Ukraine’s “European Dream”

Ukrainian political scientist analyzes Europe’s attitude towards Ukraine. Despite the historical vocation of Ukraine to be part of the European family, the EU has always been reluctant to accept Ukraine’s membership for fear of the Russian reaction. After the Russian aggression that has already caused thousands of civilian and military casualties, the European Commission is giving first signs of its willingness to accept Ukraine into the EU.

During a brief visit to Kyiv last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen handed a questionnaire to the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, an initial step in the long and painstaking EU accession process that may last years or even decades. But for Ukraine, this has a highly symbolical meaning insofar as all its past requests were routinely dismissed with a polite “acknowledgment of Ukraine’s European aspirations and the European choice.” In other words, “give us your phone number, we’ll call you later.”

The real meaning of this gesture has been revealed in less formal statements by many EU officials. Suffice to mention Romano Prodi’s notorious remark that Ukraine “has as much reason to be in the EU as New Zealand” (because New Zealanders, in his words, also have a European identity). Or, even more scornful, Günter Verheugen’s quip that “anybody who thinks Ukraine should be taken into the EU should perhaps come along with the argument that Mexico should be taken into the U.S.” This poured cold water on the hopes of many Ukrainians who overwhelmingly, under all governments, have supported EU accession. Especially those who stood with blue EU flags in Maidan under police batons and snipers’ bullets in 2014, and who have cherished the fact that they “belong to Europe” as a key element of their Ukrainian identity.

The March 10-11 EU leaders’ summit at Versailles that lifted the unspoken ban on Ukraine’s application, marked a sea change in the EU’s attitude toward the country. For the first time it stated clearly that “Ukraine belongs to our European family” — something that not a single official EU document had dared to say. Such was the fear that simply calling a country “European” would give it a formal pretext to apply for EU membership, that only whimsical euphemisms like “neighboring country” or “partner state” were applied to define its geographic location.

For many years Ukraine was unheard and invisible. As a colony it could not have any agency, it was the empire that spoke and acted on its behalf. It was the empire that produced the lion’s share of international knowledge about its subjects, and firmly established that knowledge in both academia and pop culture as scholarly “truth” and common wisdom. In 1917-1920, Ukraine’s non-existence on the mental maps of West Europeans cost the life of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic subjugated by the Bolsheviks. And seven decades later, in the 1990s, it meant that newly-independent Ukraine was excluded from the European project and tacitly relegated to the Russian sphere of influence.

The main, if not only, reason for Ukraine to be treated differently from similar, fledgling democracies in the Balkans, was that the latter — thanks to Tito, Hoxha and Ceaușescu — ceased to be viewed as a legitimate part of the “Russian world.” Ukraine, however, was toxic for both the EU and NATO as they did not wish to irritate Moscow and challenge its neo-imperial claims to the “near abroad.” Their lukewarm approach toward Ukraine’s “European aspirations” fundamentally contradicts, inter alia, Moscow’s propagandistic claims about the sinister West that forcibly pulled Ukraine into its orbit. In fact, Western states were much more preoccupied with Russian interests and “concerns” than with the interests and concerns of Russia’s neighbors.

The Russian “imperial knowledge” that gained international currency as impartial and scientifically verified truth, permeated the Western consciousness and largely determined Ukraine’s protracted invisibility both on the mental (“philosophic”) maps and in the heavily mythologized versions of Russian imperial history. Those versions were invented as late as the 18th century, when the Muscovite Tsardom adopted the name of medieval Rus and, by sheer semantic manipulation, appropriated a few centuries of Rus history. This, in turn, facilitated its claims to the core lands of historical Rus (today’s Belarus and Ukraine) that belonged at the time to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. No room was left in this narrative for a distinct Ukrainian history, culture, and identity downgraded to sheer Russian regionalism.

The “imperial knowledge” survived the collapse of the Soviet Union but was challenged and gradually eroded by new facts and developments. In Putin’s Russia, however, it was retrieved, revitalized and upgraded to the status of state ideology. Putin’s 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” manifested both the high ideological significance of that myth and Putin’s personal obsession with Ukraine as its centerpiece. Ukraine was seen as a part of Russian identity, so its takeover was not (only) a matter of re-establishing the empire but (primarily) of recovering Russia’s incomplete “self”. All other factors that are often invoked to explain Russian aggression are complementary but not decisive.

Another side effect of that historical mythmaking was the highly exaggerated notion of Russian-Ukrainian affinity being treated as something primordial rather than socially constructed. This went hand in hand with persistent attempts to misrepresent Ukraine’s Western orientation as something artificial, imposed on the poor Slavonic brothers by perfidious foreigners. The fact is, however, that Ukrainians in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had very limited, if any, contacts with Muscovites till the end of the 17th century, and their cultures, religions, and political systems differed as much at the time as they do today.

Over the following centuries, the bulk of Ukrainian land was exposed to the brutal policy of Russification and, later, Sovietization, so that quite a few people internalized the imperial mythology and self-deprecating view of themselves as “Little Russians” (Malorossy, the official name of Ukrainians in the Russian empire). This internalization, however, was never complete or unchallenged. The repressive policies of the Russian empire, the ban on Ukrainian language, and the denial of Ukrainian identity left Ukrainian nation builders little choice but to look for political support in the West and promote an alternative, pro-Western cultural self-identification.

