Ukraine was for up for sale.
The European Union (and the West in general) wanted to buy it on the cheap.
Russia made Kiev a much better offer — and Kiev took it. Bluntly, Putin out-clevered the West.
Now the EU/West and many Ukrainians are highly irritated over having lost the bidding war and throwing hissy fits day and night.
And the West is being regaled to intervene to reverse the nefarious Russian embrace and move Ukraine back into the Western fold.
To intervene actively, however, would be expensive, divisive, antidemocratic, and perhaps even end with a civil war.
The foregoing is a simplistic, but not inaccurate, way to characterize the essentials of Ukraine’s current imbroglio.
More Background. Ukraine is a Texas-size country (the largest entirely within Europe) with a population of 46 million. Potentially very wealthy, its eastern farmland is some of the best in the world; it is industrialized; an energy exporter with a large nuclear energy industry; has an educated, sophisticated population, and Black Sea ports (with a Russian fleet stationed in Sevastopol under treaty arrangements). However, its experience with independence is very limited, essentially only since the USSR collapse in 1991.
A Ukraine separate from Russia is anathema to Moscow; Ukraine was part of Russia for 400 years and losing it a catastrophe for the country akin to the United States losing the entire Southwest and California to Mexico. Or perhaps, Quebec declaring independence from Canada followed by independence movements in Alberta and British Columbia. A Russian nationalist — and Putin epitomizes such — would never be satisfied until Ukraine is again Russian.
Instant Politics. Current Ukraine politics could be described as democratic gangsterism. Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2004 but never assumed the post because courts required new elections after determining electoral fraud (Yanukovych lost the redo). Never daunted, he ran again in 2010 against then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and won (escaping more charges of election fraud). As an additional penalty for losing, however, Tymoshenko was tried/convicted on corruption charges and jailed. Her supporters contend that she is a political prisoner and agitate for her release.
The EU conducted desultory association and free trade negotiations with Ukraine to bring Kiev into the structure. Most observers believed the process, albeit protracted, was headed for success. The “carrot” was approximately $2 billion in loans/guarantees. The kicker was the EU’s requirement that Kiev release prisoners such as Tymoshenko, meet assorted IMF requirements, and adhere to various EU precepts and human rights considerations. These included acceptance of gay marriage, a prospect regarded negatively by Russian-Ukranians and Ukranian church officials.
Faced with these options, Yanukovych dithered and then balked. Approximately a week before the November-scheduled announcement of EU-Ukraine agreement, he withdrew and accepted a Russian $15 billion stimulus package and a 33-per cent reduction in natural gas prices. It was the proverbial offer “you cannot refuse” as Putin could just as easily cut natural gas supplies and has no concerns about human rights in Ukraine.
And Now? What we have been seeing — well covered by the media — is the Western-friendly elements fury over this development. Demonstrations. Seizure of administrative buildings. Riots in Kiev’s central square with several deaths. New laws promulgated on 16 January placed draconian restrictions on public gathering, speech, even wearing a helmet, were met with intense public opposition and two deaths. Yanukovych crawfished: the laws were withdrawn and the prime minister jettisoned.
There is an interact feeling for this production:
- Kiev is not Tahir Square; police are not killing demonstrators by the hundreds.
- A presidential election is scheduled for February 2015; Tymoshenko, corrupt or not, is likely to run.
- The EU is now considering an enhanced financial package while Putin has deferred Russian support, apparently irritated that Yanukovych caved to protestors.
There is no need for dramatic action. The urge to “do something” should be suppressed.
At this juncture, the United States (and Canada) should “keep our powder dry.” We should limit support for the protestors to endorsing free speech and the right of association/assembly. But moving to overthrow the Yanukovych government is beyond the pale. Not every democratically elected government is going to accord with American “League of Women Voters” precepts. We have enough negative blowback from supporting the violent removal of the legitimately-elected Egyptian government with the prospect of another thinly concealed military dictatorship in the offing.
Direct and/or clandestine Western pressures will justify heavy-handed Putin intervention. When the Sochi Olympics conclude, he may seek to add Kiev to his gold medal collection.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.