While the rest of the world fixates on either Iran’s move to undercut its way to a North Korean–style victory in the just-signed P5+1 nuclear agreement or China’s attempts to establish a zone of control in the East China Sea, the implosion of Ukraine is getting barely any attention by geopolitical strategists. As Eastern Europe’s second-largest country, after Russia, its population of 47 million nearly the size of Spain’s, Ukraine’s fitful post–Cold War history has always been of crucial importance for the future of Europe as a whole. The struggle over whether Ukraine would embrace the liberal West or stay within the shadow of an increasingly authoritarian Russia was seen in part as a referendum on democracy in the former Soviet Bloc. Nearly a decade ago, the massive demonstrations known as the Orange Revolution denied current president Victor Yanukovich a fraud-tainted victory in his first run for office. When he took power after a second run in 2010, many worried that Yanukovich was too accommodating to Moscow.
Those fears may be proved right, after all. The often-overlooked struggle between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Europe’s liberal states for influence in Central and Eastern Europe has now resulted in the most serious Ukrainian crisis since the 2004 Orange Revolution. Buckling under to Putin’s relentless pressure, Yanukovich last week scrapped a free-trade negotiation with the European Union that was considered a central piece of the country’s larger turn toward the West. Over a week of protests in response have erupted, but the capital is currently besieged by hundreds of thousands of protesters, who are facing increasingly violent riot police. The very latest news says that Yanukovich is now reconsidering the trade pact, after all. This makes the situation even more volatile, yet moving in the right direction.
At least three quick observations come to mind while the clash plays out:
1. Ukrainians clearly want a more liberal society and ties to the rest of Europe. Yanukovich campaigned on closer ties to Europe, despite concerns over his weakness vis-á-vis Moscow, and his about-face is what has outraged protesters. This is a good sign, but it cannot be simply appreciated by the West. European governments need to do more to show solidarity with democratically-inclined Ukrainians and make this a defining issue for the future of liberalism in Europe.
2. Yanukovich blamed his rejection of the pact in part on what he claimed was the EU’s failure to promise enough aid to allow the country to break free from its dependence on trade with Russia. Whatever the truth, the EU has been caught short and given the impression that it is not serious about countering Russian attempts to recreate a sphere of influence. Beset by ongoing economic weakness, the EU is at risk of becoming even more geopolitically impotent, despite the continuing attraction of the Common Market and the willingness of smaller European nations even now to join the euro zone. A much bolder EU program of aid and democracy promotion is necessary to ensure that Eastern Europe doesn’t decide that accommodation with Moscow is their only real choice, as has been seen in Russia’s attempts to bully both Moldova and Georgia. If Yanukovich has changed his mind again, and is now moving back toward Europe, it is not because of what the EU has done, but rather, what his own people have insisted.
3. Vladimir Putin may still remain the most important player in this drama. If Ukraine successfully renegotiates the trade pact with the EU and the protests die down, Putin will have gravely overplayed his hand with his trade threats. On the other hand, if Yanukovich waffles, and/or the protests don’t die down, then Putin will be able to continue to exert influence, perhaps even by offering support to the embattled Ukrainian president to restore order. That does not mean Russian tanks in Kiev’s streets, but closer cooperation and Russian aid to Yanukovich as he portrays himself as trying to save Ukraine from wider bloodshed. Putin would then have succeeded in significantly increasing his influence in Europe at the expense of the EU.
Ukraine’s travails may not herald a new Cold War, but they may be a turning point for the rest of Putin’s presidency, either giving him a freer hand to restore Russia’s traditional role in Europe or confining him to a smaller stage.