The Ukrainian government’s dramatic refusal last November to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union is often ascribed in the West to Moscow’s meddling. First, the reasoning goes, Russia showed Ukraine the stick of the economic cost of Western integration; then, it offered it the carrot of a financial package, to forestall Kiev’s likely default and to inject cash into a range of Ukrainian industries of importance to Russia.

On closer inspection, however, it was Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich who made the crucial decision. In doing so, Yanukovich was primarily motivated by the considerations of his own political survival and the safeguarding of the wealth amassed by his own family and principal backers. The socio-economic consequences of association with the EU would have threatened Yanukovich’s reelection.

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. He had been with the center since its inception. He also chaired the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.
More >

Yet Russia’s role in Ukraine-related issues is huge, and needs to be understood by the European Union and the United States.

Since formally returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin has revised a few fundamentals of Moscow’s foreign policy. Russia’s top priority is now constructing a Eurasian union of the former Soviet states. Relations with the EU are now viewed as more transactional, more competitive, and burdened by a value gap which has only grown wider, as the Russian leadership openly embraced conservatism.

For the Kremlin, the European Union is no longer either a mentor or a model, or even a privileged partner. The “Greater Europe” which Putin still occasionally refers to is a binary construct composed of two co-equal parts: the EU and the emerging Eurasian Union. When Putin talks about Russia as belonging to a distinct civilization, with an Eastern Orthodox/Slavic core, which is different from Western/Central Europe, he sees Ukraine as part of that world. To him, Ukrainians and Russians are one people, and Ukraine is not so much “ours” as “us”.

Putin’s Eurasian Union megaproject is designed to be a key part of Russia’s new national idea. This is not a re-incarnation of the Soviet Union or of the czarist empire. Russia has neither the will nor the resources to impose itself on its former borderlands. The new states, for their part, have no desire to give up their independence to the former hegemon. Yet, there are real economic interests that make integration in Central Eurasia worthwhile. So far, the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia has been voluntary and generally beneficial to all its participants. However, it does not create the critical market mass needed to compete effectively with the two other big players in Greater Eurasia: the EU in the west and China in the east. Ukraine’s accession to the process would significantly improve the balance.

Late last year, it was striking to hear Russian officials, from Putin to Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, discuss in detail the calamitous consequences, for Ukraine’s economy and people, of its joining in a deep free trade area with the EU. They were also the ones who bemoaned loudly the deep involvement of European politicians and US officials in the Kiev Maidan stand-off. The impression was that, apart from the obvious goal of seeking to influence the Ukrainian public, the Russian leader and his associates were actually expressing their own concern for a country which they do not consider fully foreign, or irretrievably lost. And then they backed up their emotions with some real money.

In December 2013, the Russian government stepped forward to bail out Ukraine with its $15 billion assistance package. This gave Viktor Yanukovich a breathing space as Ukraine faced an otherwise very likely default, but created a dependency on Moscow. By the same token, Moscow has tied its policy more closely to President Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions. Russia’s stake in the future of Ukraine has grown, but its room for maneuver within Ukraine has narrowed.

At the same time, the more sanctions warnings the Ukrainian authorities receive from the United States and Europe, the more they are pushed toward Russia. The battle lines in Ukraine have been drawn, and the two sides’ foreign backers have aligned themselves behind them.

2014 will be a trying year for Ukraine. The opposition is challenging the government directly, while Viktor Yanukovich is resolved to remain in power at all cost, so a showdown is unavoidable. Beneath the issue of Ukraine’s geoeconomic and geopolitical orientation there is a deeper issue of Ukraine’s own political and economic structure, and its national identity.

Russia’s biggest problem is that virtually the entire Ukrainian elite, including Yanukovich and his party, do not want real integration with Russia. Their idea of “Ukrainianness” is inimical to Putin’s notion of an Orthodox Slavic super-nation which embraces Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians. To restore the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine, Moscow would need a new elite in place in Ukraine, equipped with a new pan-Slavic/Eurasian idea.

This, of course, is a tall order. A move to bring Ukraine into an integration scheme with Russia, unless supported by a vast majority of the Ukrainian people, would backfire. It would lead to a waste of Russian resources, make Eurasian integration dysfunctional, and eventually likely result in Ukraine’s new painful break-up with Russia.

Fortunately, Russia’s future, or even its stature in the world, does not depend on whether Ukraine is integrated with it or not. Russia can be great – if it wishes and works hard for it – on its own. The issue is the nature, state and direction of the Russian economy and society, and the quality of the elites and the population at large.

Dealing with Ukraine is a test for Russia, but it is also a test for Europe and the United States. Russia’s and Europe’s stakes are particularly high. If the West, having been disappointed by Russia’s refusal to follow it, now starts looking at Russia as the new adversary, with Ukraine as a new East-West battleground, the situation will become dangerous. Similarly if Russia interferes directly and massively. Rather than promoting democracy or pan-Slavic unity, Moscow and the Western capitals, particularly Berlin, need to stay out of Ukraine as much as possible, while staying in touch with each other, controlling the risks for themselves and allowing the Ukrainian politico-economic factions and the Ukrainian people to define the country’s national identity. This will probably take some time.

This article originally appeared in The Security Times—a special edition of The Atlantic Times for the 50th Munich Security Conference.