The sight of protesters standing on sandbags made from snow in freezing temperatures in the Ukrainian capital Kiev should give even the most ardent British Eurosceptic pause for reflection.
Here are people so desperate to join the wider European family that they are prepared to do this – and with no small risk of brutality from President Viktor Yanukovych’s security forces, for whom the concept of community policing remains alien. This fervour stems from a particular conception of Ukrainian nationhood, that it should be an equal partner in the European Union, rather than be little more than a Russian satellite. The demonstrations are taking place in Independence Square – and we all know from whom that independence was won.
If the Ukrainian demonstrators are worried about their Russian neighbour’s intentions, they are right. Ukraine has long had Russia’s foot on her throat – the supply of gas – and the arrogance of Russian ambitions towards Ukraine could hardly have been more naked. Mr Putin’s plan is for Ukraine to join Belarus and Kazakhstan in a political and trading bloc to be known as the Eurasian Union.
For many Ukrainians, that is not only a poor substitute for the EU, but also a very uncomfortable echo of Ukraine’s position as a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. From these particular lips, what might be the usual warm rhetoric of international diplomacy assumes a more menacing aspect. “I’m sure achieving Eurasian integration will only increase interest [in it] from our other neighbours, including from our Ukrainian partners.” As Mr Putin is the dominant partner in this new Eurasian Union, it is worth examining some of his recent words and actions. We have seen his attitude to other nations’ legitimate interests in the Arctic and his unnecessarily harsh treatment of those seeking to save the environment there. His attitude to human rights doesn’t bode well for the Eurasian Union becoming a model of tolerance and openness.
Not that all the people in Ukraine are worried about Russia. Ukraine, in truth, is split. Many Ukrainians support President Yanukovych’s decision to ditch his negotiations with the European Union and seem unconcerned either about human rights in their own country or in Russia.
That is the real tragedy of Ukraine – that this is a nation being forced to choose between traditions and regional power blocs. Geography dictates that fate, to some degree, is inevitable. Ethnic, economic and cultural ties do naturally tug in different directions when you are betwixt two much bigger powers. But Ukraine should not have to make such a choice and would not need to if only Russia would allow her to develop her links with Europe.
Ukraine could do that as well as being close to Russia, maintaining her trade and other relationships, as part of a wider settlement between the EU on the one hand and Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus on the other. Sadly, Mr Putin views everything to do with his nation and its close neighbours as a zero-sum game; the EU’s gain must be Russia’s loss, and so on. So long as he persists in that, Ukraine will remain at best in limbo and at worst permanently bullied.