Ukraine's crisis is as much an internal battle between competing identities as an external geopolitical struggle between integration and exclusion from the Western project
Accusations by the Russian government that Western officials are deliberately stirring unrest in Ukraine are highly ironic. Indeed, it can be argued that having failed to address Ukraine's brewing domestic and international problems for so many years, European and American leaders are now witnessing the results of their strategic short-sightedness. Ukraine's crisis is as much an internal battle between competing identities as an external geopolitical struggle between integration and exclusion from the Western project.
It has been clear since its inception after the 2010 presidential elections that the Viktor Yanukovych regime has no long-term strategic vision for Ukraine. It operates through short-term tactical maneuvers to maintain power and privilege, gain international funding, and avoid deciding where the country belongs –whether in Europe or in Russia's Eurasia. The EU has been complicit in this confusing charade and perversely welcomed a Yanukovych presidency primarily because it undermined Ukraine's Western aspirations. Few West European political leaders have supported the prospect of either EU or NATO accession for a state that is widely perceived as backward and whose impoverished citizens would allegedly flood the EU if the country were ever to gain membership.
Neither the EU nor the U.S. effectively condemned or sanctioned the abuse of power by Yanukovych and his "Family" business since the presidential ballot and such hesitation contributed to legitimizing the regime. Foreign policy realists would argue that the EU in particular had limited instruments in influencing Ukrainian politics given that the Union is preoccupied with its internal economic and financial difficulties, remains opposed to any further enlargement eastward, dispenses with limited assistance funds, and is hamstrung by a lack of foreign policy consensus. In sum, any expressions of EU concern about violations of human rights, pervasive official corruption, and politically motivated investigations against opposition leaders were simply insufficient to prevent the emergence of a quasi-authoritarian system of government in Ukraine.
Cynics can even argue that requests by EU negotiators for the release of Yulia Tymoshenko before any agreements could be signed with the Union were deliberately intended to keep Ukraine at arms length despite the promises of free trade and association. Officials in Brussels were well aware that Yanukovych would be adamant against releasing his main political opponent, and besides, many believed that Tymoshenko herself was guilty of corruption regardless of the selective justice of the current administration. Ultimately, Ukraine’s political system could simply not be synchronized with the EU model of liberal governance and the rule of law. The failure to sign the trade pact and Association Agreement with Kyiv was therefore greeted in some EU capitals either with indifference or satisfaction.
Well ahead of the Vilnius Summit at the end of November, those EU foreign ministers who had dealt most intensely with Kyiv were well aware that Yanukovych would not sign the EU documents. This was primarily because of the adverse impact such a deal would have on relations with Moscow, which threatened to engineer Ukraine’s economic collapse and even warned about territorial partition if Kyiv turned westward.
Warsaw and Stockholm also understood that a number of key EU states, such as Germany and France, were unwilling to alter their positions and offer immediate substantial funding to Kyiv. Poland's Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski expressed his frustration with both sides on the eve of the Vilnius Summit. Ukraine's EU supporters had insufficient leverage to help the country, as older members were unwilling to release financial rescue packages claiming exhaustion following the rescue of several Mediterranean member states. Meanwhile, Moscow was offering significant short-term financial benefits, even if these were a trap to lure Ukraine back under a Russian roof.
Several insiders, including former Party of Regions’ luminaries such as David Zhvaniya (Ukrainian politician and businessman – Ed.), who helped lead efforts to prepare Ukraine for deeper EU cooperation, accused Yanukovych of double-dealing and outright deception. The EU was evidently duped by Yanukovych’s willingness to discuss the proposed accords until the eve of the Vilnius summit. His real objective may have been to raise the price that Russia would need to pay to maintain Ukraine within its strategic orbit.
Despite these accusations, government spokesmen contend that Yanukovych wanted to sign the EU agreement and forge closer links, but became dismayed by the limited short-term benefits that were on offer. Brussels apparently failed to acknowledge the scale of the financial difficulties faced by Kyiv, such as having to cover foreign debt payments of USD 8bn in 2014. The country has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy because of its stuttering reforms and failed economic policies. Moscow contributed to the severe financial crunch by blocking exports of Ukrainian products and warning that Ukraine’s Russian market would collapse if it signed the EU accords.
