Ukraine should be one of the most hopeful countries in Europe. It has the location, the transportation links, the farmland and factories and the eager population to become a post-Communist success story on the scale of its booming neighbour Poland.
Yet Ukraine is, as everyone can now see, a disaster. And, in good part, it is a disaster because Western governments allowed it to become one. The violence that has consumed the country emerges not from dissatisfaction with a leader – Ukrainians have endured a great many terrible leaders, and this is not a democracy protest – but from the country's failure to end its crippling isolation from the world's largest economy, the 28-nation bloc located across its high-security western border.
Ukraine's prospects for improvement have been frozen for a decade – its companies unable to trade easily across that border, its people unable to seek work freely outside, its small businesses locked out of easy finance, its big businesses dependent on Russian petroleum exports, its institutions stuck in the past with little incentive for reform.
That isolation, and its crippling effects on life, is the source of the anger that has exploded in cities across Ukraine, has forced the Prime Minister to resign and has created a crisis that increasingly resembles a civil war. Who is to blame? At first glance, President Viktor Yanukovych, for quashing an Association Agreement with the European Union – a trade pact with a pathway to EU membership – in November. At second glance, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, for demanding that Mr. Yanukovych choose between open borders with Europe or trade with Russia and its ex-satellites.
But on a larger level, it was the West that dropped the ball on Ukraine.
To understand the opportunity lost, look to the southwest. Serbia, a decade ago, was also about to be lost to Europe. Its protest movements had pulled it away from the ethno-nationalist demagoguery of Slobodan Milosevic, but Serbia was teetering on the edge of extremism. Its population and leaders leaned heavily toward Moscow – not just out of Slavic unity, but also because the 1999 NATO bombing and the humiliation of defeat were fresh in every Serb's mind. Extremist forces in the military had just assassinated the prime minister. The economy, employment and the rule of law were all but absent.
What turned Serbia into a normal country was the carrot of European Union membership. It was offered, continually, over a decade, and became a key political issue in every election. First offering visas and more open borders, then normal banking and economic relations, and then, in January, signing onto a full path to membership (which its neighbour Croatia earned last year), this ever-growing attachment had dramatic effects: The country reformed its institutions, its courts and police, its economy. Formerly extremist leaders, including the current President and the leader of the governing party, embraced Europe, apologized for past atrocities, purged and prosecuted long-sheltered warlords, abandoned Serbia's confrontation over Kosovo (even signing an astonishing treaty to normalize the breakaway state last year), and "Europeanized" the economy and government to the point that long-suffering Serbs have reason to hope for Western-level living standards now.
At the same time, a decade ago, Ukraine had its own democracy revolution – one that soon went sour. But, perhaps because Ukraine did not seem then to be a Serbia-style threat to peace, Europe was slow to step in. It did not help that NATO at the same time, in 2004, made the unwise move of attempting (then abandoning) an expansion into Ukraine, which had the political effect of turning any European gesture there into a seeming threat to Russia.
Europe put Ukraine on the backburner – in part out of fear of confronting Moscow, in part because membership priority went to Bulgaria and Romania, but also because Western leaders failed to recognize the importance. The EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, which was negotiated in 2012 and was the major source of hope for Ukrainians until it was abandoned by Mr. Yanukovych in December, was largely the pet project of two ambitious foreign ministers: Carl Bildt of Sweden and Radek Sikorski of Poland. Germany's Angela Merkel was lukewarm; France and Britain mostly silent. It was the right deal, but too late.
At a moment when people are cynical about international organizations, we should remember how important they can be in turning failed countries into normal places. By leaving Ukraine out of the club for too long, Europe may have triggered an explosion.