Putin Makes an Offer Ukraine Cannot Refuse – But They Should Anyway

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I wouldn’t be able to tell you what a pogrom feels like, nor could I identify the precise mechanics of revolution, but if I were constrained to the two I would not hesitate to describe the recent events in Kiev, Ukraine as the latter.[1] President Vladimir Putin may have been declared most powerful person in the world by Forbes,[2] but one wishes he would choose his words more carefully when comparing the largely peaceful protests of one of his Western neighbours to genocide[3] – although he is unlikely to raise Ukrainian tempers any further.

While President Viktor Yanukovych is ostensibly responsible for Ukraine’s rejection of an EU trade agreement – and the principal target of the protests in Kiev, the spectre of the Kremlin still lingers, shamelessly bullying Ukraine as if the Cold War never ended. Putin’s hint at cheaper gas if Ukraine chooses Russia over the EU may appear simple business, but it is coupled with a threat – that the decision to move closer to the EU would have disastrous consequences for Ukrainian/Russian exports – which could cost Ukraine billions. Putin’s tactic is that of a gangster – he simultaneously rewards and threatens those he wishes to coerce.[4]

It is easy to see why this strategy appealed to Yanukovych. One of the EU’s requirements for Ukraine’s signing of the trade agreement was the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, the country’s ex-prime minister, champion of the 2004 Orange Revolution, and Yanukovych’s greatest political rival. To make the matter muddier, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled Tymoshenko’s sentence as politically motivated, and her supporters point the finger at the current Ukrainian president.[5]

Assuming the accusations against Yanukovych are correct, the most rational action he could make is to reject the EU trade agreement and, under the guise of economic concerns, move closer to Russia. Thus leaving Tymoshenko shackled in jail until after the next election, appeasing the Kremlin and emerging as a statesman who can make business deals that benefit Ukraine, not a weak president who bows to Russian threats. This is why Putin’s offer was a move to make chess-masters jealous. Not only did he assert Russia’s economic dominance –he discretely offered Yanukovych a political “get out of jail free card”, which, ironically, allowed him to keep Tymoshenko incarcerated.

However, the plan may have backfired. Nobody was quite anticipating the livid reaction of the Ukrainian people to what they see as a Russian infringement on their sovereignty. The protests themselves are strongly reminiscent of those of the Orange Revolution in 2004 (which saw Yanukovych ousted) with many of the same locations being used for rallies. The police’s decision to forcibly remove protesters from Independence Square on Saturday 30th November only inflamed the already enraged temper of Ukrainian opinion.[6] The following day saw many more, angrier protesters storming the streets of Kiev, and attempting to enter government buildings.

Predicting political events on a large scale is usually futile, and there is little reason to consider this to be an exception. However, Ukraine’s recent history does indicate a consistent, if tortoise-like, crawl towards the EU. The country has a tragic and melancholy history with Russia, and most political movements within the country since gaining independence in 1991 have been concerned with leaning towards the West. The Orange Revolution was in support of a Western leaning Ukraine and after almost a decade of shady politics from both sides of the European/Russian debate, Ukrainian people still express a profound and passionate yearning for Europe. Yanukovych is trying to quell that desire, but his attempts have been nothing but inflammatory. After 22 years of pseudo-independence from Russia, Ukraine should move with the wish of its people and reject Putin’s games – no matter how enticing they appear.

 Written by Gregory Pichorowycz