Europe is watching the events unfolding in Ukraine with a mixture of hope, foreboding and weary cynicism. The crowds who have occupied Maidan for almost a month have inspired Western leaders with their commitment to democracy and their demands for closer ties to Europe. Western politicians have praised their courage and expressed outrage over the use of force against demonstrators as well as Moscow’s blatant attempt to blackmail the Ukrainian government. But at the same time many officials in the European Union know that Moscow sees the stalled EU-Ukraine agreement as a direct challenge to President Putin. And they have little doubt that Russia would not only be prepared to use force to support President Yanukovych but would relish an open confrontation with the West over his pro-Moscow policies.
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For many people in the West, however, the barricades on the streets of Kiev are very much déjà vu. The confrontation looks much like a re-run of the Orange Revolution of 2004 – only this time there seem to be no credible opposition leaders, no clear strategy by the demonstrators and no easy solution to Ukraine’s long-term problem of national cohesion and identity. For this reason, the hopes that democracy will triumph and that the Yanukovych government will be forced out of power are tempered by concern that opposition politicians have proved themselves weak, factional and incapable of dealing with powerful oligarchs and the entrenched culture of corruption.
Western leaders were astonished by Yanukovych’s last-minute decision to reject the EU Association Agreement. They believed that, despite pressure from Moscow, he was not ready to block all the long-term economic benefits the agreement offered. But the West was not prepared to keep quiet about Ukraine’s poor human rights record or drop its demand that Yulia Tymoshenko should be released. Yanukovych’s abrupt and discourteous decision not to attend the EU summit meant that Western leaders understood the brutal pressure Moscow was putting on his government. But his own subsequent behaviour in sending in police to beat and arrest the Maidan protesters meant that he then forfeited any hope of reopening talks with Brussels. No one in the West now trusts his word or is ready to offer him a second chance.
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Nevertheless, the EU has been active in trying to find a compromise. Abandoning Ukraine to the Russians would be seen in the West as a betrayal of promises to help the former Soviet republics to embed democracy in their political culture. Europe therefore sent top officials to Kiev to try to persuade Yanukovych to open talks with the opposition and curb his police. The fact that he actually ordered a new crackdown on the demonstrators while the EU delegation was in Kiev was seen as a snub and led John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, to express his “disgust” – strong words from a Western politician.
But there are limits to the support the West is ready to give to the opposition. It cannot be seen to interfere openly in Ukraine’s affairs. It has learnt, from bitter past experience in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, that promising to support anti-Russian protests but not giving any practical assistance is the worst of all options. It is better not to promise more than Western governments and public opinion are ready to deliver. And the brutal truth is that public opinion in many Western countries cares little for Ukraine – and certainly not enough to risk an open confrontation with Moscow.
The second dilemma for the West is that it still needs to maintain workable relations with the Kremlin. Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and without Russian co-operation it will become very difficult to do anything to end the fighting in Syria or ease the crisis in the Middle East. But Putin is a prickly partner, deeply suspicious of Western intentions. His thinking has been moulded by the Cold War and his service in the KGB. And for him and his generation, as he freely admitted, the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest tragedies of history. His policy has always been to try to bring former Soviet republics back into Russia’s orbit. This is the main reason for Moscow pushing ahead with the expansion of the three-nation Eurasian customs union. Ukraine is crucial to such a policy, and any Western attempt to lure Ukraine closer to the EU instead would be seen by Putin as a challenge to one of his most fundamental policies.
For this reason, Western leaders have been hesitant about promising support for the demonstrators – beyond saluting their courage and determination. This is especially true of a country such as Britain, which is just beginning to improve links with Moscow after six years of extremely poor relations following the assassination of the Russian former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has said little about Ukraine. He is still hoping that Britain can benefit from more trade with Russia and persuade Moscow to take a leading role in setting up a peace conference in Geneva on Syria.
The media in Britain have been much more outspoken. The Times called in a recent editorial on Yanukovych to resign, saying that his rule had been characterised by the misuse of power, gross economic mismanagement and interference by Russia. The Economist said Mr Yanukovych’s choice of force was a moral defeat, which made his distance from mainstream Ukrainians clearer. “Even as it repudiates Mr Yanukovych, the EU must make it clear that, under a better government, Ukrainians’ hope of joining the European family can eventually be realised,” the influential weekly magazine said.
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Marina Lewycka, a successful British novelist of Ukrainian origin, wrote in The Guardian that after the Orange Revolution, the opposition proved a big disappointment in government, and that Ukrainian nationalists had now “whipped themselves into a frenzy of anti-Russian sentiment”. But she said the young people protesting in the square rejected the game of political tit-for-tat. For them, she said, the EU represented modernity, transparency in political life, an escape from the stifling embrace of the past and freedom from Russia’s zone of power. Young Ukrainians saw themselves as part of the global community of youth. But she asked: “Is the EU ready for them?” She feared that Europe’s politicians in fact were closer in style than they realised to Yanukovych and Tymoshenko.
Her answer underlines the hard facts about the West’s reaction. It may sympathise with the protesters. But Ukraine has a long history of political crisis and government corruption that has made many Western investors hesitant to invest. The country has received less help and investment per head than most other former Soviet republics. There is talk now of imposing EU sanctions on the Yanukovych government. But Western leaders believe he may fall from power before that is necessary. The big worry is that whoever takes over, Ukraine will continue to be caught between Russia and the EU, and the country will remain internally divided and without strong leadership. That would never make it an easy partner for a European Union Association Agreement.