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The EU looks like winning the unequal tug of war over Ukraine

The EU looks to be winning the unequal tug of war over Ukraine Anthony Harrington

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There are difficult situations and there are impossible situations. Since November, Ukraine has been squarely in the latter camp. With the shock discovery on Thursday 20 February that Viktor Yanukovich, the country's high-rolling president (gold loo seats? His own brand of Vodka?), had decided that discretion was the better part of valor and had decamped by helicopter, suitcases stuffed with valuables, to somewhere in the east of the country where his support could be expected to be a little more solid, the situation might once again be edging back to normality. However, there could be much still to play for. Russia has been doing all it can to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, and may well choose not to be a patient bystander to the ouster of its favorite puppet. If Russia were to intervene, despite strong US warnings against such foolishness, that would be a huge gamble indeed and could drag the world to the brink.

A History of Civil Unrest

Anyone who thinks they have a smidgen of an understanding of the current civil unrest in the country – beyond the obvious, and somewhat over-simplified, tug of war that sees Western Ukraine leaning towards the EU and Eastern Ukraine favoring tighter links with Russia – should try browsing the country’s massively convoluted history from, oh, say 1200 AD to the present.

In its multi-century evolution to its present condition, Ukraine has not been short of its heroes and visionaries, but the country has been a battleground for well over a thousand years. Moreover, the impact of Russia, if one accepts the horrors of Stalinism with its mind-bogglingly stupid imposition of collectivized farming upon one of the world’s most fertile agricultural lands, has not been all bad for a significant number of Ukrainians. A number of Ukrainian citizens went on to occupy top posts in the Soviet Union in its heyday – not least Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Nikita Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Communist Party in 1964 until his death in 1982. Khruschev himself had been First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukrainian SSR before he took up the reins as the new leader of the USSR in 1953, and understood a good deal about Ukrainian identity and culture. He rolled back much of the wilder repressions of the Stalinist era, emphasizing the friendship between the two nations.

Putin's Tug of War

This, in large part, has given the present Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, quite a bit to build on, at least as far as Eastern Ukraine is concerned. (Speaking Russian to some Western Ukrainians is probably not a good idea, particularly at present.) For his part, Putin has made no secret of his chagrin at Russia's loss of status in the world since the ending of the Cold War and he makes little secret of his desire to see Ukraine move closer to Russia and away from the "clutches" as he sees it, of the EU. For their part, large swathes of the EU are not particularly anxious to extend membership of the eurozone to Ukraine. Some senior EU figures think Ukrainian membership is an inevitable, and possibly a good idea. Others think it is an idea that should be left to brew for at least another decade or two. This makes the tug of war between the EU and Russia over the fate of Ukraine rather one-sided, apart from the fact that those Ukrainians who are accustomed to seeing their country as part of Europe tend to be passionately anti-Russian. So, even with a lukewarm response from the EU, their desire to see their country move to full EU membership is more than strong enough to ride over any indifference or even low level hostility from the likes of Spain and others who think the EU is getting overstretched in terms of membership.

This was the root cause of the flare-up in late November that started the current unrest. Yanukovych had been promising for years to push the Ukraine's case for full membership, but then suddenly Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the EU, claiming that it was disadvantageous to the Ukraine. This was followed in late December by Putin suddenly offering economic aid to Ukraine worth $15 billion, along with a whopping 33% discount on Russian natural gas. The protesters saw this as evidence of a backroom deal between Yanukovych and Putin, designed to "Russify" Ukraine and to pull it back tightly within the Russian sphere of influence, scuppering any future hope of a deal with Europe.

A "Sophisticated Solution"?

Interestingly, a senior adviser to Putin who has responsibility for Russia's relations with Ukraine, Sergei Glazyev, has suggested that one solution to the East/West dilemma might be for the two "halves" of Ukraine to become autonomous without actually splitting into two different countries. According to Reuters, during the course of issuing a warning to the US against arming the protesters, Glazyev suggested that the solution might be a form of federalism in which regions were given substantial powers including budgeting and international relations. The model for this, Glazyev suggested, could be Greenland, which enjoys substantial autonomy from Denmark. In 1973, Greenland joined the EEC along with Denmark - but ten years later in a referendum, a majority of the population voted for Greenland to withdraw from the EU, and Greenland officially withdrew in 1985.

One sees why Glazyev finds the comparison appealing. As a solution, it would allow East Ukraine to cosy up to Russia while Western Ukraine presses for EU membership. Quite how that would go down inside Ukraine remains to be seen, but despite Glazyev's saber rattling against America, it sounds on the face of it to be a relatively sophisticated solution to the problem - akin, in some ways, to Russia's trumping of the US over the Syria crisis when Russia suddenly came forward with the suggestion that a US cruise missile strike on Syria could be averted by Syria voluntarily giving up its chemical weapons, which it then speedily did. Quite where Yanukovich's unscheduled flight from Kiev leaves Glazyev's solution is anyone's guess.

Security for Ukraine

Another point worth bearing in mind, which Glazyev brought out in his press interview on the eve of a meeting between Putin and Yanukovich at the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics, is that Russia and the US both committed themselves to guaranteeing the independence and security of Ukraine in the 1994 treaty that saw Kiev giving up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal. Figuring out how that might work in practice has doubtless caused some head scratching and brow furrowing in Washington and Moscow. One suspects this was one of those treaties that neither side ever envisaged acting upon.

Yanukovich appeared to have managed to defuse the situation somewhat, after days of bloody street confrontations, by promising to hold early elections and to form a government of national unity but then suddenly lost his nerve, apparently. Nothing of this really resolves the Russia-versus-EU dilemma, so it remains to be seen if the pro-EU faction can pull the whole country in its preferred direction, or if, ultimately, something along the lines of Glazyev's suggestion comes to pass.

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Further reading on Russia and the EU:

Tags: chemical weapons , Cold War , Denmark , Eastern Ukraine , EEC , EU , European Union , eurozone , Greenland , international relations , Leonid Brezhnev , Nikita Khrushchev , Russia , Sergei Glazyev , SSR , Syria , Trilateral Statement , Ukraine , Ukraine independence , USSR , Viktor Yanukovich , Vladimir Putin
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