It was a minor blip on the American radar screen when Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, announced on 21 November – in a significant policy reversal – that Ukraine would forego economic and political agreements with the European Union in favor of closer integration with Russia.
For Ukrainians, the blip was anything but minor. Yanukovich’s political opposition mounted a no-confidence vote in the Ukrainian parliament, which his government survived today (Tuesday 3 December). More dramatically, thousands of protesters have thronged the streets of Kiev since the 24 November announcement from Yanukovich. At least 100,000 flooded Independence Square on Sunday to demonstrate in opposition to Yanukovich’s policy (some estimates are as high as 350,000). ZeroHedge has a 6-odd-minute video of the police crackdown, in which hundreds of protesters were injured; as the blogger notes, the video is eerily reminiscent of protests and police reactions in the Arab Spring nations.
Secretary of State John Kerry had been scheduled to visit Kiev this week, but that visit has been cancelled. According to the Washington Post:
[T]he Obama administration is saying little about…the…street protests, for fear of provoking a fracture with the Kremlin.
Fear of what Russia might do is, of course, a major factor in the Obama administration’s policy decisions. Asked why the U.S. reaction was so low-key, Kerry offered this peculiar string of words:
“Europe and Europe’s friends all declined to engage in a rather overt and, we think inappropriate, bidding war with respect to the choice that might or might not be made,” Kerry said. He did not call out Russia by name.
John J. Xenakis’s post at Big Peace has an electoral map from 2004, reminding us that Yanukovich – Moscow’s perennial favorite in recent Ukrainian elections – was the candidate for whom voters suspected the results were rigged that year, in his run-off with Viktor Yushchenko. Voter dissatisfaction with the suspicious outcome of the 2004 election led to the “Orange Revolution” and a fresh election, which was won by Yushchenko.
During the campaign in 2004, Viktor Yushchenko was subjected to dioxin poisoning, with gruesome health results that nearly killed him, and permanently disfigured his face. The source of the poison has never been proven; scientists in 2009 reported that the amount and purity of the dioxin found in his body were comparable to the dioxin content of Agent Orange, and indicated that the dioxin was prepared in a lab (i.e., there is no situation in which it occurs naturally in such a purified state).
Contemporary reporting indicated that Yushchenko fell ill after a dinner with state security officials:
According to the Ukrainian newspaper Facts, the story started on September 5th, when Viktor Yushchenko had dinner with the security service director Igor Smeshko and his deputy Vladimir Satsyuk. Yushchenko asked them to “stop interfering in the political struggle.” The opposition leader became sick several hours later, when the dinner was over.
But an official conclusion as to the source of the poison has never been reached.
Meanwhile, Yushchenko’s prime minister – Yanukovich’s opponent in the 2010 election – is in prison, serving a seven-year sentence for negotiating an unfavorable natural-gas deal with Russia in 2009. Yanukovich hints, if he does not say outright, that Yulia Tymoshenko put him in an untenable position with Russia by concluding the bad deal, which has resulted in a debt Ukraine is unable to pay.
Of course, Russia extorted Ukraine in the 2009 negotiations, as in negotiating a similar contract in 2006, with a threat to cut off gas deliveries. As late as October 2013, the Via Meadia blog noted that the Yanukovich government was returning the favor, dragging its heels on making payments to Gazprom, from the now-“stronger” position of having those European economic and political agreements – lately rejected – in its pocket.
At the heart of Ukraine’s persistent woes has been a cycle of debt from which Kiev has been unable to extricate the country, and which Moscow fosters because it keeps Ukraine vulnerable to Russian extortion. The new agreements with the EU were supposed to afford Ukraine a path out of this destructive cycle; Yanukovich decided, under intense Russian pressure, not to sign them, and has since made the surreal (if not downright hilarious) offer to release Tymoshenko from prison if she can come up with $20 billion – apparently a veiled overture to the EU for a last-minute bailout, and perhaps a do-over.
The European nations are having none of it. Says the Wall Street Journal:
President Viktor Yanukovych, facing the biggest political crisis in Ukraine in nearly a decade, reached out to the European Union on Monday in an apparent attempt to placate thousands of pro-Western demonstrators angry over his pivot toward Russia.
But the EU’s executive reacted coolly to the request for new talks, telling Mr. Yanukovych that the sweeping trade deal he refused to sign last week after six years of talks wasn’t open for renegotiation—and warning him against using force to disperse the crowds barricaded on Kiev’s main square.
Frankly, this is prissy, peevish, and shortsighted, and I’m getting tired of it. Somebody act like a grown-up, please. The most important thing right now is for Ukraine to have a lifeline, even if it’s an annoying git like Yanukovich on the other end of it. Don’t let the door slam shut for Ukraine. At least be there in Kiev having a dialogue with the Yanukovich government. Be a counterweight to Putin. Show him Ukraine has other friends. Act like you might outbid him; make him talk you down from a perch he can’t tolerate you in. That’s the way to pile up bargaining chips, in any international-influence situation.
While the EU waits coolly for Yanukovich to coming crawling, Putin is preparing to haul Ukraine off in a straitjacket. If ever there was a time for smart power, this is it. I don’t think it would be very useful for the United States to have a high-ranking presence there, but Guido Westerwelle, Laurent Fabius, William Hague, even Catherine Ashton – that’s exactly who needs to be in Kiev right now, and they wouldn’t have to do anything for the moment but smile a lot and look happy and Western, as opposed to looking like sour-faced ex-KGB officials.
Getting no help from Europe, Yanukovich has jetted off today to China in search of a loan. It’s not just his government that’s in a desperate position. It’s Ukraine, and the hope of Ukrainians for a future of open possibilities and a measure of freedom. There is a very great deal at stake: one of the principal stakes is the EU’s reputation as a meaningful ally. Ukraine, with her prime-time soap-opera mess, is hardly unique. Most nations are sunk in “stupitude” most of the time; if the EU, in a post-American world, waits for all its potential partners to evolve to a state of high-test political perfection, it will find itself surrounded, in short order, and shrinking shortly after that.
Europeans and their neighbors watched earlier this year as the EU strong-armed Cyprus into the embrace of Moscow, through just such a campaign of sanctimony and shortsightedness. Now it’s Ukraine’s turn. Lectures from the EU, spy-novel poisonings, prime ministers held as political prisoners, extortion and threats from Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians chanting in the streets, heedless of the phalanges of riot police and the harsh, 20 and 30-degree December weather. The palpable fear hanging over a people that their shaky independence is being subverted out from under them by an old and familiar source of despotism. In a post-American world, this is it: this is what politics and leadership look like.