Ukraine Emerges From The Kremlin Shadow

October 11, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

The two-decade-long struggle over Ukraine’s soul has now ended—in favor of Europe rather than the East Slavs.

This is bad news for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is good news for Ukraine, the European Union, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister who will probably now be freed from prison and dispatched to Berlin for medical treatment. It is surprising news in what it says about Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Tymoshenko’s archfiend and one-time pal of Putin.

Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, put it most bluntly in calling this game-changer the “Ukrainian escape from the Russian embrace.” She wrote, “[T]he Ukrainian elite has reached consensus on what it does not want—to be suffocated” by the Kremlin. Twisting the knife, she specifically blamed Russian “intimidation” for finally uniting “the conflicting Ukrainian elite clans on a pro-European basis.”

She’s right.

To understand why, it is worth reviewing Ukraine’s lurches between the two poles in the generation since the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Ukraine became a self-sustaining, independent state for the first in a  millennium.

Immediately after the country’s post-cold-war birth in 1991, the hot question was whether or not the infant country could remain unified. There was a serious possibility that the nation might split, with Ukrainian-speaking, Europe-oriented citizens in the west and Russian-speaking, Moscow-oriented Ukrainians in the east going their separate ways. This dichotomy provided the mental map on which oligarchic clans and politicians fought their personal feuds—with weapons that included lethal poison—over the booty of privatization of state assets.

Initially, it was the old Soviet cadres from the entwined Russian-Ukrainian political networks who ran the country. They quickly signed a pact with Moscow leasing Sevastopol as a marine base for the Russian Black Sea fleet for 25 years.

Deference toward Moscow faded, however, with the electrifying Orange Revolution in the bitter winter of 2004/5. Viktor Yanukovych, from the gritty industrial town of Donetsk in the east, claimed victory in the presidential election, despite exit polls running 11% in favor of his west Ukrainian rival. Russian-speaking Yulia Tymoshenko, from the gritty central city of Dnipropetrovsk cast her lot in with the westerners and became the glamorous star of the half-million to one million protesters who occupied Kyiv’s Independence Square for a tense two months. Yanukovych finally gave in, called a new vote—and decisively lost the election that was monitored this time by international observers.

Tymoshenko then became prime minister. Yanukovych supporters, after threatening to secede from the new country to rejoin Russia, finally acceded in the result. The new government pivoted toward the West, agreed with the EU to open talks on an “association agreement,” and signalled its intention to join NATO as soon as possible.

Putin retaliated by quadrupling the price the Gazprom monopoly charged Ukraine for the energy that Kyiv depends on, while not simultaneously quadrupling the price Gazprom paid Kyiv for gas pipeline transit to European customers. Inflammatory headlines in both Moscow and Kyiv even  talked of approaching war between the two East Slav countries.

By the time of the 2010 presidential vote, the pro-West coalition was riven by feuds between factions that loathed each other. Yanukvych bounced back to win the Ukrainian presidency in a reasonably fair election. He promptly extended Ukraine’s lease of the Sevastopol base to the Russian Black Sea fleet beyond its 2017 expiry date to 2042, with additional berths to be provided for 18 new warships. He further saw to it that Tymoshenko, who had made her pre-government fortune on energy imports and distribution, was imprisoned on quixotic criminal charges that she as prime minister had contracted to pay too high a price for imported Russian gas.

Since then, Tymoshenko has languished behind bars, despite the EU’s insistence in on and off association talks that it would never sign even this beginner’s agreement with Ukraine as long as Kyiv’s most prominent political prisoner remained in jail. And ever since—until last summer—Ukrainian government officials have blandly maintained that they could have it both ways. Why, they kept asking EU officials, couldn’t they just conduct their own Ukrainian-style politics and economics without meeting the EU’s strict democratic and market demands? Why couldn’t they continue practicing what the EU called “selective justice” and concluding murky deals with Russian tycoons and still be allowed to join the fringes of the rich and stable Western club?

