Ukraine at crossroads


The menacing tone of comments by the Ukrainian military and an adviser to President Vladimir Putin of Russia over the crisis in Ukraine is alarming. Both call on President Viktor Yanukovich to act against a threat to its territorial integrity arising from the prolonged protests against his rule. Unless he suppresses the insurgency he risks losing power, pitching the country into chaos, they say. But the opposite is also true – military repression would provoke civil war and a crisis in relations between Russia and the EU.

Ukraine is at an historic moment of decision over its political regime and geopolitical orientation. Speakers at the Munich Security Conference were fully aware of this at the weekend. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused the EU of supporting violence and terrorism there, the president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy said Ukraine’s destiny lies with Europe, while US secretary of state John Kerry said after meeting opposition leaders that he is considering sanctions.

Ukraine is the key site of contestation between Putin’s plan for a Eurasian union grouping former Soviet states and an enlarging EU determined to establish good relations with its neighbours. Whether these two visions are compatible or competitive has an enormous bearing on the outcome of this crisis.

But it is predominantly an internal crisis, not one determined by external forces, and this can still be the key to resolving it peacefully. Over-simplification is all too easy in such a polarised international setting. Ukraine’s geography makes it a place of transition between European and Russian empires, while its history gives it two major cultures and languages responding to those spatial realities, an east-west dichotomy reflected in its independent politics since the Soviet Union’s end and the 2004 Orange Revolution. Ten years on citizens remain profoundly disenchanted with how they were hijacked by alternating oligarchs, corruption and legal chicanery.

The Yanukovich regime personifies such private exploitation of the public good and the cynical use of geopolitical positioning to perpetuate its rule. The huge civil society mobilisation in protest against his refusal to sign the EU association agreement last November crosses many traditional social and geographical boundaries in a shared disgust at these antics. Inevitably it is draws on all strands of the country’s political traditions including far-right nationalism, which still remains marginal.

Yanukovich’s offers to share power, suggestions of constitutional change to alter the balance of existing political power, along with German and Polish support for an inclusive round-table negotiation involving internal and external actors, can still provide a constructive way to resolve the crisis. The menacing calls for military action must be resisted.

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