Ukraine On The Brink

About an hour ago, news sources began to report that people had been killed in the protests in Kiev. This follows the Ukraine government passing legislation that would ban all protests. Clearly, if people continue coming out into the streets, there will be more violence. A turning point has been reached in the Ukraine.

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A molotov cocktail hurled by a protestor going up in flames. Ukraine, January 23. [dailymail.co.uk]


Just to back up a bit, Ukraine’s was an “Orange Revolution” in 2004, when people took to the streets to protest an election rigged by Viktor Yanukovych. His main opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, was allegedly poisoned with dioxin but continued the electoral battle and ultimately triumphed. Yushchenko proved unable to deliver on the promises of democratic freedom that he had made — indeed, he was accused of graft and corruption — and was unable to repeat his success, his party falling to less than 6% in subsequent elections. So Yanukovych returned to power.
The other popular opponent to Yanukovych has been Yulia Tymoshenko, who is photogenic and attracted a great deal of support from non-Ukraine journalists who never bothered to examine her platform. Tymoshenko is an ultra-nationalist linked to xenophobic and anti-semitic groups. But, nationalist though she claims to be, her strength lies in Ukraine’s east which is pro-Russian in its stance. So, when Tymoshenko allowed a huge energy contract to Russia at a price much higher than Russia was charging other nations, she was charged and imprisoned. Her treatment in prison has raised questions about Yanukovych and she remains a thorn in his side.

That brings us to the critical issue of Russia, who supplies Ukraine with gas and petroleum, and the stated Ukraine desire to join the European Union. Russia wants Ukraine to join its own eastern customs union which should start up next year. Russia is not hesitant to use Ukraine’s energy dependence as a stick to beat it into line.

November, 2013. Riot police and protestors in Kiev after the announcement that Yuchenko's government would not sign the EU agreement. [Guardian]

November, 2013. Riot police and protestors in Kiev after the announcement that Yanukovych’s government would not sign the EU agreement. [Guardian]

So, last November, Yanukovych’s government announced that it would not sign an agreement with the EU to be receptive to advances from that organization. Immediately protests broke out in the western part of the nation. Russia has, several times, pressured Ukraine to steer clear of the EU by raising prices on gas and petroleum and by cutting off various aid incentives. This occurs quite quickly, since Putin gets what he wants without much need for debate or agreement of other government agencies. Last August, before the Ukraine/EU talks, Russia (according to Tim Judah):

…began withdrawing licenses for certain companies—especially those connected to oligarchs in Yanukovych’s eastern heartlands—to export to Russia; and Russian importers began to break contracts already signed for metal products, steel, and cars. In only a few months the level of trade between Ukraine and Russia dropped 25 percent; in eastern Ukraine, one source who asked to remain anonymous told me, production dropped between 30 and 40 percent between May and November.

This was brutal for a country undergoing the kind of economic stress Ukraine was already feeling. Meanwhile, the EU was only offering an ageement to agree on further agreements — nothing definitive that Yanukovych could take to the bank. So, he buckled and didn’t sign. Russia has repaired some of the broken contracts — Putin’s idea of a carrot is to restore part of the rewards beaten away by the stick — and has recently announced its intent to forgive some or all of Ukraine’s debt as well as reducing prices paid by Ukraine for petro-imports. Of course, these pronouncements can be reversed at any time.

Yanukovych at a meeting with Putin. Putin has kept Yanukovych waiting for hours at scheduled meetings and has generally treated him with contempt. [nybooks.org]

Yanukovych at a meeting with Putin. Putin has kept Yanukovych waiting for hours at scheduled meetings and has generally treated him with contempt. [nybooks.org]

Putin has made his personal contempt for Yanukovych very clear and western Ukraine has gotten the message: it is a subject nation meant to serve a Russian master. Eastern Ukraine shrugs and says, “So? What’s new?”
Spare a moment of empathy for Yanukovych, the corrupt politico who tried to poison one rival and has imprisoned another. He is caught in a terrible dilemma. He does not want to be subject to Russia any more than other Ukrainians but he has nowhere else to go. The EU showed very little political sense in dealing with Ukraine as it tried to play one power against the other. There is no middle path, no up the middle for Ukraine. Russia will win — though Putin may have the sense to play his victory down (Ha! Not likely.) Yanukovych, for all his faults, is the guy that Ukrainian democracy, for all its shortcomings, has chosen. He will go to his grave wondering if, after all, he should have signed those silly EU papers. Meanwhile, those using cell phones at a protest in Kiev received a government message : “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” In other words, “We’re watching you. Back off or suffer the consequences.” Yanukovych is signalling that he will use whatever force is necessary to end the protests.
Mind you, all this depends on no out-of-the-blue happenings in Ukraine, such as Yanukovych telling Putin to take a flying jump into the lake, but that eventuality has such dire consequences for Ukraine that it is highly unlikely.

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