As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been maintaining more than two months of rallies braving freezing winter cold, fretting about the future of their country in a push-and-pull between Russia and the West, the politicians in Washington DC debate over how to protect post-soviet democracies from Kremlin’s near abroad imperial ambitions.
“One would hope that Russia is not seeking to be an Empire that according to its own constitution, is seeking to be a democracy…” Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, told in front of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, on Wednesday.
Washington believes that economically stable and prosperous Ukraine “should be no threat to Russia.” “This is not a zero sum game that we’re playing here…” she said arguing that in fact the same benefits that the EU was offering to Eastern Partnership (EP) countries – benefits of association, economic integration – are “also available to Russia.”
In the meantime, for many Washington analysts, the EP has been significantly undermined by some countries, like Ukraine or Azerbaijan that had less interest in speedy economic integration, which limited the scope for normative Europeanization.
On Ukraine, as Nuland put it, the fact that Russia had ability to bring Kiev under economic pressure was “very much a symptom of the fact that Kiev was so economically fragile”, with years of financial mismanagement and lack of willingness to fix the fundamental problems.
“We worked very intensively with Kiev to bring them back into the dialog with the IMF, they did make some initial efforts, but they were nowhere near in the kinds of intensive consultations that IMF would have needed to be supportive… IMF reform and EU association agreement needed to be hand to hand,” she explained.
Meantime, Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Thomas Melia told the senators that Washington is not going to pressure Ukraine to associate with the west, as the crisis should not be seen as a tug-of-war with Moscow.
“Russians may want to do that – it’s not our interest to do that… It’s not just east or west, us or them, this is about a completely different model: We provide all kinds of long-term opportunities for them, and Ukrainian government can either choose to be belayed by one of its neighbors, or to go through the open door to the west. That’s the choice that has been presented by the Ukrainian people.”
But veteran senators John McCain, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Robert Menendez shot back saying that the US “must be assisting, morally, the Ukrainian people.”
“This is about the country that wants to be European. They don’t want to be Russian... Russians have used energy, they’ve even cut of chocolate, and they’ve supported the corruption, which has ramped through Ukraine. Son of Ukrainian president, a dentist, leaves with a hundred millions of dollars. So what these all about is not like Ukrainian people will decide for themselves, this is about whether we will stand up for the Ukrainian people… They cry out for our assistance and our moral support in a struggle which is totally unfair…” McCain, who traveled to Kyiv in December to express support for the protesters, said.
For Menendez, Washington has “failed” to criticize Russia openly and strongly about its use of economic coercion.
Nuland disagrees, arguing that the administration has made “clear consistently, both publicly and privately, that the coercive actions of Russia, not only against Ukraine but also against Moldova and Georgia, are violations of many undertakings that they have made including Helsinki principles.”
“We will continue to be absolutely clear about that,” she emphasized.
While the lawmakers warned they may slap sanctions on Ukraine and impose visa bans on its leaders amid a crackdown on pro-Western demonstrators, Nuland said “all tools of government are on the table”, including sanctions.
But Menendez warned that the Senate committee, which he chairs, might not wait for the State Department to act first.
Addressing the testimony, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US National Security Adviser, made it clear that it’s important that people in the region feel that they’re not alone, so that support for Ukrainian aspirations is not a political warfare against Russia.
“What we see right now in Ukraine is a long delayed awakening, but it’s coming… Our admiration to the heroes of Maydan should be clear”
For Brzezinski, democratic and European Ukraine is what the Ukrainian people want and such Ukraine will “encourage Russia to become a post-imperial partner of the west as a whole.”
A Eurasian Union, such as the one that Putin aspires to create held together by pressure and motivates by nostalgia “is not a long-term solution for Russians own social-economic and geopolitical dilemmas,” Brzezinski said.
“Sooner or later current authoritarian state driven by imperial ambitious of Russia will fail.. Not only because Ukraine is hesitant and opposed, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan not eager to become again common flashed colonists.”
In the meantime, he emphasized, “Russia is changing too… I’m not sure everyone in Russia is crazy about creating a Union.”