Advantage, Putin

by Andrew Stuttaford

Soft power meets hard power. Loses.


Ukraine’s abrupt decision to return to Mother Russia’s bear hug after a flirtation with western Europe can be traced back to a secretive meeting of their two presidents two weeks ago. The country of 46 million, squeezed between the European Union and Russia, on Thursday froze plans to sign a trade pact with the EU which would have marked a historic shift away from its former Soviet masters in Moscow. Ukraine said on Friday the move was tactical and motivated only by economics. Russia denied using economic and political pressure to blackmail Ukraine into submission. But Russian government sources said President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision had become all but inevitable after a mysterious meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on November 9 about which almost nothing has been reported.

“It turned out beautifully – like stealing the bride at the altar,” an unnamed government official told the Russian business daily Vedomosti. “Everything changed after the meeting.”

…”We made clear to him that if he signs the agreement (with the EU), he will lose a lot immediately, that we will block Russian markets for Ukrainian goods, while the gains might not be there for years to come.”

But if he joins the Customs Union “he will have immediate advantages, including gas discounts,” the senior Russian government official said. Until the Moscow meeting – which Ukrainian media said went on until 5 a.m. – Yanukovich and his team had stuck, publicly at least, to their commitment to move their country out of Russia’s sphere towards the brave new world of Europe.

Preserving the status quo comes with quite a few advantages for the Yanukovich regime too, both in terms of its ability to maintain power and all, in Ukraine, that comes with that.

Back to Reuters:

An important aim for Yanukovich was to secure favourable economic and political conditions to weather economic troubles in the next two years and secure re-election in 2015. Moscow-based foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov estimated that he would need from $15 billion to $25 billion to cover outstanding sovereign debt payments, avoid a default and devaluation of the hryvnia currency, inject cash into the economy and ramp up social spending to keep voters happy.

The EU was unable to offer such financial backing, Frolov said. He added: “As someone from the EU observed, Brussels entered the knife-fight with a baguette.”

As Reuters notes (please read the full report) Ukraine may prove a tricky and expensive ‘bride’, but there is no doubt  that this is a major setback for the West, generally, and the EU specifically (anchoring large stretches of the post-Soviet world in the West has been one of the EU’s very real achievements).

And, most importantly of all, for the people of Ukraine it represents a significant turn for the worse.