Yanukovych estimated that he needed USD 160bn over three years to make up for the trade Ukraine stood to lose with Russia, and to help cushion the pain of reforms that the EU was demanding. Union officials refused to provide such a sum, which theyclaimed was exaggerated. Instead, they offered EUR 610mn (USD 839mn) in the near term and asserted that the agreement would boost trade and investments and open up future financing programs. Some even estimated that Kyiv would have been in line to receive EUR 19bn in EU loans and grants over the next seven years, but no definite commitments were issued to this effect.
Kyiv may still be under the impression that it can negotiate with the EU on gaining more extensive funding. Premier Mykola Azarov has even stated that the Association Agreement could be signed if Ukraine is offered a mechanism to compensate for estimated financial losses stemming from a Russian embargo. In reality, the moment of EU association has already passed, at least for the current administration.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle suggested after Yanukovych's U-turn at Vilnius that the bloc should have offered Ukraine future membership, similarly to the mechanism employed toward the Western Balkan states. This may have convinced Kyiv to sign the initial agreements. At present, Ukraine has no prospect of EU entry, as the road to integration remains blocked by several important member states.
Critics argue that the EU has evolved into an elite club that does not consider current aspirants as trustworthy Europeans. Consistent delays in granting candidate status and accession talks by the EU Council are even evident in the case of countries such as Albania. This is despite the 2004 Thessaloniki Summit commitments to Western Balkan integration and the positive recent recommendations of the European Commission. Such persistent blockages demonstrate that a number of EU capitals will staunchly resist any further enlargement and capitalize on the anti-immigrant and racist fears of many EU citizens.
Yanukovych's alternative hope for large-scale financing was the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which rescued Ukraine during the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008 with a USD 16.5bn loan. It also approved a USD 15.5bn stand-by program for Kyiv in 2010, disbursing about USD 3.5bn, before freezing the program in 2011 because Ukraine failed to meet its obligations. The IMF’s program has since expired.
The IMF was unwilling to consider any substantial loans for the current administration. In a letter dated November 20, it bluntly told Ukrainian officials that it would not soften conditions for a new loan, in terms of necessary government spending cuts, and that it would offer only USD 5bn. In addition, Kyiv would have to pay back almost the same amount in 2014 as part of repayments for the earlier IMF loan. Yanukovych saw no benefit in such an arrangement and was certainly not prepared to cut government spending, increase the retirement age, and freeze pensions and wages, as this would undoubtedlycost him re-election in 2015.
Ignoring Ukraine's Independence
The same countries that remain skeptical about Ukraine’s EU integration also opposed granting a Membership Action Plan (MAP) on route to future NATO membership. They breathed a collective sigh of relief when shortly after his election Yanukovych opted for Ukraine’s "non-bloc status." As a by-product of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy toward Moscow, Washington also discarded the George W. Bush campaign to enlarge NATO eastward and secure the post-Soviet neighborhood within Western structures. This left Ukraine even more exposed and vulnerable to Moscow’s integrationist pressures. Western withdrawal is perceived as weakness in the Kremlin which simply encourages Russia’s imperial reconstruction.
Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia are not priority interests for the current American administration, whether in terms of democratic development, national sovereignty, or their strategic location. The focus has been on establishing a working relationship with Russia in such spheres as arms control, counter-proliferation, anti-terrorism, and the Middle East, even at the cost of neglecting aspiring European allies. Not surprisingly, the Ukraine-U.S. Strategic Partnership has little gravity in the Obama White House; it has also been undermined by the Yanukovych administration. It was based on the assumption that Kyiv would strengthen its democracy and the rule of law, while more effectively preparing the country for eventual NATO accession in line with the final declaration at NATO’s Bucharest Summit in April 2008.
However, the “common values and interests” that the EP envisaged has largely evaporated. The Yanukovych government’s “values” have not embraceddemocratic development, while its strategic interests have diverged from the Euro-Atlantic path. It makes it more difficult for the U.S. or any other country to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty if the government has chosen to expose itself more extensively to Russia’s pressure tactics because of its alienation from the West.
