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9 February 2022

Helen Thompson

Ukraine’s imagined European identity is irreconcilable with the political reality

Germany clearly wants the EU to have a workable relationship with Putin, and the bloc cannot provide security for eastern members that border Russia.

Ukraine stands on a precipice. Even if Russia does not launch an invasion, Ukraine now exists in a state of permanent existential fear, caught between the idea of belonging to Europe and the reality of Russian power. While President Volodymyr Zelensky wants his country to be decisively aligned with the EU, Germany and France are not committed to Ukraine’s territorial integrity as Kyiv understands it.

They want Ukraine to implement the Minsk-2 protocol – agreed in February 2015 between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France – under which the two Russian-held provinces in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine would enjoy near-full autonomy in exchange for secessionist rebels disarming and Russia recognising Ukrainian sovereignty, including over the border. Whatever its leaders say publicly on the subject, Berlin and Paris also think it fanciful for Ukraine to believe it can reclaim Crimea from Russia.

For many Ukrainians, their country self-evidently belongs in the European political order because they are Europeans. To say otherwise is to engage in Putin’s historical fiction that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” – as he suggested in a 5,000-word essay published in July 2021 – and that the nationhood they share is Russian. For Putin, this unity originates in Kievan Rus – a 9th- to 13th-century confederal state covering parts of present-day Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. By contrast, most Ukrainians lay claim to their own national version of the Kievan Rus legacy, and think a myriad of cultural, religious and linguistic influences from eastern and southern Europe are the decisive forces shaping their identity.

[See also: How Covid shook the West’s faith in itself and changed normal life forever]

This conviction has been encouraged by the post-1989 language of “true” European unity. With Europe no longer divided into an East and West, the economic and political criteria for joining the EU can only go so far in justifying the long-term exclusion of obviously European candidates for membership. While Ukraine has thus far had to make do with an association agreement, one area of western Ukraine – territory that was once part of the multi-national Austrian Crownland of Galicia – has served as a potent symbol of the cosmopolitan European ideal destroyed by the First World War and resurrected at the end of the Cold War.

It was in the name of Ukraine’s right to be part of this Europe that the two Ukrainian revolutions against Russian influence have taken place. First, there was the Orange Revolution of 2004-05, following the rigged 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. Then came the 2014 Revolution of Dignity – the protests that led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime after he refused to sign the EU association agreement his government had negotiated.

Yet this post-Cold War rhetoric of pan-European unity has always disguised awkward realities. The EU cannot provide security for eastern members that border Russia so must rely on Nato, dominated as it is by a non-European power. Unpalatably for Ukraine, Moscow finds the idea of its Nato membership intolerable. While Ukrainians might object that Moscow cannot have a veto, Germany wants the EU to have a workable relationship with Russia, both for historical reasons and because it is dependent on Russian energy imports.

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Now, Putin is clamouring for rather more. It is not enough that Nato simply abandons the fiction of an “open door” to future Ukrainian accession; it must also reverse its willingness to offer some protection to Ukraine as a non-member. Clearly, Berlin does not find Putin’s demand unreasonable. Indeed, the German government regards the supply of defensive weapons to Ukraine from some Nato members, including Britain, as provocative.

[See also: The EU wants to be a global superpower – but it has Russia to contend with]

Even leaving issues of military security aside, German constraints on the EU’s approach to Russia has hit Ukraine hard. Germany has been complicit in Putin’s strategic bid to eliminate Ukraine as a transit state for transporting Russian gas into Europe; it agreed to build the first Nord Stream pipeline – which runs under the Baltic Sea – in 2005, just months after the Orange Revolution, and the second in 2015, a year after Russia annexed Crimea. Meanwhile, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941 leads many Germans to feel a historical responsibility towards the country (a narrative that ignores the fact that, in 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to carve up parts of present-day Ukraine between them).

In some countries, particularly Germany, Europe functions effectively as an ideal, a justification for the pragmatic pursuit of national interests and an advantageous set of political and economic structures. But in others, especially Ukraine, citizens might identify imaginatively with Europe, but enjoy few, if any, accompanying political benefits. Left outside real-world Europe, Ukraine must confront the historical tragedy of the deep tension between the idea of European identity and the possibilities for organising political life around it.

Paradoxically, this tension exists for some Russians too, including among the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine. Russia is simultaneously a partially European country and a geopolitical border used to define Europe. Imaginatively, the idea of being European is a solace, mitigating the burden of European history. But it cannot act as an actual source of political stability.

[See also: Why Joe Biden has been forced to accept Russia and Germany’s energy relationship]

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game