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The U.S. Approach to Ukraine in Turmoil

Supporters of Ukrainian EU integration sing and wave flags during a protest in Kiev.

Ukraine has plunged into political turmoil following President Victor Yanukovych’s decision to delay signature of an association agreement with the European Union and the authorities’ use of force to break up a peaceful demonstration on November 30. The main players now are Mr. Yanukovych, opposition leaders and the many thousands of citizens on the street. The European Union and Russia are the outside players that can exercise the most influence, while the United States sits more in the background. That is understandable. And in the current situation, it may not be a bad place for Washington to be.

As the crisis has played out in Kyiv over the past two weeks, the European Union has taken the lead as the voice and face of the West. That is appropriate. At the core of the debate in Ukraine is whether and how quickly the country will move to align its norms with—and join a free trade area with—the European Union. Right now, Europe has great attraction for many Ukrainians, who envy European living standards and its rule of law. Moreover, the European Union acquitted itself well in mediating a settlement during the Orange Revolution in 2004.

Russia is fighting to keep Kyiv from moving too far, too fast toward the West, and has imposed trade sanctions and threatened other consequences should the Ukrainian government proceed to sign the association agreement. For Moscow, this is a geopolitical struggle of the first order.

The U.S. government has not taken a position on the front lines of this political drama. Several reasons explain why.

First, an association agreement with the European Union offers the best path for Ukraine to draw closer to Europe (and the trans-Atlantic community). Washington has nothing better to offer. U.S. officials have closely coordinated with their EU counterparts to take a common Western line. To state the obvious, however, the United States is not a member of the European Union.

Second, given everything else in the foreign policy in-box in Washington, Ukraine has not been able to command much attention. The major foreign policy issues for the Obama administration lie elsewhere: the broader Middle East (Iran, Syria, the Arab-Israeli peace process), Afghanistan and the “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia. There are only so many hours in the day, and larger, more pressing questions push Ukraine off of the agenda.

This relative diminution in American attention to Ukraine and Europe reflects in part the success of Europe—and of U.S. policy toward Europe—over the past two decades. Central European states such as Poland and the Czech Republic today are firmly anchored in the European Union and NATO. That is a big achievement. A major reason why the United States launched the NATO enlargement process in the mid-1990s and encouraged the European Union to enlarge in parallel was to give the emerging democracies in the area institutional homes so that the region would require less American attention in the future.

Third, while Ukraine was the object of a geopolitical struggle between the West, led by the United States, and Russia in the 1990s, the Obama administration does not think in those zero-sum terms (yes, Moscow still does). Moreover, how much of a struggle is this? The Ukrainian public, elite and business community show little desire to turn toward the east. Russia does not offer a political model attractive to Ukrainian citizens.

Finally, a degree of “Ukraine fatigue” has taken hold in Washington. Part of this results from disappointment over how, following the Orange Revolution, the new leadership in Kyiv failed to take advantage of its opportunities. The fatigue has only grown worse with the democratic regression that has taken place since Mr. Yanukovych became president in 2010.

Congress, a traditionally pro-Ukrainian institution that used to mandate huge sums of assistance funds for Ukraine, now shows considerably less enthusiasm for the country. Notably, some on Capitol Hill have even begun talking about applying sanctions, which would have been unheard of in Congress just a couple of years ago.

The upshot is that the United States devotes less time and attention to Ukraine than was the case in the past. As a result, the European Union—the institution and individual EU member-states, such as Poland, Lithuania and Sweden—have taken the Western lead during the past several years.

Not having the United States on the frontline is, on balance, not a bad thing. As noted, the foreign policy agenda in Washington is jammed. Moreover, were the United States leading the Western charge, Moscow would regard it is a particularly dangerous geopolitical challenge. That would introduce to the complicated politics that are now playing out in Kyiv a U.S.-Russia competitive dynamic that would hardly be helpful to—and might well complicate—efforts to find a peaceful political solution to the current crisis.

The U.S. government should be clear in its support for the right of Ukraine and Ukraine’s people to choose their own course. It should insist that the authorities respect the right of citizens to demonstrate peacefully. It should stress that how the government deals with the demonstrations will affect U.S.-Ukraine relations. And it should be supportive of Ukraine with the International Monetary Fund if Kyiv undertakes serious economic reforms. But at this point in time, Europe has more influence.

The European Union provides the magnet for many in Ukraine. The European Union has the association agreement process—the road-map for Kyiv to follow if it makes the commitment to move in the EU’s direction. And while the Russians see the European Union as a geopolitical competitor, they do not see it in the same way that they see the United States. In the current political crisis in Kyiv, it is appropriate that the European Union take the Western lead.

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