In late 2011, the plot thickened as Putin launched his own pet plan for a mercantilist Eurasian Union of those former Soviet republics (other than the Baltic states) that became independent as the Soviet Union collapsed. This quickly became the centerpiece of his foreign policy; he planned for it to become operational in economic aspects in 2015. It could, he prophesied, become “one of the poles of the modern world.” Kazakhstan and Belarus signed on. Armenia, which depends on Moscow for backing in its border disputes with Azerbaijan, equivocated. Azerbaijan and Georgia said no. All the other candidates balked, suspecting eventual recreation of a Soviet-type entity subservient to Moscow.

Increasingly, Putin has portrayed his Eurasian Union and the half-century-old European Union as rivals. The top prize in this competition is still Ukraine, the historical birthplace of the whole Rus identity in the Middle Ages, with a population today of 46 million whom Russians tend to regard, somewhat dismissively, as their little brothers. American foreign policy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski agrees  on the strategic importance of Ukraine. So do ardent Ukrainian nationalists, who argue that post-Communist Russia will never turn democratic until it consents to shed quasi-imperial control over Ukraine.

In early summer of this year, as Carnegie’s Shevtsova pointed out, Putin increased pressure on Armenia, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine to reject EU association agreements and join his Eurasian Union instead. Succumbing to the pressure after Russia threatened to cut off its military aid, Yerevan agreed last month to join the Eurasian Customs Union. Moscow has had less success with its menacing measures of blocking imports of Moldovan and Georgian wine as unsanitary and with its “fertilizer war” with Belarus (not over the Eurasian Union, but over Russia’s attempted takeover of Belarusan potash deposits).

Most important, as Shevtsova suggested, the Kremlin’s carrot-and-stick threat to raise the pricetag on its gas exports to Ukraine if Kyiv signed an EU association agreement—or lower its price if Kyiv chose the Eurasian Union instead—triggered a backlash. It alienated all the Ukrainian elites except for the minority Communist Party. It brought popular support for joining the EU up to 50 percent.

This week in Berlin all speakers at a panel that included Ukrainian ambassador to Germany Pavlo Klimkin and Mikhail Pashkov, head of the foreign policy program at the Razumkov thinktank in Kyiv, took this new Ukrainian consensus as a given. They pointed out that the government has already demoted the prosecutor who put Tymoshenko into prison—and after two years of stiff resistance, has passed new legislation that will bring its institutions closer to the EU’s democratic and market norms.

Participants advanced several possible explanations for the new consensus after two decades of vacillation. One is that eastern Ukrainian businessmen seem to have pocketed the profits available until now in the Russian market and decided that greater enrichment requires access to the bigger and wealthier European single market. A second reason is that Yanukovych has been boxed in by a sluggish economy. Then too, suggested Mikhail Pashkov in conversation after the event, “there is a new generation that has grown up in an independent Ukraine that orients itself to European values. Nostalgia for Soviet paternalism remains among older people, but the middle and young generations orient themselves to Europe and strive to go in this direction.”

A final deal that can save face for the two arch foes, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, is not yet in place. So far Tymoshenko is not willing to foreswear any eventual return to Ukraine and to Kyiv politics. Nor is Yanukovych willing to let her return to challenge him in the next presidential election. German and EU officials are holding firm and telling Yanukovych that there will be no EU association agreement for Ukraine at next month’s EU-neighborhood summit in Vilnius, though, unless he frees Tymoshenko to go to a Berlin hospital for humanitarian reasons. And in Moscow, contrarian Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Center, is even advising President Putin that he would benefit if he lets Ukraine leave Moscow’s sphere, and thus Russia frees itself “to become a multi-ethnic nation state rather than a posthumous version of the defunct empire.”

Forget the tactical success of Vladimir Putin over the US in Syrian diplomacy, Lilia Shevtsova urges. His strategic loss of the biggest single chunk of the Soviet Union other than Russia itself to a Western identity is the real historical turning point this fall.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of From the Yaroslavsky Station.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

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