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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shutting the Door on a Dead End

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The reshuffled Ukrainian government is at risk of getting torn both ways internationally. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is more anxious than ever for validation of his Western course by an EU membership offer, but this is nowhere in sight. Moscow is abuzz with talk of a swing back its way: Ukrainian party leaders, Orange as well as Blue, are competing for the pro-Russian vote and vying for Kremlin approval; the new prime minister, Yuriy Yekhanurov, was born in Russia and is inclined to reconcile. As Ukraine maneuvers between these two parameters, it may revert to lurching between West and East.

What is overlooked in the tug of war between the two sides is that Ukraine could stabilize its orientation between Moscow and Brussels if it shifted its hopes of joining Western international alliances upward, to the Atlantic level, where it has a real chance of getting in. This is because the Atlantic framework is much larger than the European Union; potentially it could subsume Ukraine's Eurasian ties as well as its European ties. And that is the one thing that could reconcile Ukraine's two necessary orientations, rather than merely balance them off against each other.

The one-sided pro-European dream is embodied in Oleh Rybachuk, Yushchenko's chief of staff. He is reputed to have said Ukraine would join the EU in five to seven years' time. It is reminiscent of what I heard in Ukraine in 1990, when an economist aligned with the independence movement told me Ukraine would join the European Community within five years.

EU membership is a fantasy doomed to failure, today as in 1990.

One might have thought the blows of the last year would have disabused Ukrainians of such expectations. The EU made clear repeatedly that it did not want Ukraine, no matter that Ukraine had just had a dramatic democratic revolution, or that polls showed Europeans overwhelmingly wanted Ukraine, and not Turkey, as a future member. This month, acting on old commitments, the EU began membership negotiations with Turkey that are to last a decade and keep any further applicants out in the cold.

Despite this, the Ukrainian leadership has continued its appeals, with a pathos that increasingly risks looking ridiculous. As long as EU membership is conceived as the goal of alignment with the West, the Yushchenko administration sees no alternative. This sets Ukraine up for another letdown by the West, similar to the one that led a decade ago to the two-faced regime of former President Leonid Kuchma.

If Yushchenko is wise, he will lead the democratic camp away from its EU chimera and nudge it toward a more sustainable pro-Western policy, building on the trans-Atlantic dimension of European civilization. This means transferring Ukraine's primary hopes from the "Little Europe" of the EU to the "Greater Europe" of NATO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Getting into the OECD entails a dual goal for Ukraine -- not just joining, but making more of the institution. Ukraine needs to achieve membership on non-utopian terms -- that is, reforms sufficient to meet baseline OECD standards. Yet, Ukraine also needs to support and encourage Western efforts at upgrading the OECD so it can supply the basic things previously hoped for from the EU. The target should be an intermediate level of integration -- more than the OECD provides now, but less than the EU. This would be a more realistic solution for Ukraine than EU membership, which would require mutual integration beyond the two sides'. There has been a lot of Western think tank discussion of deepening U.S.-EU relations into a common economic space. If done by signing a convention open to all OECD members and candidates, this could solve the problem for Ukraine as well as for some other countries, such as Turkey.

Ukraine's intimate interdependence with Russia gives it two further interests in OECD membership: getting Russia into the OECD as well on similarly fair terms, and forming an OECD subcommittee of former Soviet states to foster maintenance and renewal of their mutual economic links. Only in the OECD, with its Western leadership, could this renewal of regional links be carried out without fear of renewed Russian domination.

As a NATO member state, Ukraine must have a similar dual goal. Even former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said in January that Ukraine and Russia should join NATO together and "can never be members of different, let alone hostile, military blocs" because that would tear Ukraine apart. Thus, Ukraine needs NATO membership on relevant, not utopian terms. This means it needs help in meeting the terms, with waivers and considerations no less than those enjoyed by other East European states. Yet, Ukraine also needs the door to be kept open to Russian membership on similarly fair terms, and, meanwhile, for Russia-NATO links to be upgraded so the alliance is not seen as setting Ukraine against Russia. This requires further adaptation of NATO to new, post-Cold War tasks in which Russia is not viewed as an enemy and of non-zero-sum solutions to the base in Sevastopol, such as a joint NATO-Russia base. This in turn entails supporting Western efforts at reforming the alliance to manage the diversity of the new challenges, such as calls by the U.S. Senate and Pentagon for more flexible forms of NATO decision-making than consensus. And Ukraine will need a NATO subcommittee to sustain cooperation of its military industry with Russia's and to foster arms trade within NATO. The alternative is unilateral adaptation to NATO arms, which would mean further erosion of the East European arms industry.

As for the EU, Ukrainian leaders might do well to start thinking along these lines: They should say openly that they have put too much stock into EU accession and that Ukraine is not going to get in. The EU is drawing a hard line along its eastern borders. This line cannot be softened much by any external partnership, but only by adding a new layer of integration -- one that is big enough to include the countries on both sides of that line. Luckily, the trans-Atlantic institutions are big enough for this; all the post-Soviet countries could join them without upsetting the balance. This is not the case in the EU, where the balance is stretched to the limit. The Economist recently showed that only creation of second-class EU membership, with reduced voting powers, could give Ukraine a chance of fitting in without upsetting the balance, but even this option is being excluded as bad PR. This leaves Ukraine no choice but to transfer its primary focus to the trans-Atlantic level. There a Greater Europe already exists in embryo. Ukraine needs to make more of it.

It would be good to hear something similar from Brussels. As things stand, Ukraine's hopes are out to sea. The sooner Ukraine refocuses its aspirations on the trans-Atlantic level, where alone they can be anchored in this era, the safer it will be for all parties involved.

Ira Straus is U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, an independent nongovernmental international association that advances consideration of NATO expansion and transformation. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.