Ever since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, the world has seen a power growing in size and belligerence. Countries that surround Russia prefer to maintain a degree of autonomy, just like all countries do. Some, like Ukraine and Armenia, prefer to move closer to Western powers.
Founding of the Eurasian Union
© AP/Scanpix

In Ukraine, the country seems split over the decision to move closer to two seemingly opposing supranational bodies: the European Union versus the Eurasian Union. Armenia has already joined the latter after pressure from Russia on the president proved too much to bear. But does this necessarily mean that joining the Eurasian Union, an economic and political union seen as a successor to the Soviet Union, ultimately results in the end of relations with the West? This is the question that is fundamentally dividing the political intelligentsia of these countries.

I would like to begin by expressing my own discontent with the Russian regime for its action in a sovereign, independent and autonomous state. Such territory-grabbing is characteristic of the 19th century and does not belong to our age. Ukraine and Ukrainians should be able to decide which supranational bodies they wish to join. While it is understandable that Russia resents NATO and EU expansion, it is incorrect for Russia to think it could bully a sovereign nation into its sphere of influence. Ukraine, too, must understand that its corrupt government basically gave the Russians the green-light to invade, given Russian expressed need to protect minorities. It certainly is a mess. All countries with Russian minorities must now correct any government inadequacies in this light, because it looks the Russians are coming. They are coming to protect their own so better shore up democracy. Don’t give Putin an excuse.

On October 10, Armenia joined the Eurasian Union, much to the surprise of Armenians themselves. Many critics argue that signing such a document has limited the ability of Armenia to plot its own destiny, that “…Yerevan will enjoy the trading preferences for only several years and will eventually have to adopt the EEU barriers to trade with the rest of the world and the European Union in particular. They point out that Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan account between them for less than 25 percent of Armenia’s overall foreign trade.”

OK, so what? Just because Russia can effectively dictate trade policy does not necessarily mean that Armenia will cease to exist as an independent nation. Armenia will still be able to conduct foreign policy and other relations. Tariffs to trade with other nations cannot increase, as this would violate the spirit of free trade and the WTO, of which Armenia is a member. Armenia will still be able to carry out cultural and language exchanges with Iran. Armenian communities around the world will still be able to visit their homeland. Armenia will continue to maintain good relations with the United States, housing its biggest embassy in the world to date. All is not lost and the same will be said of Ukraine.

The Armenian spirit is one known for the ability to play the field. These are survivors of the most terrible of times. Since 1991, Armenia has shown itself to be a savvy diplomat, engaging with countries that effectively hate one another: Russia, Iran and the United States. This will continue for Armenia; it has to for Armenia to survive a state still at war with a resource rich nation.

This can also be expected for Ukraine if they are forced to join the Eurasian Union. While many wanted to join the European Union, this is an impossibility for now given Russian reaction. The international system is not one which dictates right and wrong. The need for prestige drives great powers to behave in unjust ways. It becomes necessary for relatively weaker countries like Ukraine to accept certain realities. The reality of today is that Russia under Putin is making up for lost time.

In my estimation, joining the Eurasian Union does not necessarily mean an end to a state’s freedom to pursue outside relations. Countries that may face such a reality, like Ukraine, may have to eventually make this decision. Such declarations of being ready for Total War is unrealistic, emotional and silly. You can never be ready for Total War. Being realistic, Ukraine must recognize the situation with Russia is ripping it apart. Giving into Russian pressure must conjure up images of the past: the Soviet Union and even Tsarist Russia. Being denied sovereignty as a sovereign nation is honestly an unacceptable part of this entire ordeal and I sympathize with Ukrainians.

But here are the facts. First, Russia is actively invading sovereign Ukrainian territory. The first loss of territory has been the Crimea. Second, Russia is now poised to take large chunks of Ukrainian territory in its eastern rump. Russian armed vehicles, tanks and soldiers are now pouring into the separatist regions. Can the Ukrainians put up effective resistance? Sizing up military capabilities, Ukraine may not be able to carry out a long-term, drawn-out fight against Russia. Third, in more human terms, Ukrainians will face a cold winter given their dependence on Russian gas. Fourth, will the West come to the aid of Ukraine? As of today, the West is not legally obligated to intervene in this conflict; and they have not. Without this assistance, war cannot be a realistic strategy.

A policy of containment would be a more effective strategy against ever expanding Russia. Thus far, the Russian economy, its currency and reputation have all taken significant damage. A policy of containment which ensures Russia goes no further and assaults the economy, is the only way to curtail the power.

Combining these perspectives – that Ukrainian military action against Russia is foolhardy and that containment is a better policy – I submit that joining the Eurasian Union could be a way to satisfy the Russians, keep the country together and prevent Russia from taking Kiev. Joining the Eurasian Union will not mean suicide for Ukrainian nationalist identity. Life will go on as it will go on for Armenia.

If Ukraine joins the Eurasian Union, it would still be able to maintain relations with the West. The country will find a way to continue its own course using the tools of foreign policy and through civil society. Russia will continue to weaken economically as containment takes hold. With elections, citizens will hopefully choose another, more progressive leader who lives in the 21st century. Countries must continue to object Russian moves in Eastern Europe and to ensure that it does not gain any more footholds in other sovereign nations.

The key to any country’s success is the ability to adapt to the changing international environment. Only extremists think in absolutes. There is no reason whatsoever for Ukraine and Armenia to continue relations with any state in the international system. These countries will survive and thrive in the face of great power behavior.

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Hanna Samir Kassab is a part-time lecturer of international relations at the University of Miami and a Freedom House analyst.

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