The Corner

Putin Grasps Ukraine Warmly by the Throat

My former colleague at Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Robert Coalson, draws my attention via Twitter to a fascinating development in Russo-Ukrainian comradeship. Putin, as is well known, occasionally refers to a semi-mystical brotherhood between Russia and Ukraine that rests in part on the historical fact that the Russian state began in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Countries have moved around the map since then, however. And we should bear in mind that Cain and Abel were brothers, that “fraternity” was one of the stained watchwords of the French Revolution, and that Metternich drew the appropriate conclusion that “if I had a brother, I would call him ‘Cousin.’ ” So how much is brotherhood worth?

According to a RFERL piece by Dmytro Shurkalo, Ukrainian trucks carrying goods into Russia are now being stopped wholesale and searched minutely, resulting in long lines and long delays. (This is actually an old French trick for ensuring that less-expensive Japanese technology reached the French consumer in much smaller amounts than those exported from Japan. The Russian customs and their political bosses don’t seem to be disguising their motives, moreover. This effective “non-tariff barrier” is being imposed on Ukraine in order to discourage the country from signing a free-trade deal with the European Union in November. Shurkalo quotes this frank avowal from Sergei Markov, a Russian political analyst with ties to the Kremlin who is also well-known to American television viewers:

If Ukraine signs the suicidal DCFTA with the European Union — I can’t make myself call it a free-trade zone; it is a semicolonial model that Brussels is going to propose to Ukraine in Vilnius — and if Ukraine opens itself to cheap and possibly low-quality goods from the European Union, then Russia will be forced automatically to close its doors to all goods from the territory of Ukraine.

As Robert says, this quote alone is worth the price of admission. It also points up the shifting menace of Putin’s foreign policy. When Ukraine was hoping to join NATO and NATO seemed to be considering its application, the Russian line was that this was an intolerable provocation and a threat to Russian security. But Moscow would not object, it was subtly suggested, to Ukraine’s joining a peaceful commercial body such as the EU. Once NATO pushed Ukraine’s application into the long grass, though, a close relationship to the EU suddenly became another threat to Russian security.  And now this.

The lesson for the West, then, is that NATO should re-open negotiations with Ukraine (and, for that matter, with Georgia). The main threat to security in Russia’s near-abroad is Moscow’s continuing neo-imperial attitude to its neighbors. This threatens Russia’s security in the long run too. And the West should be thinking of ways to draw Moscow further into the Euro-Atlantic institutions that Moscow plainly resents. But there is a price of admission for that too: finally becoming a normal country.

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