Not since the end of the Cold War has there been so much media and political conformity on an international issue as there is over the Ukraine crisis. The story we are presented with is this: In the years following the end of the Cold War, Ukraine has been struggling to be free of Moscow’s yoke and to join the European Union. Thus when President Viktor Yanukovich (a Moscow stooge) rejected the EU Association Treaty in November 2013, the country’s pro-democratic forces could stand it no longer and they launched a struggle for the heart and soul of Ukraine. The current crisis, we have been told, is all about Ukraine attempting to make an historic break from Moscow’s clutches.
To say that Western coverage of the Ukraine crisis has been light on facts and heavy on anti-Russian propaganda does not begin to do justice to the extraordinary levels of misinformation. In fact, the reality of the history of the relationship between Ukraine and the EU is almost the exact opposite to the claims being made in the mainstream media. Far from Ukraine being at the centre of a battle between West and East, actually the EU has consistently rejected Ukraine’s requests for membership. In place of membership, the EU has attempted to manage its relationship with Ukraine through various agreements and frameworks, all of which have been premised upon the refusal of the EU to accept Ukraine as a member. Most recently, the relationship has been managed through the European Neighbourhood Programme (ENP)/Eastern Partnership (EP) Programme. It was Ukraine’s rejection of an EP association agreement (which had been negotiated over several years and again was explicitly not a stepping stone to EU membership) that sparked the current crisis.
Ukraine was the first former Soviet Bloc state to sign a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PAC) with the EU in 1994 (though it was not ratified until 1998). In 1998, Leonid Kuchma, who was then president of Ukraine, formally stated that Ukraine sought EU membership. The context for this request was the beginning of the accession process for the ‘Luxembourg Six’, the first wave of candidate countries agreed at the 1997 Luxembourg European Council: Poland, Hungary, Cyprus, Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech Republic. In 1999, the EU announced another wave of candidate countries and opened accession negotiations in 2000 with Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Malta. Ukraine’s aspirations for membership were rejected, but the EU formally welcomed Ukraine’s ‘European choice’ .
In 2002, the EU launched the New Neighbours Initiative (NNI), aimed at states that would become neighbours of EU states following the 2004 expansion. The NNI was aimed at Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. It was explicitly not a pre-membership programme. Concerns that the NNI was too exclusive, pushing aside Russia, led to it being rebranded the Wider Europe Initiative. By putting Ukraine back in the same ‘wider’ fold as Russia, the EU was again dashing Ukrainian hopes for membership. The launch of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in 2004 did little to appease Ukrainian desires for EU membership - instead, to much political chagrin in Ukraine, it lumped Ukraine with states such as Syria, Jordan and Algeria, which clearly would never be considered for membership of a European institution.
Then came the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, in which the EU actively participated, playing a key role in the negotiations between the rival politicians Kuchma, Yushchenko and Yanukovich. Even after this ‘revolution’, which some observers framed as a fight by Ukraine to join the EU, the European Commissioner for the ENP, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, was adamant that Ukraine should not be given membership. The EU did, however, sign an EU-Ukraine Action Plan, but this was once again explicitly not a path to membership. The Eastern Partnership (EP) was launched by the EU in 2009 as part of the broader ENP. The EP was also not a serious stepping stone to membership, and once again Ukraine took umbrage at the countries it was now being lumped with, which included Georgia and Armenia.