KIEV — In 1993, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed that "the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations." His theory that the world was divided into potentially warring civilizations — and later, his book on the topic — have been denounced by legions of critics, mainly on the liberal side. But it had and has retained one group of unlikely fans: Russian nationalists.
They saw in his definition of "Slavic-Orthodox culture" (including much of the former Soviet Union and reaching deep into East-Central Europe) a confirmation, albeit from a surprising quarter, of their own view of the world. That is, that Russia is and must remain the central and organizing power of a collection of states that history, religion and culture had predisposed to unity, and to a distinctly separate identity from a West that would devour them behind a front of "spreading democracy."
President Vladimir Putin of Russia is an ardent Huntington-ite. His much quoted view that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century signaled a deeply felt loss of a world in which Russia ruled not so much by force but by cultural and political leadership. In such a view, the nations that comprise that civilization are less important than the civilization itself. For a Slavic-Orthodox state to shift to the West would not be a choice, but a betrayal of the bloc's essence.
In a few weeks, the state that lives on the fault line between Huntington's Western and Slavic civilizations will have to make what James Sherr, one of its foremost Western observers, calls "a civilizational choice." Sherr writes that the European Union is about to offer Ukraine an Association Agreement and trade pact that will "provide tangible mechanisms of integration with the EU" — an open invitation to shift the core of Ukraine's statehood to the West.
There is another offer on the table, from the east. Russia has constructed a Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) that takes in Belarus to its west and Kazakhstan to its south. The ECU is said to be both rules-based and relatively efficient, "harmonized with international norms and the World Trade Organization regime." Russia is not just inviting Ukraine to join the ECU — it is seeking to frighten it into it, instituting the beginnings of a trade embargo to show what might happen on a bigger scale if its offer were spurned, and threatening higher prices for the gas it supplies to its neighbor.
At a meeting in Yalta in the south of Ukraine last month, the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said that "Ukraine is on the final lap (to associating with the EU)…we've done it, so can you." But later, Sergei Glaziev, President Putin's economic adviser, mocked both Ukraine and the EU's move, asking its representatives if it really wanted to take a "nearly bankrupt country" under its already damaged wings.
Ukraine is surely in a poor state. Part of that is due to the Russian trade embargo, and part due to the slow motion closure or shrinkage of Soviet-era industrial behemoths that have pushed up unemployment. It's also an issue that a regime, known as "The Family," headed by President Viktor Yanukovych, has allied itself to a select group of oligarchs whose businesses are protected by the government. It preys upon the small and medium-sized enterprises that are made offers they cannot refuse — sell (at low prices) or be destroyed. In conversations with young Ukrainian journalists these past few days, I met a wall of cynicism about the future of a country so ill-governed. Mykhailo Minakov, a political scientist at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and president of the Foundation for Good Politics, told me that some 30,000 scholars and post-graduates were leaving the country each year — a huge number for a medium-sized (46 million-person) state.
Yanukovych, whose presidential bid was enthusiastically supported by Putin, has broken with his Russian counterpart and now presents himself as more and more of a Westerner. The EU deal could give him access to IMF and other funding that he will badly need, and would, at least publicly, treat him with greater courtesy than the evident contempt, or patronizing "friendship," that he gets from the Russian leadership. The Association Agreement doesn't give the EU rights to interfere in Ukraine's governance, so "The Family" can remain, at least at first, largely undisturbed. The Ukrainian president is even said to be ready to bow to EU pressure to free Yulia Tymoshenko, his rival in the 2010 presidential election whom he jailed for "abuse of power" — so long as she leaves the country and doesn't challenge him again.
But the "civilizational choice" will be a momentous one. It will likely prompt a furious response from Russia, who will see it not just as treachery but an intrusion of the West into its territory. It will force Ukraine's economy to modernize — rapidly — so that its goods can meet technical and safety standards, which are constantly upgraded by international agreements. It will force a deep reconstruction of education in the country, which has since the collapse of the Soviet Union lost many of the better facets of its pedagogy — disciplined, if rote-like, study — and built too little of value to take its place. It will hasten the closure of the corporate behemoths and shine a harsher light on the activities of "The Family" and its allies.
All these are enough to give Yanukovych's hand pause if he is offered an agreement in a few weeks time. And not just his: the EU itself may balk at the last moment. Its members are not all delighted with the prospect of taking on a "bankrupt country" — Glaziev was harsh, but not wrong. Polish, Swedish and German diplomats have wooed Ukraine westwards; but the southern European states are less certain that they want to live with an even more hostile Russia than the one they have already.
Choices like this, which lay the technocratic details of trade on top of centuries of religious allegiances, wars, massacres and political turbulence, are dizzyingly hard to make. The effects are likely to be ambiguous for decades, as politicians and others seek to moderate and even deny the consequences of their actions. But if the relevant leaders' pens scratch their signatures across the paper on which the treaties are set out, a major state will move into the West's sphere of influence. Reduced to a zero-sum game of Europe's favorite sport, the Westerners will have won against the Slavic-Orthodox, 1:0.