Anne Applebaum
Columnist November 28, 2013

This week, Ukrainians learned that their country really does lie on a fault line between two civilizations. This does not mean they are enduring a “clash of civilizations” or a religious conflict of the sort once famously predicted by Samuel Huntington: Ukraine is more correctly described as a country lying between the civilization of institutions and of the rule of law, as epitomized by the European Union; and the civilization of arbitrary rule, as embodied by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Nor is their conflict really a “clash” or a battle in any traditional sense. Although the European Union’s foreign ministers do sometimes jointly deploy military force after long and complex deliberations, that’s rare and unusual. And although the union is very rich — taken as a whole, it’s the largest economy in the world — rules and procedures governits cash, which can’t be distributed on short notice, and its use of trade boycotts.

Anne Applebaum writes a biweekly foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. She is also the Director of the Global Transitions Program at the Legatum Institute in London. View Archive

In other words, the European Union can’t offer the most enticing sort of carrot when it is creating a relationship with a neighbor, and it can’t proffer an impressive stick. Instead, it can propose a mild, undramatic association agreement, designed to promote wider contact and trade. The president of Estonia tells me that his country’s own association agreement, signed in 1995, was so mild that it had little immediate impact. The only real change became visible years later. At first, thousands of Estonians were suddenly able to study at European universities. Those who did so are now the leaders of a far more prosperous country.

For five years, the European Union has been negotiating a similar pact with Ukraine. This agreement contains clauses on copyrights, the registration of patents, the resolution of trade disputes. It notes that the word “champagne” is restricted to beverages produced in the region of Champagne. Overall, it is remarkably boring, for the rule of law is invariably boring in its search to avoid dispute.

In the run-up to what was to be the final signing ceremony in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week, the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, decided he nevertheless prefers drama. Last week, he abruptly suspended all association-agreement negotiations. Many have mistakenly concluded that this is because the European Union asked Yanukovych to release Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, his primary political opponent, from prison. In fact, Tymoshenko herself asked that her fate not affect the final outcome.

Instead, Yanukovych abandoned five years of negotiations following a meeting with Putin, a politician who is playing a different game, according to a different set of rules. Unlike the European Union, Putin has sticks: He has imposed a trade boycott since August. Unlike the European Union, Putin offers carrots: He has hinted at lower gas prices, and maybe other things. Unlike the European Union, he can alter his policy abruptly: Although he tacitly consented to this negotiation process a few years ago, Putin has instead concluded that a Ukrainian-E.U. treaty is a humiliation for Russia and a personal loss of face. He might also perceive an economic and ideological threat: A Ukraine governed by the rule of law would be a tougher market for Russian companies desiring to be treated above the law. A Ukraine ruled by institutions instead of personalities might also seem an appealing alternative for disgruntled Russians.

Following that meeting with Putin, Ukraine shifted tactics. Yanukovych began fishing for nonexistent European carrots. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov demanded a better deal from the International Monetary Fund, another organization that has rules, procedures and managing directors who cannot help but observe Ukraine’s stubborn failure to carry out the most rudimentary reforms. On Wednesday, Yanukovych also demanded, in effect, 160 billion euros from the European Union. Ominously, he used the language of personal affront. The European Union, he said, had “humiliated” Ukraine with its pathetic offer: “We are a serious country.

The trouble is, that’s not how a serious country negotiates with an organization of 28 members whose bureaucrats care deeply about mutually acceptable copyright regulation. Perhaps the European Union should learn to play more aggressively, to wage its own trade wars against Putin. Perhaps Ukraine’s dramatic about-face — which follows a similarly abrupt Armenian change of heart — will force E.U. leaders to learn new tactics. But right now it can’t and they won’t.

The tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have taken to the streets of Kiev in protest against their president’s decision clearly do understand the benefits of a dull trade agreement with the European Union. They are profound and long-term. They involve slow changes rather than cash on the table. Unfortunately, these European Ukrainians find themselves led by politicians who don’t understand the nature of the E.U. civilization — or whose personal and financial stakes in the current system are so great that they don’t want to try.

Read more from Anne Applebaum’s archive, follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her updates on Facebook.