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Rail Cars and Realpolitik

What links a huge backup at a Russia-Ukraine border crossing and the Kremlin’s sense of self-preservation?

by Barbara Frye 16 August 2013

If we are to believe a Russian government spokesman, that country’s customs officials decided on their own this week to begin stopping freight cars coming from Ukraine at a key crossing point and ordering that Ukrainian cargo be unloaded for inspection.


That’s a mighty big coincidence, given that Russia wants Ukraine to join the Eurasian customs union instead of signing a free trade agreement with Brussels in November and that the Kremlin’s method of persuasion often involves stopping things at the border, as in wine and mineral water from Georgia and Moldova (and more recently chocolate from Ukraine).


It’s also a pretty tall tale in a country where bureaucrats tend to be petrified of making a decision before kicking it so far upstairs it ends up on the roof.


A more plausible explanation might lie in something that was written before the mini-blockade even happened. In an interview with The Ukrainian Week earlier this month, Chatham House analyst James Sherr says Ukraine and the West need to be thinking about how Russia will try to scupper the Brussels-Kyiv agreement and how Moscow will react if it is signed:


Let me give you an ominous analogy. In April 2008, NATO had a summit in Bucharest and came up with the formula that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. This had a major effect on Russia’s whole cycle of thinking and planning. Our recognition of Kosovo’s independence was clearly a factor in [setting] Russia on the course which led to war in Georgia in August that year.


If the EU signs an Association Agreement with Ukraine, the Russians will interpret this as the beginning of Ukraine’s integration into the EU ending with membership. Because of the huge stakes attached to Ukraine not moving into the EU’s orbit, which would mean Russia losing influence and losing the ability to guide Ukraine, its policy, trajectory, and economy, there will almost inescapably be pressure in Moscow to respond and try to derail this process. The worry that should exist in Kyiv and Brussels is how they might derail it particularly given the present condition of Ukraine, its vulnerabilities, its strained internal situation, its divisions, the presence and influence of economic interests in the country closely bound to Russia, intelligence services, the Black Sea fleet in Crimea, and so on and so forth. If some people imagine that from the day the Association Agreement is signed, Ukraine’s position becomes progressively more secure and better, they might have a very rude shock.


Behind Russia’s seeming desperation to keep its “near abroad” out of the EU’s orbit, certain things have been assumed, including a squishy imperialism and the need for a reliable gas market and a security buffer zone.


But if you’ve never really thought that told the whole story, Sherr offers another analysis. If Russians and Ukrainians are essentially the same people, as he says most Russians believe, then any genuinely liberalizing trend in Ukraine would start to raise some pretty uncomfortable questions for its eastern neighbor.


“If Ukraine actually succeeded in adopting according to a completely different European conception in the 21st-century sense of that – the sense of the EU-based norms, standards, system of governance, system of law, business culture, and all the rest of it – this would have to raise the most radical and fundamental questions inside Russia itself about why Russia should not be doing the same,” Sherr told the magazine.


In the end, though, the Kremlin needn’t worry too much if Sherr is right. He says the clique that runs Ukraine has no intention of conforming to those EU norms, however many reform-ish sounding laws it may pass. In fact, Sherr argues, signing up Ukraine now could be a blunder for Brussels, as the expected reforms don’t materialize and nothing gets much better for ordinary Ukrainians – who then could become disgusted with the whole project, as many of them did with the mess that their elites served up as democracy over the past decade.


But with Vladimir Putin aiming to launch the Eurasian Union in 2015, it wouldn’t be surprising if officials in Moscow and Brussels felt themselves in a race to secure Ukraine’s commitment first – a race that neither side thinks it can bow out of.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor.
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