Why Are Europe and America Taking Opposite Approaches to Ukraine?

Progressive Policy Institute
6 min readFeb 5, 2024

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By Tamar Jacoby

A good movie director would use a split screen: on one side, Washington, D.C., bitterly divided and uncertain about continuing aid to Ukraine and, on the other, Brussels, where both the legislative and executive arms of the European Union (EU) are standing firm in their support for Ukraine. Last month, members of European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of €50 billion ($53.4 billion USD) in continued aid, and this week, the European Commission recommended that talks about Ukrainian membership in the EU should begin early next year.

Many Americans are skeptical of the EU and loath to admit it might know something we don’t know. Yet, Washington should take a page from Brussels’ book — not just its support of Ukraine’s fight to defeat Russian aggression, but also its understanding of what’s at stake for Europe — and the U.S. — as Ukraine evolves toward a fully democratic market economy aligned with the West.

Ukraine’s long, hard road toward joining the EU began in earnest exactly 10 years ago, in autumn 2013, when a million people took to the streets to support the Maidan Revolution. Crowds brandished EU flags and hand-printed signs declaring, “We are Europe,” “We choose Europe, not Russia.” Then, in early 2014, 100 protesters died in brutal street clashes defending Western values against pro-Russian militants. That year, Russia invaded and annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

Ukraine had been independent from the Soviet Union since 1991, but in 2014 it wasn’t ready to join the EU. A significant share of the population and the ruling elite were still pro-Russian. Corruption inherited from the Soviet era still crippled the economy, and old Soviet habits of mind still seemed to hinder a full flowering of democracy. Citizens resented state authority, but they expected the state to have its hand in virtually every aspect of public life, from running the nation’s industries to managing their apartment buildings.

By the time Russia invaded again in 2022, this old, post-Soviet version of Ukraine was close to extinction. Much of the economy was in private hands. Ten years of hard-fought reform had noticeably beaten back corruption and strengthened the rule of law. Democracy was flourishing, including at the local level, where town councils, building co-ops and a vibrant web of civil society organizations had taken over decisions once made by Soviet authorities.

There is still much work to be done to fully privatize the economy and eliminate corruption. But membership in the EU remains an emblem of everything Ukrainians want for their country, and public support for joining Europe now appears inseparable from the determination to expel Russian fighters. It’s no accident that one of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s first acts as a wartime leader — on Feb. 28, 2022, just four days after Russian tanks rolled across the border toward Kyiv — was to file a formal application for EU membership.

Today, as in the past decade, most Europeans understand this struggle better than Americans. Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans, are more skeptical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and more likely to see Moscow as a critical threat. Brussels also has a better understanding of what’s needed to support Ukraine as it evolves toward a fully Western democracy. In the past decade, the EU has made a series of demands — conditions for continued aid and progress toward membership — encouraging and incentivizing a wide range of reforms in Kyiv.

Observers once questioned how serious Brussels was about admitting Ukraine even if it met all the requirements — by the time of the Maidan Revolution, the EU seemed skeptical of admitting any new members. Yet, the 2022 Russian invasion was a bruising wake-up call, and in the past two years, Brussels has shown a new resolve, doubling down on its efforts to encourage Ukraine to root out corruption and strengthen the rule of law.

This week’s recommendations mark the latest step in that effort. In June 2022, when the EU granted Ukraine what it called “conditional candidate status,” Brussels set forth seven demands that Kyiv is required to meet to begin accession talks. All seven were detailed and precise, designed to help Kyiv continue the progress made since Maidan on curbing corruption, reforming the judiciary, ensuring the integrity of the constitutional court, eliminating money laundering, taming the power of the oligarchs, ensuring the independence of the media, as well as protecting the rights of national minorities.

This week’s European Commission report found that Ukraine was 90% of the way toward fulfilling these conditions, completing four and just steps away from meeting the other three.

It’s still a steep climb to EU membership. Ukraine must still fully satisfy the last three requirements. The union’s 27 member states must ratify the executive arm’s recommendation to begin negotiations. Then, with talks will come scores of additional, even more precise conditions for strengthening democracy and modernizing the economy.

It could take as long as a decade for Ukraine to meet these standards, and that external process will need to be accompanied by internal EU reforms — sweeping changes to the bloc’s budget and the way it makes decisions needed to accommodate enlargement. Despite all of the work ahead, this week’s recommendation was a huge boost for morale in Ukraine, where the military counteroffensive has stalled, and civilians are preparing for another harsh winter of Russian attacks on the energy grid.

The lessons for the U.S. are both tactical and strategic. Some opponents of U.S. support may argue that Ukraine is hopelessly, intrinsically corrupt and that providing aid is throwing money into a bottomless bit. Others want to fund only weaponry, not humanitarian aid or financial support. Still, others maintain that Russia is not a critical threat to the West or that the U.S. needn’t care if Ukraine is prosperous or democratic. Remember, when campaigning for the Senate, now-Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) infamously remarked just days before the Russian invasion: “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”

The EU approach and its track record offer answers to all these objections.

Brussels understands Ukrainian corruption: It’s not intrinsic, it was learned — a toxic legacy of the Soviet era that can and is being unlearned. What was brilliant about the EU’s seven conditions is that policymakers identified the most critical reforms already underway in Ukraine and pinpointed the precise steps needed to bring them to fruition. The required changes were difficult but doable, and the impact has been game-changing — huge steps toward transparency and the rule of law achieved under the most exacting wartime conditions.

Can Washington match what Brussels has done? The EU doesn’t flinch from conditioning aid on reform — and Ukrainian reform advocates welcome the pressure. Yet, Europe’s conditions have been plausible, not punitive or designed to restrict the flow of funds, and together, they have created a much-valued roadmap for domestic activists.

Europe also understands — in a way many Americans don’t — why the war in Ukraine matters for the West. What’s at stake isn’t just a military victory over Russia, essential as that is. For both idealistic and hard-headed geostrategic reasons, America and Europe need Ukraine to continue the progress it began at Maidan — progress toward an independent, democratic, fully Western nation.

Just imagine the alternative: a weak, impoverished, only nominally democratic state, geopolitically unmoored and corrupt, on the border between Europe and an aggressive, expansionist Russia. Surely, both Democrats and Republicans can see that’s not in America’s best interest, right?

Tamar Jacoby is the Kyiv-based director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s New Ukraine Project. A former journalist and author, she was a senior writer and justice editor at Newsweek, as well as the deputy editor of the New York Times op-ed page. She is the author of “Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration” and “Displaced: The Ukrainian Refugee Experience.”

This story originally ran in The Messenger on November 11, 2023.

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