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9 December, 2015

Neither Friend nor Foe Who Saved Europe

It may take two generations of Ukrainians to rebuild and reorient the country, yet Ukraine won the historic and epic battle for the future

Immediately after Russia stepped in Syria, we understood that it is time to sum up the convoluted and long story about Ukraine and the EU – a story of pride and prejudice which has a chance to become a story of a new vision regained after self-inflicted blindness.

Ukraine was and continues to be perceived by the EU political class as a sort of grey zone with its immense potential and possibilities for the future, yet deeply embedded and trapped in No Man’s Land with all of its troubled past, post-Soviet traumas, ambiguities, insecurities, corruption, social divisions, and despair. Why worry for what has yet to emerge as a new actor of world history in terms of nation-building, European identity, and deeper commitments to transparency and free market economy?

Right? Wrong. No matter how troubled Ukraine’s economic and political reality could be, the country has already passed the point of no return. Even if Vladimir Putin retains his leverage of power to blackmail Ukraine and the West in terms of Ukraine’s zero chances to accede to NATO due to the problems of territorial integrity, occupation and annexation of Crimea, and mayhem or a frozen conflict in the Donbas region, Ukraine will never return to Russia’s zone of influence. It could be deprived of the chances to join NATO or the EU in the coming years or decades, yet there are no forces on earth to make present Ukraine part of the Eurasia project fostered by Putin.

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It may take two generations of Ukrainians to rebuild and reorient the country, yet Ukraine won the historic and epic battle for the future. Ukraine has done something that is still difficult for us to assess; we need more time and academic detachment to realize that what happened before our eyes was a miracle of this heroic and fearless nation abandoned by the EU.

It is true that US President Barack Obama reacted to the war that Russia waged on Ukraine invading and annexing Crimea, and then destabilizing the Donbas with a proxy war supported by the Russian army. It is equally true that so did the EU, thanks to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. We have to agree that whereas the former President of the USA George W. Bush was stronger than his successor in terms of saber rattling (especially during the Russian-Georgian war), he has never come even closer to the sanctions for Russia, something that was achieved almost unanimously by the USA and the EU. Yet, the feeling “yes but” is still there…

The legendary Russian singer-songwriter, poet and actor Vladimir Vysotsky wrote a song for the 1967 film Vertical called “Song of a Friend,” which became the song for soulful young Soviets who could play a few chords on an acoustic guitar (Imagine a Russian “Blowin’ in the Wind”). The opening lyrics, in my rough translation, go something like this:


If your friend turned out not to be one

Neither friend nor foe but something in between

If you are unable to determine if he is a good man or a bad man

Take a risk, bring the man to the mountains and you will see who he is


These lyrics often came back to me as I tried to rethink the attitude of the West to Ukraine. Neither friend nor foe but something in between. A vague actor of modern history quite convenient for a variety of the orientalism-based discourse with its clichés and propensity to othering deeply entrenched in theWest, yet this time not with its former colonies but with Eastern Europe, a poor cousin with who you can do and talk prose.

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Whatever the case, this kind of warned-out discourse is harmful for the West as it betrays self-inflicted moral and political blindness. Ukraine is critically important for the West and for the EU in particular. Without any romantic and sentimental approach, I have to stress the following. Firstly, it is deadly serious to put it black on white that Ukraine’s resistance to Russia in the Donbas region stopped the war in Europe. Even if Putin decides to step back in Ukraine after his new geopolitical adventure in the Middle East, Ukraine will not be the same. Russia would risk a difficult and dangerous war, which would destabilize Russia itself in the long run.

Secondly, if it had not been so tough in Ukraine, Putin may have been tempted to provoke NATO by destabilizing Latvia or Estonia. Any provocation in the Baltics would have brought us quite close to a military conflict between NATO and Russia with all consequences that we could possibly imagine.We in the Baltics owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ukraine for stopping war at our gate.

Therefore, Ukraine saved the EU from potential destabilization, far more dangerous and explosive than the refugee crisis, which is something difficult and challenging, yet which is heaven on earth compared to what Ukraine has been through. Last but not least, Ukraine with its talents, potential, idealism, and lack of cynicism so strong in the EU political classes, can save the EU as a project. Ukraine and the EU have to save each other from becoming a failed project. 

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