In the hot days of 1918, prominent Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, who headed at the time the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, published a cycle of political pamphlets under the characteristic title: “On the Threshold of the New Ukraine.” There, he tried to outline the basic principles and parameters upon which the nascent Ukrainian state should be built. He covered the army, culture, and government bureaucracy, as well as the various aspects of Ukraine’s international politics, quintessentially defined in the title of one of his essays as “Our Western Orientation.”

As a professional historian, he could easily prove that, for centuries, “Ukraine had been living the same life as the West, experiencing the same ideas and borrowing cultural models and resources for its own culture building.” Yet, he also knew that since the end of the 18th century Ukrainian contacts with the West “had weakened and declined under the pressure of forceful Russification of Ukrainian life; and Ukrainian life and culture had been drawn into a Russian, Greater Russian, period.” As a result, “19th-century Ukraine was torn from the West, from Europe, and turned to the North, pushed forcefully into the deadlock-grip of Great Russian [imperial] culture and life. All Ukrainian life was uprooted from its natural environment, from the historically and geographically determined way of development, and thrown onto Russian soil, for destruction and pillage.”

“A return to Europe,” therefore, was seen by a leading Ukrainian nation builder as a return to the norm, the fixing of historical injustice and perversion, the healing of a developmental pathology. Such a romantic approach evolved naturally from modern Ukrainian nationalism which, from its emergence in the first half of the 19th century, had to emphasize Ukraine’s “otherness” vis-à-vis Russia. This meant, in particular, that Ukrainian activists not just praised Ukraine’s alleged “Europeanness” as opposed to the Russian staunch anti-Westernism; they had also to accept the whole set of Western liberal democratic values as presumably “natural” and “organic” for Ukrainians (yet “unnatural” for the arguably “Asiatic” Russians). In a sense, they could be called “Westernizers by default”: even if they felt uncomfortable with Western norms, they had to accept them at least at the normative level. And political culture — rather than language, ethnicity or religion — remained the most striking and meaningful difference between the two nations.

The independent Ukraine that emerged in 1991 largely followed the path outlined by Hrushevsky who had professed a “return to Europe.” All Ukrainian leaders, including the ill-fated Viktor Yanukovych, prioritized the pro-Western course, though with varying degrees of commitment, coherence and competence. It was an allegedly “pro-Russian” president Leonid Kuchma who, in 1998, signed a decree “On Reaffirming the Strategy of Ukraine’s Integration into the European Union” and, five years later, signed the law “On the Fundamentals of Ukraine’s National Security.” Article 6 of that law stated that Ukraine “strives for integration into the European political, economic and legal space with the goal of membership in the European Union, as well as into the Euro-Atlantic security space with the goal of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” Remarkably, Kuchma’s prime minister at the time was former Donetsk Governor Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually himself, as president, mused on the Association Agreement with the EU and shelved the idea only after strong pressure was exerted by Moscow (that provoked mass protests and ultimately Yanukovych’s downfall).

The coveted “return to Europe” was hampered, however, by a high level of Sovietization of Ukrainian society, slow, chaotic and inconsistent reforms, and EU reluctance to treat Ukraine on a par with similar, weak democracies in the Balkans who received an incomparable amount of encouragement and support. The toxic myth of a divided Ukraine contributed to widespread confusion about Ukraine’s identity and geopolitical orientations.

As an author who has written extensively on the “two Ukraines” I am well aware how easily the metaphor can be simplified and trivialized — exactly like the proverbial “end of history” or “clash of civilizations.” In fact, “two Ukraines” are not geographic or political entities but, rather, Weberian “ideal types” that help to understand two modes of Ukrainian identity that are not antagonistic, though notably different. One, indeed, is explicitly and unequivocally “pro-Western”, while the other is neither clearly pro-Western nor pro-Russian. Rather, it is ambivalent; it represents an infantile type of consciousness that tries to combine incompatible values, norms and orientations — to get the best of both worlds, to have its cake and eat it. Russia’s 2014 aggression substantially undermined this type of identity, and 2022 dealt it a deadly blow. What was common, however, to both types of identity, and came to the fore after the Russian invasion, was Ukrainian local, grass-root patriotism that acquired increasingly civic forms and spectacularly united the nation despite its multiple internal differences.

It took thirty years and two weeks and, worse, many thousands of Ukrainian lives to recognize (on March 10-11) that Ukraine is not just a “partner” or “neighboring state” of the EU but that it “belongs to the European family.” This is likely to lead to the eventual institutionalization of that belonging in the form of EU membership, insofar as public opinion in Europe has turned very favorable toward Ukraine. One may only hope that Ukraine’s application will not sink into the depth of the EU bureaucratic machine or, even worse, that Ukraine will not be wiped out from the surface of the Earth by its rogue genocidal neighbor.

In any case, Ukraine got a symbolic signal that may encourage its heroic defenders and enhance their resilience — if it is not too late.

Mykola Ryabchuk is a research director at the Institute of Political and Nationality Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and a lecturer at the University of Warsaw. He has written extensively on civil society, nation-state building, national identity, and post-communist transition. One of his books has been translated into French: De la 'Petite-Russie' à l'Ukraine, published in Paris by L'Harmattan in 2003.

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