Nevertheless, a more realistic and assertive approach toward Putin's Russia could have been developed in Washington and Brussels in challenging Moscow's claims to regional supremacy. This would have necessitated four main ingredients: a unified EU position in dealing with Moscow; close coordination between Brussels and Washington in devising their Russia policy; a commitment to eastern enlargement; and sufficient economic and diplomatic capabilities to dissuade Russia from cajoling its neighbors. All four elements proved inadequate, as the EU operated on the assumption that Russia was a pragmatic business partner and the U.S. viewed Moscow as a useful and cooperative global player. Russia's reimperialization either went undetected or was cynically ignored for the sake of other global interests.
Neither the EU nor the U.S. have elaborated a strategy on how to counteract Russian pressure on the post-Soviet countries. America’s withdrawal from Europe’s east during the Obama presidency and the lack of a common European voice in relations with Russia create new opportunities for Putin's Eurasian integration plans. His return to power in May 2012 re-energized the Kremlin’s expansionist agenda and he has consistently disregarded any protests by the EU capitals. The EU’s Ukraine initiative under the Eastern Partnership (EP) program, scheduled to be sealed in Vilnius, was at best a half-hearted response to Kremlin ambitions. Its failure will rebound negatively on the security of nearby EU members, such as Poland and the Baltic countries. In sum, by neglecting Ukraine’s independence and that of other post-Soviet states, the EU has undermined its own long-term strategic interests.
Yanukovych struck a deal with Putin on December 17 for a significant Russian bailout. Moscow will reportedly invest USD 15bn in Ukraine's national debt by purchasing government Eurobonds; the first tranche of USD 3bn has already been transferred to the National Bank of Ukraine. Moscow will also reduce by about a third the price that Naftogaz, Ukraine's national energy company, pays for Russian natural gas. In total, the Russian loan will prevent Kyiv from defaulting on its debt, the energy deal will help the country survive the winter, while the Russian market will remain open. It is not certain what Yanukovych agreed to provide Russia in return for its financial support. But he may have to surrender control over Ukraine's gas pipeline network and bequeath other assets to Putin’s oligarchs.
There are suspicions that American diplomats knew about the secret negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian officials that resulted in the December 17 agreements; and they did not protest or intervene. Indeed, some of Obama’s advisors may welcome a stronger Russian oversight over Ukraine that would be less politically and financially burdensome for the West. “Ukraine fatigue” in the White House and State Department plays into Russia’s hands. Such a shortsighted approach fails to comprehend that instead of stabilizing Ukraine, Moscow’s heavy-handed integrationist pressures could have catastrophic consequences for Ukraine’s internal stability and for regional security.
Step by step the Yanukovych administration is capitulating to Moscow and assuming the role of a “younger brother.”Putin’s two emissaries in Kyiv, Viktor Medvedchuk and Andriy Kliuyev, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, have grown in influence as Yanukovych’s advisors. Meanwhile, Premier Azarov has meekly indicated that under Moscow's guidance, Ukraine is proposing to hold trilateral talks with the EU with Russia’s participation. Azarov noted that during a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on December 24 the Russian side confirmed its readiness to take part in such negotiations.The offer is a classic example of political theater designed to lull Brussels into a false sense of security. It is supposed to convey the message that Moscow does not threaten the “European project” because Ukraine has not discounted a future association agreement.
Without more extensive support from Western governments and institutions, pro-European mass protests in Ukraine will fizzle out. This could significantly weaken the political opposition and bolster Yanukovych’s intent to consolidate a quasi-authoritarian system based more closely on the Putin and Lukashenka models. However, as the government continues to surrender Ukraine’s sovereignty to an ambitious and increasingly arrogant Russia, the end of peaceful protests in Kyiv may also herald the first stirrings of a violent alternative.
Janusz Bugajski is senior associate in the Europe Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He has served as a consultant for various U.S. organisations and government agencies and testifies regularly before the U.S. Congress. He chairs the South-Central Europe area studies program at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State. Bugajski is a regular contributor to various U.S. and European newspapers and journals. His recent books include Conflict Zones: North Caucasus and Western Balkans Compared (February 2014); America’s New European Allies (2009); Expanding Eurasia: Russia’s European Ambitions (2008); Atlantic Bridges: America’s New European Allies, with Ilona Teleki (2007), Cold Peace: Russia’s New Imperialism (2004), and Political Parties of Eastern Europe: A Guide to Politics in the Post-Communist Era (2002)