The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement challenges Russia. Brussels and Kyiv must now summon a great deal of sensitivity, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.
The two sides had already reached this point about a year ago. The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was ready, waiting to be signed.
But at the last minute, Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych backpedalled. Moscow had threatened severe economic consequences should he actually sign, while simultaneously enticing him with a considerable loan for the heavily indebted country should he turn to Russia. That went down well with Yanukovych, but it angered his fellow countrymen and eventually, after weeks of protest, it cost him the presidency.
Free trade agreement in the works
Now his successor, Petro Poroshenko, has moved toward the EU, but he's caught in a similar bind both in his dealings with Moscow as well as domestically: In order to pacify Russia, Poroshenko asked the EU to postpone until early 2016 the implementation of the free trade agreement that is linked to the partnership pact. He hopes that in the meantime, relations with Russia might relax.
But this very postponement gives many Ukrainians the impression that their Western-oriented president has betrayed them; they may soon take to the streets in protest. But basically, the Ukrainian leadership has no choice. The country is in a sorry state economically. Russia could bring it to its knees at once. Add to that the military situation: the annexation of Crimea has shown that, given a convenient opportunity, Russia's President Vladimir Putin would not hesitate to appropriate foreign territory. Russian soldiers are already stationed in eastern Ukraine. So Ukraine's move toward the EU is literally taking place at the point of Russian weapons.
Give and take
Kyiv and Brussels will thus only be able to take careful, small steps towards each other. That could be enormously trying for the patience of the Ukrainian people. The EU's economic advantages are only noticeable in the long run, but Russian retribution has an immediate effect - that's part of the dilemma.
And for Brussels, it's not just give, but take, too: the EU demands reforms. Ukrainian agricultural subsidies and support for the archaic steel industry must be abolished in the long term. Western European competitors would enter the Ukrainian market, and they would push local companies out. Those may well be the usual adjustment processes that every country goes through when it moves closer to the EU, and wants to accede - but in the case of Ukraine, they are particularly explosive.
But this is the path most Ukrainians appear to prefer. And what is the alternative? Certainly not membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, at least not voluntarily. Within the union, Russia mainly operates with threats; Moscow can take back benefits it has granted at any time, it acts randomly and if need be, it takes what it wants - see Crimea. Paradise doesn't beckon in the EU, either, and certainly not right now, but at least the people have an idea of how moving closer to the European Union functions. Various EU politicians have said that if Ukraine had joined the EU in 2004, like several other former Soviet satellite states, they could now enjoy a standard of living like that in Poland. That wouldn't be bad at all.
Ukraine didn't join, however, and is unlikely to do so in the near future because that won't be an option alongside Putin's Russia. Can Russia dictate which alliances Ukraine seeks? No, of course not. However, only a fool would ignore the Russian factor. There's too much at stake.