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Opinion

Forget NATO, Ukraine must refocus on the EU

Henrik Larsen is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. He served as a political adviser for the EU in Ukraine from 2014 to 2019.

As we find ourselves in the 11th hour of negotiations that could potentially prevent a Russian attack against Ukraine, the clock is ticking.

In this moment, Western debate remains almost exclusively focused on Ukraine’s right to join the transatlantic alliance — and rightfully so. At this point of escalation, the Kremlin seems bound for military action against Ukraine. However, it’s important to note that none of the Russian demands in the current crisis concern the country’s continued economic integration with the European Union and the West — an unexplored avenue for diplomacy that could still present an opportunity out of the current stalemate.

NATO integration is clearly the vital interest that is at stake from the Kremlin’s perspective, in accordance with its long-standing obsession with guarantees of a militarily neutral Ukraine. But as talks are set to continue, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, not everyone seems to remember what Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution was essentially about: reaching an association agreement with the EU.

Throughout the negotiation process, Russia has not revived its wish for Ukraine to abandon its association agreement with the EU (and perhaps join the Eurasian Economic Union instead), which is exactly what triggered the Euromaidan protests in 2013. That was an agreement which a majority of Ukrainians continue to see as a template for reaching European living standards and a more accountable and corruption-free state today.

The reality is that Ukraine’s reform record since 2014 has not lived up to expectations. While exports to the EU and the rest of the world have grown, the country has yet to economically recover to its pre-Euromaidan level.

At the core of this problem lies Ukraine’s inability to fight high-level corruption: It may have put in place new institutions, but systematic inference has undermined the ability to detect and punish perpetrators. Though the country had some success in banking and gas sector reform, it ultimately failed to break market monopolization and the power of oligarchs. 

It is, of course, true that Russian pressure has contributed to Ukraine’s instability over the past years, but the main factor remains the Ukrainian government’s chronic inability to deliver on the domestic front. It is perhaps symptomatic of this inability to focus on essential problems that it currently seems more preoccupied with prosecuting Petro Poroshenko, the former president and main rival to current President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. But poor economic performance is hardly a model that would cause the Russian people to long to become like the democratic Ukraine, as some Western pundits contend. 

Ukraine needs to go back to the drawing board for a proper assessment of its national interests and — for once — not the elite interests. The country’s priority should not be NATO but overcoming its own structural obstacles. And in doing so, Kyiv’s starting point should not be the implementation of the Minsk II Agreement — a set of measures concluded in 2015 to solve the conflict in the Donbass and that would risk giving Russia a de facto veto not only over its choice of military alliance but also over its economic orientation. Instead, Ukraine should focus once more on its existing EU reform templates and tap into the abundance of Western financial support and expertise that remains available for its success.

Though some may consider it a steep price, if it could prove to be a way of avoiding renewed destabilization and destruction, Western countries should engage Kyiv in one last round of diplomacy, drawing attention to the advantages in backtracking the country’s unrealistic NATO membership aspirations. They should reiterate their long-standing message that Ukraine should refocus on is its own economic development, and that means sticking to its existing cooperation with the EU and other actors like the International Monetary Fund to improve economic performance and the rule of law at home. 

Russia says it defends limited security interests in its neighborhood, while its critics say it has wider expansionist ambitions. Now may be the last chance to test what its intentions really are. And if the West can convince Ukraine to define its destiny as a fight against economic insecurity rather than of geopolitical choice, a peaceful solution may still be possible.

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