Ukraine: Just a little historical perspective

Crises telescope time. They focus us on the urgency of the now and, as important as they are, sometimes they distract us from enduring truths and long-term strategies. The crisis over Ukraine is no exception. We worry about war and escalation; we despair about refugees and suffering; and we naturally focus on ceasefires and their violations.

This is as it should be. But it is important to recall that Ukraine is a country, not a crisis. Ukraine emerged as a country in 1991 from very specific, indeed unique, historical circumstances. Since then, we in the European Union have had a tangled but central role in Ukraine’s evolution. Ukraine’s history has left its mark on the country; Europe’s relationship with Ukraine imposes certain responsibilities. Remembering this will not determine how we respond to Russia’s aggression. Nevertheless, it can hopefully root our response in a deeper understanding of what Ukraine is and what role Europe has played.

Ukraine then

The historical specificity of Ukraine—and particularly Eastern Ukraine—became clear to me on a visit to the eastern industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk in 1998. There I witnessed the rapidly changing landscape of a country to which, historians say, nature has been generous but history has not. Once the most important production center of nuclear missiles for the Soviet Union, Dnipropetrovsk was struggling to adapt and develop its economy in a post-Soviet world.

At the time, I was NATO secretary-general, and the significance of Ukraine’s decision to dismantle its nuclear program, as well as of its role in stabilizing Central and Eastern Europe, was unmistakable. But in Dnipropetrosvk, I began to understand just what that decision, and many similar decisions in that period, had meant for the economy and even culture of Eastern Ukraine. For a region that played such an important role in promoting a peaceful end to the Cold War, it was uniquely unsuited to thrive in the new order it had helped bring about.  

In the face of these challenges, Ukrainians have never lost their European sense of belonging, even if they have often disagreed about the specific institutional form that belonging should take. When I returned to Ukraine in 2001 as the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, a clear sense of European destiny and requests for help from the European Union surfaced in every conversation I had during that visit—and persisted afterwards.

For me, these realities in Ukraine entailed a certain responsibility—for Russia, Europe, and even the distant United States. And they entailed a certain necessity: as the end of the Cold War proved, Ukraine is simply too central to the politics and stability of the region to be allowed to languish. As I wrote in an article for El País back in 1998: “a Ukraine that is politically stable, independent and economically prosperous is crucial to the security of the Eurasian continent… For the good of the Ukrainians and for our own good, we cannot fail them.” This is our weighty moral obligation.

Looking back, we have not always risen to the challenges of Ukraine. Sadly, Ukraine itself has not evolved as desired either. Back in 1998, I wrote: “Within the alliance, we have taken our responsibility towards Ukraine very seriously…However, Ukraine’s political leaders must continue to make great efforts.” Noting that bad policies—economic, in particular, but also political and social—have lasting effects, I advocated for a partnership under the expectation that the government in Kyiv make the tough decisions necessary to move the country forward.

Ukraine now

This imperative still exists. There is considerable room for blame on all sides for what has gone wrong. And there is much space for improvement in Ukrainian democracy. As I stressed in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, the government in Kyiv must do more to protect the cultural and linguistic rights of national minorities and promote social inclusion. Ukrainians must also recognize that even by the standards of Ukraine, history has not been kind to the East. I have advocated for conditioning European aid on progress in those areas.

But regardless of who is at fault for the past, Europe’s obligations to Ukraine remain as weighty as ever. The Russian invasion in February 2014 and its annexation of Crimea in March obviously renewed concern for Ukraine among Europeans and NATO members. In spite of the blatant violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, U.N. member states were divided in condemning the attack. This put added pressure on the EU to take a leading role in mediating the conflict and to think more concertedly about the neighborhood’s security.

The sense of urgency in Europe about Ukraine’s security is undeniable, reignited by Russia’s flagrant transgressions of international law. However, we must not forget that beyond this moment of crisis, there remain deep and longstanding bonds between Ukraine and Europe. Our response must therefore take into account the timeline beyond this particular crisis. While security is unquestionably vital, it does not necessarily follow that we must send weapons to the Ukrainian army if such weapons would only make the situation worse.

But it does mean that Ukraine’s problems are properly our problems. A Ukraine that is politically stable, independent, and economically prosperous—and has good relations with Russia and the EU—is crucial to the security of the Eurasian continent. Ukraine needs and deserves our help. Europe must be there to provide it.