Will the 'European Dream' of Ukraine ever come true?

Public opinion in Europe supports the fight of Ukrainians against Russia. The EU reluctantly offered a protracted path to membership. The Ukrainian political analyst Mykola Riabchuk explains why Ukraine is a European country, and has always been. Now this has become a matter of bare survival against an agressive imperialist neighbour. 

oekraine cartoon ijsschotsRussian ship with war-sign Z hits the Ukrainian iceberg (cartoon on twitter)

by Mykola Riabchuk

The two-day summit of EU leaders earlier this month did not make headlines in Ukrainian media, as they featured, at the meantime, more urgent and burning news. But it was closely followed by the Ukrainian officials who submitted the application for Ukraine’s EU membership. Given the circumstances, they asked the EU to apply an abridged procedure, though the EU rules have nothing of the kind, so it is very unlikely that there will be consensus on this extraordinary request.

For twenty years the EU leaders habitually have reacted to Ukraine's membership claims by telling that they 'acknowledge its European aspirations and European choice'. That amounts to: 'give us your phone number, we’ll call you later'. This time something changed: the EU leaders did not dismiss Ukraine’s application at once but passed it on to the European Commission for 'its opinion' — a long process of scrutiny that may last for months, even years, before the country is officially recognized a candidate and can start membership talks. At the same time, they recognized unequivocally that 'Ukraine belongs to our European family'.

Sea-change in European rhetoric

For Ukrainians this might be obvious but for the EU it marks a sea-change in the official rhetoric. So far, not a single EU document dared to name Ukraine 'European'. Whimsical euphemisms were applied instead – like a 'neighboring country' or a 'partner state'. That huge was the fear that the sheer designating a country 'European' would give it a formal pretext to apply for membership.

The sad truth is that Ukraine has never been seen as a member of the 'European family' – with all the dramatic consequences of this (mis)perception. In 1917-1920, its 'non-existence' on the mental maps of the West Europeans killed the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, that was subsequently suppressed by the Bolsheviks. In the 1990s, it led to Ukraine's exclusion from the European project and its tacit banishment to the Russian 'sphere of influence'.

No Fast Track EU membership for Ukraine

President Zelensky got a standing ovation for his fight against Russia after his speech to the European Parliament, but his plea to offer Ukraine a fast track for membership of the EU fell on deaf ears. ‘There is no fast-track process’, said Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, while adding that the EU would continue deepening ties with Kyiv. ‘I want to focus on what can we do for Volodymyr Zelensky tonight, tomorrow, and EU accession of Ukraine is something for the long term – if at all’, he said.

Other member states also rejected the idea of a fast-track membership. French president Macron added that membership of the EU is not possible as long as a country is at war.  

The main if not only reason for Ukraine to be treated differently from similarly 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 EU and NATO as they didn't want to anger Moscow and challenge its neo-imperial claims to their so-called 'near abroad'.

The EU's lukewarm approach towards Ukraine’s 'European aspirations' outrightly contradicts Moscow's propagandistic claims about the sinister West that per force pulls Ukraine into its orbit. In fact, the Western states all along have been much more preoccupied with the Russian interests and 'concerns' than with those of all Russia’s neighbors taken together.

Russian mythology

This bias has deep historical roots that determined Ukraine’s protracted invisibility both on the mental maps and in the heavily mythologized versions of Russian imperial history. These narratives were constructed in as late as the 18th century – when Moscow Tsardom annexed the name of medieval 'Rus' and, by sheer semantic manipulation, swallowed a few centuries of the history of Kyiv Rus, the first state on Ukrainian territory.

This, in turn, facilitated its claims to the core lands of historical 'Rus' (today’s Belarus and Ukraine), at that time part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These imperial fantasies, promoted by Russian imperial institutions, soon got international credits as both the 'scientific truth' and common wisdom. In this narrative no space was left for a separate Ukrainian history, culture, and identity. Ukraine was basically downgraded to a sheer Russian region.

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

oekraine kyiv sofia kathedraalSofiya Cathedral in Kyiv (picture rights free)

Another side-effect of that historical mythmaking was a highly exaggerated notion of the Russian-Ukrainian affinity 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 brethren by perfidious foreigners. Fact is, however, that the Ukrainians in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had very limited if any contacts with Muscovites untill the end of the 17th century, and their culture, religion, political system at that time were as different as they are now. 

Within the next centuries, the biggest part of the Ukrainian lands was subjected to a brutal policy of Russification, eventually Sovietization. The result was that many people internalized this imperial mythology and fell prey to self-denial by viewing themselves as 'Little Russians' (Malorossy - the official name of Ukrainians in the Russian empire). This internalization, however, has never been all-encompassing nor unchallenged.

The repressive policy of the Russian empire, the ban on the 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.

Return to Europe

A 'return to Europe' by Ukrainian nation-builders was seen as a return to the norm, a reparation of historical injustice and perversion, a healing of a pathological development. This romantic approach was a natural consequence of modern Ukrainian nationalism which, emerging in the first half of the 19th century, had to emphasize Ukraine’s ‘otherness’ vis-à-vis Russia. In a sense, Ukrainian nationalists could be called 'Westernizers by default': even where 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.

Independent Ukraine that emerged in 1991 largely followed this path outlined by its historical founding fathers. All Ukrainian leaders, including the ill-fated Viktor Yanukovych, prioritized the pro-Western course, though with different commitment, coherence and competence. But the coveted 'return to Europe' was hampered by the high level of Sovietization of Ukrainian society. This resulted in slow, chaotic and inconsistent reforms, and a reluctance of the EU to treat Ukraine on a par with the similar weak democracies in the Balkans who received an incomparable level of encouragement and support.

The toxic myth that Ukraine allegedly was divided in a pro-Western versus a pro-Russian part contributed to the widespread confusion about its identity and geopolitical orientation.

oekraine kiev rus kaartProto-Ukrainian state of Kiev Rus with capital Kiev (older than Moscow)

In fact, the popular metaphor of the 'two Ukraines' represents not so much a geographical or political reality as a Weberian 'ideal type'. It helps to understand two forms of Ukrainian identity that are not antagonistic, though notably different. One, indeed, has always been explicitly and unequivocally 'pro-Western', while the other was neither clearly pro-Western nor pro-Russian. Rather, it was ambivalent; it represented an infantile type of consciousness that tried to combine incompatible values, norms and orientations – to get the best of both worlds, to eat its cake and have it. The Russian aggression in 2014 substantially undermined this last identity, and the invasion of 2022 dealt it a deadly blow. However, what both types of identity had in common, as became obvious after the Russian invasion, was Ukrainian civic patriotism that spectacularly united the country despite its multiple internal differences.

It took thirty years and two weeks and, worse, many thousands of Ukrainian lives to recognize that Ukraine is not just a 'partner' or 'neighboring state' of the EU but 'belongs to the European family'. This may eventually lead to the institutionalization of that belonging in the form the EU membership, as public opinion in Europe turned very favorable toward Ukraine. Or it may not – if Ukrainian application sinks in the depth of the EU bureaucratic machine, or if Ukraine will be wiped out from earth by a rogue ruthless neighbor waging the genocidal war against it, beyond any rules.

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

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