The Corner

Looking in the Wrong Direction?

After a rough night of protest and battles with the police in Kiev and with the rhetoric heating up (opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko said last night that he couldn’t “rule out the possibility of civil war,” a comment made even more ominous by the underlying ethnic division that remains a key fault line running through Ukrainian politics), the Ukrainian government has now agreed to enter into talks with the opposition.

The problem is that it is hard to see where those talks can go.

Writing in the Globalist, Andreas Umland offers up a neat description of the sort of government that has emerged in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region (“rather peculiar crossings of state-capitalism with neo-patrimonialism” and then he gets to the point:

[Ukrainian leader] Yanukovych behaves the way he does because he has few other options. Whoever succeeds him as Ukraine’s leader will face similar challenges. Even if Ukraine’s next leader is much more supportive of Europeanization, she/he will have to deal with Russia’s probable and powerful resistance to Ukraine’s integration with the EU. By threatening to take “protective measures” if Kiev signs the Association Agreement with Brussels, in 2013, Moscow dramatically increased the expected costs for Ukraine to pursue European integration. De facto, the Kremlin has taken hostage hundreds of thousands of – especially, Eastern – Ukrainian industrial employees of companies that produce for the Russian market machinery, consumer goods, and equipment. Moscow’s plain message is: You can do whatever you want, but if you go west, we will close our markets and take “protective measures.”

Russia experimented with such measures in August 2013, with a 5-day ban on imports from Ukraine. There is now pure fear of further Kremlin retaliation among many Ukrainian workers, managers and engineers as well as their families who altogether make up millions of Ukrainian citizens. This threat – both, its reality and perception – is today a, if not the, main source of legitimacy of Yanukovych’s faltering regime, and its wavering foreign policy.

Umland believes that the EU should take a much tougher stance towards Russia: 

Russia’s largest foreign economic partner by far is… the EU….Russia is playing hard ball with an entity on which it itself has to rely in whole number of areas such as raw materials exports, foreign investment, trans-border cooperation, scientific research etc.Rather than addressing the crux of the issue, [the EU] bemuses itself commenting on the Euromaidan (pro-Western demonstrations), while voicing mantras about the peacefulness of protests, observation of human rights, respect for the sovereign choice of each country, need for compromise and dialogue etc. This defect in the EU-Ukraine-Russia economic triangle seems to have its roots in diplomatic comfort and intellectual laziness – rather than any prohibitive organizational and economic strictures. The EU could exploit its economic strength to threaten Russia with retaliation, if Moscow punishes Kiev for an association with the EU. But it does not want to. ..

Perhaps because it is easier said than done. The key product that Russia exports to the EU is energy. It is difficult to believe that there are many EU politicians who would risk a major hit to Western Europe’s energy supplies over the question of who governs Ukraine.

Umland argues that the mere threat of sanctions “should be enough for the Kremlin to rethink its position” over Ukraine. I don’t believe that for a moment. Putin’s control of his domestic political arena may ultimately prove brittle, but for now it is greater than that enjoyed by many of his counterparts within the EU, who will be unwilling to do anything that could put the bloc’s tentative economic recovery at risk. Under the circumstances, the Russian leader may well be prepared to call any EU bluff and, for that matter, tough things out if he has to.

After all, as Umland had explained in an earlier piece, Putin is playing for high stakes:

[The Moscow-led Customs Union] is one of the Kremlin’s various instruments to secure Putin’s authoritarian regime via the re-building of a new empire that covers a specifically “Eurasian” civilization – a unique pan-national culture between Asia and Europe. The Customs Union is to be followed, in 2015, by the even more integrated Eurasian Union.

The Customs Union effort is now the core of the Kremlin-promoted national dream about rebirthing Greater Russia as a self-sustaining pole in international politics. That project is designed to function as an effectual distraction of the Russian population from the many domestic failings of Putin’s regime. There have been few sustainable successes in the reform of Russia’s corrupt public administration, imbalanced social system and stagnating economy. The implementation of an ambitious geopolitical project is to provide the legitimacy for a continuation of Putin’s otherwise unremarkable rule.

He’s going to be in no hurry to back down.