely not, in the next 20 to 25 years, become a member of the EU, and also not a member of NATO.” [FAZ = Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung]

We rub our eyes. Ukraine, even for decades, neither a member of the European Union nor the Atlantic Alliance? Holla. The enrollment of the troubled and divided country into the EU and NATO is still the stated aim of the government in Kiev. Brussels was holding out EU membership to the Ukrainians as soon as they have created the conditions for and meet the so-called Copenhagen criteria. And under American pressure the Allies up to now hold firmly on the long-term objective of including the country in their military alliance.

Yet the EU is off and on about granting Ukrainians a visa-free regime; and last year it has also led NATO military maneuvers in the western part of the country – a “show of force” against Russia, as it was called. And Brussels along with the International Monetary Fund, wants to make billions available to help the ailing Ukrainian economy get on its feet. But now the European Commission president says he’s taking it all back, at the same time speaking for NATO, that it was all “not a precursor to membership.”

Juncker was speaking in the capital of the Netherlands, where on April 6 they are going to vote to approve or reject the EU and Ukraine Free trade Agreement part of the 2014 Association Agreement. Apparently, the president of the European Commission wanted to address the concerns of the increasingly eurosceptic Dutch and prevent their saying “No” to Europe for the second time after their rejection of the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005. Such a “No,” he said, could open the door to a “continental crisis” – one more crisis, as if we hadn’t enough of them.

For this reason, Juncker told a truth that is otherwise adamantly kept quiet or denied: The Ukraine is far from being in an internal condition which would allow them to be incorporated into the Western family. In this light it is a failing state or even already a failed state – an ailing, kleptocratic government plundered for their own purposes by venal bureaucrats and billionaire oligarchs.

Corruption flourishes. The judiciary is the pawn of the ruling mafia. The rule of law does not work. The economy is in freefall. President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk are virulent enemies. Upright Ministers resign. Reforms are making no headway. And willingness to comply with the Minsk agreements to the letter, is minimal. Neither is an electoral law adopted nor has the Donbass been granted more autonomy per constitutional amendment. 

The open honesty of Juncker’s statement 

This certainly counts also for the separatists in eastern Ukraine, but in its stubbornness the Kiev government has let itself step past the annoyance of Berlin and Paris. The reminders of the US Vice President Joe Biden remain unheard: “If Ukraine is to make further progress and wants to keep the support of the international community, it must do much more.”

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At the time of the Barroso Commission and US President George W. Bush, Ukrainians were expected to decide, either for Russia or for the West, the EU and NATO. The country was divided on the issue, and in the event it was torn apart. It just didn’t work for Ukraine — seen as both “near abroad,” neutral between East and West — to be dragged no matter what, into one camp only. 

Jean-Claude Juncker’s Hague shocker of open honesty comes right back to the tardy admission that this was a serious mistake. From a question of commerce it turned into a strategic choice. A balance of interests with Russia was never tried, and therein lay the germ of the crisis.

Seek balancing of interests with Russia 

The question now is whether the West – and especially the EU – will draw the tangible consequences from Juncker’s insight. First off the consequence is, not just to let Ukraine dock with the Brussels community, but also to weave it back into its historically developed relations with Russia. 

This would not be appeasement, submission to Russian ambitions, but a realpolitik approach to a balancing of interests with Moscow. Because Henry Kissinger’s dictum* still holds: “if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them. (…) To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe — into a cooperative international system.. “

*Sommer’s source for this quote is here.

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