Russia, and its hardball-playing president, Vladimir Putin, may have won this round in Ukraine, and there’s not a lot that the United States can do about it—or should do about it—now that Russia and Ukraine have re-established economic and political ties. That’s bad news for Senator John McCain, who made a big splash visiting the Ukrainian capital of Kiev recently, and for American hawks who’ve tried to mobilize anti-Russian sentiment in the United States seeking some sort of quixotic showdown over the crisis there.
With Ukraine trapped between going “west”—signing a deal with the European Union that would have included political and judicial changes inside Ukraine and economic austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund—and going “east,” aligning itself more closely with Russia, President Yanukovich chose the latter. The inducement was a $15 billion Russian plan to underwrite Ukraine’s debt and a huge cut in the price of Russian gas for the Ukrainian market, from nearly $700 per 1,000 cubic feet to just $268.50. That was incentive enough for Yanukovich to go along, and it probably secures Russia’s interest in Ukraine for the foreseeable future.
It wasn’t merely Russia’s generous offer that tipped the scale, but also the refusal by the EU to sweeten its offer. As a special report by Reuters today points out, “The unwillingness of the EU and International Monetary Fund to be flexible in their demands of Ukraine also had an effect, making them less attractive partners.” On top of that, the EU didn’t really offer Ukraine membership in the EU but some vaguely defined partnership.
Yanukovich slammed the parade of US and European officials who’ve been shuttling in and out of Kiev ever since the start of the mass protests there. “I am categorically against anybody coming and teaching us how to live,” he said. Somewhat hilariously, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country has exerted enormous, blatant pressure on Ukraine to prevent it from going West, had this to say:
“Kiev is being flatly urged to make a ‘free choice in favor of Europe’—this very phrase is self-contradictory,” Lavrov added. “At the same time, a sovereign nation is being deprived of its right to deal with the situation on its own terms and function in accordance with its legitimate national interests.”
This was, of course, a blatant power play by Russia, which used its vast economic power in Ukraine to block the Ukraine-EU accord. As Tim Judah summarizes the hardball play from Moscow in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books,
In the meantime Putin was piling on the pressure. In August, trade ground to a virtual standstill as Russian officials began checking every single truck crossing the border. They began withdrawing licenses for certain companies—especially those connected to oligarchs in Yanukovych’s eastern heartlands—to export to Russia; and Russian importers began to break contracts already signed for metal products, steel, and cars. In only a few months the level of trade between Ukraine and Russia dropped 25 percent; in eastern Ukraine, one source who asked to remain anonymous told me, production dropped between 30 and 40 percent between May and November. All this served to compound Ukraine’s existing economic woes.
Raising the temperature of the crisis, a Russian analyst in the government-controlled Russian RT broadcast network says that McCain and others are “risking a sort of civil war” by intervening, threatening sanctions and backing the protests against Yanukovich’s government—protests, by the way, that include outright fascist, Nazi-like activists from the ultra-right Svoboda party. Says the analyst, Aleksandr Nekrassov, disingenuously,
The only reason why [the protesters] are still there is because they feel the might of the European Union behind them and so foreign politicians like Senator McCain and others, coming over and basically inflaming tensions. I think it is actually quite amazing that we see European countries sending their politicians there because it is provoking violence in a sense.… And for Senator McCain, of all people, to come over to Ukraine and threaten sanctions—who is Senator McCain to threaten sanctions when it comes to Ukraine? On what authority is he doing that?
McCain, like other hawks, has said that the United States ought to impose sanctions on Ukraine if the authorities use more heavyhanded tactics against the protests. But even McCain acknowledges that there isn’t a lot that the United States can do. In an interview with RFE/RL after returning from Ukraine, McCain had this exchange:
RFE/RL: Are there any other steps the United States should take to support pro-EU forces in Ukraine?
McCain: No, I was pleased to go there and support these people who are struggling for a better country and a better government. But the future of Ukraine will be determined by the Ukrainian people and I think right now they have some very fine leadership and I was really deeply impressed by the enthusiasm of these young people.
The Wall Street Journal wants more action, though. In its editorial on the Russian offer, “The Putin Crony Rescue Fund,” the Journal says,
The U.S., which has public influence in Ukraine, could respond by considering sanctions on the Yanukovych government and its allies if it tries to keep power through repression. This message could be as powerful as the Kremlin’s checkbook.
So far, to its credit, the Obama administration is not talking about taking direct action, even though its officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the latter of whom visited Kiev, have declared their support for the protests. Let’s hope it stays that way. The crisis is far from over, and things could still take a turn for the worse.