For all the troubling news from Europe – economic uncertainty and political instability – conditions were much more threatening after World War II. During that anxious era, the United States and other Western democracies responded not by pulling back but by reaching out to former adversaries and vulnerable allies with economic assistance and international alliances that contributed to stable democracies, prosperous economies, and a lasting peace.
Now, the Western nations have the opportunity to make another pragmatic and courageous decision in the tradition of the policies that provided for postwar peace and prosperity. Ukrainian leaders recently concluded talks with the European Union about moving forward toward an EU Association Agreement (a treaty between an EU and non-EU country). The agreement would expand trade and travel and pave the way for closer Ukrainian integration with the EU.
Having overseen the addition of eight Central and Eastern European nations in 2004 – the largest single enlargement of the EU – I remember that at the time some expressed concerns about these countries on the basis of their post-Soviet legal regimes, their economies, and their cultures. Some of these recently admitted EU members were in a worse position than Ukraine is in now.
Yet today these nations, including former Soviet bloc countries, are vital and well-established members of the EU. Especially during difficult economic times, some EU members may be tempted by authoritarianism. For instance, Hungary has adopted a constitution and additional laws that endanger the free press and the independent judiciary. But EU membership serves to restrain anti-democratic impulses.
Similarly, Ukraine is important to Europe as a source of economic growth and energy security, as well as a bridge to Russia. On the economic front, Ukraine’s 46 million citizens are highly educated, including expert software engineers, skilled industrial workers who power the country’s commercial export industries, and capable farmers whose work allows the nation to be the breadbasket of Europe.
Indeed, Ukraine’s information and high-tech industries can help continue Europe’s transformation into the knowledge center of the world. With continued economic progress, a partnership with Ukraine offers the EU new markets and new investment opportunities, as well as new workers.
Moreover, energy security is another advantage that Ukraine offers Western nations. Ukraine has the third-largest shale gas deposits in Europe – 42 million cubic feet of technically recoverable reserves that are currently being developed by Shell and Chevron. This is an environmentally friendly energy source not only for Europe but also for an entire planet whose population will continue to grow through the middle of this century.
As it leaves behind the legacy of Soviet-style communism, Ukraine can serve as a source of inspiration to its neighbors and nations throughout the world for how a country can move forward to free-market democracy and the rule of law. Ukrainians demand democracy, free speech, and a free press, in line with European traditions.
Bringing Ukrainian laws and norms in accordance with those of the EU will help to achieve symbolic and substantive progress for democracy regionally and worldwide. It is of economic, political, and geostrategic importance to Europe and the US that Ukraine comes under the European umbrella of shared values and free trade.
While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it has proven a reliable partner. So bringing Ukraine closer to the EU is also positive in terms of Western security interests, especially since recent polling shows Ukrainians are caught between clashing loyalties to the West and the East and closely divided on whether to join the EU or the Russian-sponsored Customs Union.
Indeed, Ukraine is perfectly positioned to become a geopolitical and economic bridge between Europe and Russia. In many ways, Kiev was the original cradle of Russia, and Ukraine still has strong ties to Russia in terms of heritage, faith, culture, and language. In fact, alongside its Ukrainian population, Ukraine boasts a large, Russian-speaking population, with familial and cultural connections to Russia. But Ukraine wants to align itself with Europe and with European values, and Western nations should embrace this opportunity before we lose it.
Make no mistake: Western interests and values are best served by engaging Ukraine as a solid European partner. This is a serious geopolitical opportunity for Europe and the US. We should make the most of it.