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Ukraine’s road to stabilization goes through Moscow

Dr. Gulshan Sachdeva is Associate Professor, Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has also worked as Team Leader in the ADB-funded capacity building project on regional cooperation at the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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  • March 02, 2014

    The situation is unfolding rapidly in Ukraine. Recent developments raise some fundamental questions. Can Ukraine remain united? Is Europe going to face another war? There are no immediate answers. But one thing is clear that the outcome in Ukraine will have serious implications for Russia as a great power. Similarly, it will also test European Union’s (EU) ability as a global actor. Meanwhile, Russia has put its 150,000 troops on high alert. The US, NATO and new administration in Ukraine have warned Russia of any military adventure. President Obama himself has warned Moscow that there will be costs of military intervention.

    So far, Russian president Putin has maintained a golden silence on developments in Ukraine. Many within his administration have raised doubts about the legitimacy of process of new government formation. Ukraine's ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych has now resurfaced in Russia and announced that he was “not overthrown” and calls new administration as “young neo-fascist thugs.” Armed militia has taken control of parliament in the autonomous republic of Crimea, Ukraine’s only Russian-majority region. Similarly, militia has taken control of Sevastopol's military airport, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. On the request of the Ukrainian government, the UN Security Council has held an “urgent” meeting on unfolding crisis in Ukraine.

    With 45 million population, Ukraine is strategically located between Europe and Russia. Most of the oil and gas pipelines going from Russia to the EU pass through Ukraine. Historically, it has been important for agricultural products. In recent times, it has also become an important arms manufacturer. It seems, Ukraine has become a proxy between Russia and the West. Through Ukraine, the ideas of “shared values” and the future of Eurasian Economic Union under the Russian leadership in its “neighborhood” is at stake. To make the concept “near abroad” obsolete, the West would like to see an independent, undivided Ukraine built by free elections and rule of law which is linked with NATO and the EU institutions. So, Ukraine is struck between attraction of partnership with the European institutions and prosperity and a Russia which is trying to maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space. In these circumstances, Russia cannot afford to be perceived as looser in this game, both at home and internationally. Moreover, if these “revolutions” succeed in its neighborhood, it has serious internal political implications for many of the leaders within the CIS region.

    It all started more than three months ago when President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly decided to abandon EU association agreement along with Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. Instead, he moved towards Russia. For many years, Ukraine was looking for a closer relationship with the EU. This agreement was endorsed by almost all political parties in Ukraine. Ordinary Ukrainians who were looking for better living standards and further free mobility within Europe were outraged. Thousands of people started demonstrating in Kiev against this move. In mid-December, Russia agreed to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian debt and also significantly reduced Russian gas price to Ukraine.

    When demonstrations continued to grow, the Ukrainian government adopted strict anti-protest law. Protests which had started against abandoning EU agreement turned anti president and started demanding removal of the president. In January, the president offered many concessions including prime ministership to the opposition but protests continued unabated. They become violent and scores of protesters and policemen got killed. The EU and the US decided to impose sanctions against individuals responsible for suppression. International diplomats became active and an EU mediated deal was agreed. On February 21, an agreement was signed between opposition leaders and the president with the help of German, French and Polish foreign ministers along with an active engagement by the Russian envoy. Under the deal, a restoration of 2004 constitution, constitutional reforms to be completed by September, early presidential election no later than December, investigation of the violence and amnesty to protestors etc were agreed. Even after the agreement some radical elements continue to protest saying that would stay on until Yanukovych resigns. In the midst of chaos on 22 February, president fled Kiev and power vacuum was filled by the parliament; former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from the prison; and Parliament speaker Oleksander Turchinov took over as acting president. Later, Yanukovych announced that he left Kiev because of “coup”.

    After the initial upheaval in Kiev, now the focus is shifting towards Crimea, a region that historically belonged to Russia but became part of Ukraine in 1954. After the West’s initial move in Kiev, Russia seems to be making its move in Crimea. It is like in chess game. Through Crimea, Russia will try to prove that without its mediation, Ukrainian unity cannot be guaranteed. It may not take away Crimea, but through this region, it can project its importance for Ukrainian unity and stability. Ultimately, Russia would like to protect the interests of the Russian speaking south-eastern part, and Crimea through the new federal structure and integration of Ukraine into Eurasian union project. These objectives are better achieved through working with the new elite in Kiev and with the EU. But the way the situation has unfolded in the last few weeks, Russia has to project its military capabilities and use its ethnic connections to remind Ukraine and the West that the road to stability can only pass through Moscow.

    War fatigued Obama administration and the crisis ridden Europe are not ready to be engaged in another crisis in Eastern Europe. Their initial euphoria over democratic revolution in Ukraine will soon find a way to create a working partnership with Russia over Ukraine. Leaked conversations between American diplomats show that the US does not have much faith in the EU’s ability to deliver. Apart from issuing statements, the US and Europe have not shown any coordinated policy action, except for visa restrictions on some individuals. The US is reported to be working on an economic package along with the EU, IMF and other international partners.

    But challenges in Ukraine are huge as the country is facing serious economic difficulties. The new Ukrainian administration says that it needs $35 billion in the next two years to avoid default. Russia has already purchased $3 Billion Ukrainian Eurobonds out of $15 Billion package announced earlier. The next $2 billion bailout installment is stalled at the moment. In an attempt to limit damage to the banking sector and national reserves, the Ukrainian central bank has already put limit for foreign currency withdrawals from banking deposits to 15,000 hryvnia (Euro1,000) a day.

    Since Europe cannot offer an immediate EU membership to Ukraine or any major bailout package, it will have to look for Russia for stabilization. Russia is quite upset the way Yanukovych managed the situation and fled the country. So, Russian strategy would be to reenter the scenario not as a junior partner of the West but as a recognized primary power in the region, without whom Ukraine cannot be stabilized.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.