Ukraine’s fateful moment

Fri, Dec 20, 2013, 01:00

‘I know of only one place where there’s free cheese – a mousetrap.” This comment by Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk on the agreement by Russia to lend Ukraine $15 billion and cut the price it pays for Russian gas by one third aptly sums up what is at stake for both states. The deal reached by Presidents Victor Yanukovich and Vladimir Putin does not include Ukrainian membership of the Russian-dominated customs union with Belarus, but it does choose links with Russia over an association agreement with the EU.

It remains to be seen whether the huge opposition mobilisation against this choice will accept this is the end of the matter and scale down their protests, or intensify them. Mr Yanukovich’s decision to postpone signature of the EU agreement came as a shock to Brussels and was read there as a clear assertion of power by a Russian leadership determined to maintain its dominance over Ukraine. That state is deeply split over its preferred orientation to the east or west. The opposition movement recognises this is a crucial time for the country and refuses to accept that Mr Yanukovich has the right to make the choice.

They say it is an opportunist manoeuvre to allow him stand in next year’s elections without meeting anti-corruption, debt repayment and other conditions attached to the EU deal. Those attached to the Russian one are not fully spelled out, but are plain to see. Ukraine already has some of the cheapest energy in the world but is highly dependent on arbitrary Russian supply and pricing decisions, as was seen graphically during previous crises since the country’s Orange revolution of 2004.

Exports and markets are similarly constrained. The opposition itself has been uncertain in its demands, between calling for the release of their former leader Julia Tymoshenko from jail, signature of the EU agreement and accounting for police brutality during recent demonstrations. There are signs they now see the Yanukovich-Putin deal as a fateful decision and demand he resign and hold fresh elections.

The EU has put the association agreement on hold while these political and diplomatic events play out, finding their Ukrainian partners impossible to pin down during such a turbulent transition. The agreement would bring Ukraine closer to the EU’s neighbourhood orbit, even if the prospect of eventual EU membership is left ambiguous because of internal EU divisions on the subject.

Putin’s Russia is a Eurasian power rather than a European one, authoritarian, nationalist and relying on energy and other natural resources and its vast landmass to reassert its geopolitical position in a more multi-polar world. Resolving the crisis over Ukraine necessarily involves the EU defining its interests as it confronts this larger Russian reality in this geopolitical tug of war.