Ukraine is a country searching for its soul. Long torn between east and west, the country -- whose name translates as "on the edge" -- is not only redefining the relationship between Russia and Western Europe, but is proving to be a big test for the transatlantic relationship.
The relationship between Europe and the United States shaped much of the 20th century. American intervention was decisive in the first and second World Wars, and the Cold War remodeled Eurasia. For Ukraine, the new model meant independence, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Attempts had been made to found an independent Ukrainian state prior to 1991, but these were short-lived. One such effort between 1917 and 1921 succumbed to chaos, as conflict broke out among Ukrainians who supported different political and military factions. A second attempt, led by Stepan Bandera in Lviv in 1941, ended abruptly the following year.
Thus Ukraine is not only a young democracy, but also a young state. And Crimea, the province that finds itself in the news today, was only officially recognized by Russia as part of Ukraine in 1997 -- after Kiev granted the province autonomy. Rejection of Russian rule, on the other hand, has grown over time in western Ukraine, and the period following the Cold War allowed this feeling to flourish.
The post-Cold War period had two phases: pre-9/11 and post-9/11. During the first phase, economic liberalization was perceived as a complement to liberal democracy, and in the first decade after the end of the Cold War, countries in Central and Eastern Europe went through a process of economic opening. They tended to prioritize ties with the United States and membership in NATO and the European Union. This dovetailed with the EU's eastward expansion, begetting a process of enlargement that took concrete form in the mid-2000s. During this phase, the countries of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine included, started developing their own state institutions, transitioning toward independence while modeling their national strategies and determining their core national interests. They were fast-developing states in a fast-changing environment.
9/11 changed everybody's priorities. The United States and its partners focused on fighting terrorism. Russia started to regain its strength, at first internally before seeking to press its interests internationally. The newly independent states on Russia's periphery, meanwhile, were still seeking to define themselves. Before 2000, most of these countries focused on state building, and it was only in the early 2000s that questions regarding national strategy and foreign policy emerged. At a time when the West was focused on the war against terror and was entering the EU enlargement fatigue phase, Ukraine was starting to consider whether the West is a better option than the East, as Ukrainians had thought during the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005.
Russia was the key player. For starters, Ukraine and Russia are tightly bound by history, and history has taught Moscow the importance of maintaining secure buffer states. But in a more immediate sense, Ukraine gives Russia access to the Black Sea, and beyond, to the Mediterranean: the ports of Sevastopol and Odessa are crucial for military and commerce. Ukrainian territory is of strategic importance for Moscow, considering the pipelines that send energy to Europe. For Russia, the Orange Revolution posed an unacceptable danger. Moscow understood the popular uprising as an event engineered by the West to diminish Russian influence over Ukraine and to encircle and crush Russia.
A New Russian Assertiveness
Russia spent the years following the Orange Revolution looking for ways to avert the risk of a pro-Western Ukraine. Moscow worked to split the coalition that emerged from the events of 2004-2005 and set as its goal the installment of a pro-Russian government in Kiev. The United States was too committed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to engage elsewhere, and Moscow began pressing its interests more aggressively, most boldly with its 2008 invasion of Georgia. Now more assertive, Russia had begun to complicate Germany's strategic challenge of maintaining close ties with Moscow while addressing the interests of the central and eastern European members of the EU. In the immediate aftermath of the Georgia crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to St. Petersburg that Germany would oppose NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Her statement reflected two realities that Merkel understood well: First, the German economy relies on Russian energy resources. Second, perceiving the approach of the European Union's economic crisis, Berlin knew that extending NATO protection over the two states would involve increased defense spending.
From Berlin's point of view, Merkel's stance is completely justified -- but it represents a significant tension within the transatlantic partnership. Germany has become softer on NATO integration since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, with German diplomats now discussing "the perspective of NATO membership," a feeble phrase that indicates Berlin hasn't actually changed its position -- Ukrainian and Georgian membership is not on the table for now. Berlin has, however, signaled support for closer economic integration with both Ukraine and Georgia.