It’s really no contest: for Ukrainians, choosing between an economic association with the European Union, on one hand, or aligning themselves economically with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus is a no-brainer. Not that linking up with the EU is a bed of roses, since what’s likely to follow as things progress is pressure to impose austerity on an already weakened economy (see: Greece). But the hundreds of thousands in the streets of Kiev—according to one report, more than a million people—have created a crisis that isn’t likely to end soon. Let’s hope that the Obama administration stays out of it, that it doesn’t accelerate its push to jam Ukraine into NATO and that Secretary of State John Kerry keeps his eye on the ball, namely, working with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia on the interrelated issues of the Iran nuclear program and Syria’s civil war.
On both Iran and Syria, the United States and Russia seem to be working well together, and it would be a shame if the unrest in Ukraine becomes a major irritant in Washington-Moscow relations.
In an eruption that echoes the 2004 Orange Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people have filled the main square in Kiev and blockaded the government’s buildings there, demanding the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich and the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. What sparked the outbreak, which is turning into general strikes across western Ukraine (which is generally pro-European, and anti-Russian), is the sudden decision of the government to reject an “associate agreement” with the EU, a decision apparently taken under pressure from Russia. The pact was under negotiation for 5 years, but it was abandoned after Yanukovich with the President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Attached umbilically to stronger ties with the West come unfortunate demands from the International Monetary Fund for more austerity, and Yanukovich has highlighted such issues in rejecting the EU agreement, while also demanding hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies from the EU to finance the switch. Still, most Ukrainians aren’t happy to sit still under Russia’s influence, despite Moscow’s power in eastern Ukraine. There’s politics galore in this struggle, especially inside Ukraine’s thoroughly corrupt establishment. But even big players in Ukraine’s oligarchy are moving away from Russia toward the EU.
The current crisis began on November 21, when, under threats of a trade embargo from Russia, Yanukovich suspended movement toward the EU agreement. Within days, there were tens of thousands in the streets of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and sporadic clashes with the police. At a meeting of EU heads of state in Vilnius, Lithuania, last week, Yanukovich was the odd man out, and there is widespread skepticism that he can rescue the accord with the EU now. So, either he drifts solidly into Russia’s camp, or he is ousted by the revolt that’s brewing. Or both.
So far, Kerry and President Obama have stayed out of the tug-of-war over Ukraine, and European leaders are privately complaining about the lack of attention that Ukraine and the EU are getting from the State Department. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Read about Russia's leading opposition newspaper here.