But what Ukraine needs is for both Russia and Europe to play a supportive role, writes Alan Philps
Even as the situation worsens, the West won’t touch Ukraine
Ukraine means “borderland” – an apt name for a country that sits on the dividing line between Russia and Central Europe. The people of the west of Ukraine look towards Roman Catholic Poland and to the heart of the European Union. In the east, the people follow the Eastern Orthodox rite of Christianity; their factories and steel mills are focused mainly on the Russian market.
After nearly three months of anti-government protests, the country is going through its most violent phase since independence from Moscow. There is speculation that Ukraine may split, with Russian armed forces marching in to annexe the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country. The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, told his parliament: “We may be witnessing the first hours of civil war.”
With more than two dozen dead and the centre of the capital, Kiev, turned into a battle zone, his prediction does not sound too outlandish. As the city burns, commentators are already drawing conclusions about Washington’s declining global reach and the enfeeblement of the European project.
While there are elements of truth in these interpretations, they mislead as much as they enlighten. Ukraine is not like the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, an uneasy patchwork of small nations with all too recent memories of killing each other in the Second World War. Nor is it Czechoslovakia, a federation of two nations – the Czechs and Slovaks – which came to an amicable split in 1993 after emerging from Soviet control.
The Ukrainians have their differences, but they have no armed ethnic or sectarian militias nor are there serious calls for separatism. (There is, however, among the protesters a thuggish far-right element.) After more than two decades of independence, the Ukrainians want to make a go of their country. Things would have to get a whole lot worse for the Russian-speakers in Ukraine to want to be annexed to provincial Russia. Despite being a minority, they are numerous enough to play a key role in the politics and economy of Ukraine.
As for the global power play, this is more subtle than usually portrayed. The protesters demanding the resignation of President Victor Yanukovych have elevated Europe into a symbol of clean government, the opposite of the thieving crony capitalism which has taken root in Ukraine. The focus of the anti-government protests has been dubbed Euro-Maidan (“Euro-Square”). Their love of symbolic Europe, however, is not reciprocated in Brussels.
Membership of the European Union has never been on offer to the Ukrainians, only an Association Agreement, which involves some painful modernisation of the economy in exchange for free trade. In December, Mr Yanukovych rejected the Brussels offer in favour of a Russian promise to cut gas prices and help with Ukraine’s debts.
Russia’s triumph in the tug-of-war over Ukraine should not have come as a surprise.
The truth is that the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, needs Ukraine much more than the Europeans will ever do. Ukraine, with its 45 million people, is the cornerstone of Mr Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union, the signature policy of his current term which aims to create a free-trade area linking Russia with the former Soviet states. Without Ukraine, it would be stillborn. He has put billions of dollars on the table to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence, sums which crisis-hit EU states do not have to offer. And even if they did have that kind of money, they shied away from a bidding war over Mr Yanukovych’s favours. Cash has a way of disappearing in Ukraine.
As the protests grew more violent, the EU’s response has plumbed the depths of flaccidity. Member states could not agree on what to do. So it was not surprising that Washington’s top diplomat in Europe, Victoria Nuland, dismissed the EU with a four-letter expletive, as revealed in a bugged telephone call gleefully leaked by the Russians.
Ms Nuland’s robust judgement is a fair one. But what about the Americans themselves? The truth is that Ukraine has never been a high priority for US diplomacy. As a country that cannot make up its mind – Mr Yanukovych won the presidency in a fraudulent election in 2004, was forced out of office by the “Orange Revolution” street protests, and then re-elected fairly in 2010 – Ukraine is not seen as a reliable ally. The only reason to back Ukraine would be to spite Mr Putin. But is that a serious foreign policy option?
In US eyes, Russia has two forms of global leverage – its veto in the UN Security Council, which it is exploiting to the hilt in the Syrian conflict, and its energy wealth, particularly its gas exports which allow it to turn the lights off in Ukraine at will.
But Russia’s energy experts are likely to reduce in importance thanks to the shale gas revolution which will unlock cheaper sources of gas over time. As Russia is seen in Washington as a power which is more likely to decline than rise, the US does not need to expend resources just for the pleasure of putting a spoke in the wheels of Mr Putin’s wagon.
The conflict in Ukraine has now gone beyond the question of whether it faces east or west. It is a grudge match between Mr Yanukovych, who is determined to stay, and the protesters, who insist on him leaving. The outside powers are unlikely to play the decisive role.
Perhaps more important are the wealthy businessmen associated with the president who control the economy and much of the parliament. If they can agree that their interests lie in Mr Yanukovych going, then he will. As one of the protesters has put it: “They want to buy property in London, not Almaty, and spend weekends in Sardinia, not in Minsk.”
So some targeted sanctions may have some effect. But ultimately what Ukraine needs is for both Russia and Europe to play a supportive role. The winner takes all approach has exacerbated the tensions in society. Ukraine is not a prize for one side or the other. It will always have a foot on each camp.
On Twitter: @aphilps