STOCKHOLM – How Ukraine’s profound crisis will end is impossible to predict. We in the European Union and the United States are doing what we can to secure a peaceful transition to a more stable democracy, and the implementation, at long last, of urgently needed reforms. And the agreement now concluded between President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition should create a new possibility for this.
If the agreement is not honored, Ukraine could well continue its descent into chaos and conflict, which would be in no one’s interest. That is why Ukraine’s crisis is a European crisis. And, though we cannot know how the crisis will end, we should be very clear about how it started.
For years, Ukraine sought a closer relationship with the EU. Its leaders warmly endorsed the promise of enhanced ties under the EU’s Eastern Partnership, and pushed for an EU Association Agreement, together with a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. When those talks, which began under the previous Ukrainian government, were concluded, the agreement was endorsed by all four presidents and all 14 prime ministers to hold office since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991.
But, as the EU and Ukraine were addressing remaining issues ahead of the November 2013 Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, where Ukraine was to sign its Association Agreement, something suddenly changed. From August onward, Russian policymakers embraced the openly declared aim of knocking Ukraine off the course that it had chosen. A political campaign against the agreement was launched, and the Kremlin mixed targeted sanctions with threats of harsher measures against the already-weak Ukrainian economy.
Russian leaders publicly stated that if Ukraine signed a free-trade agreement with the EU, it would lose its free-trade deal with Russia, and high tariffs would be imposed on all goods and services. Severe economic pressure, it was made clear, would become open economic warfare.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gave way. In explaining to EU leaders that he was not ready to sign the Association Agreement, he was very clear that Russian pressure was responsible for his decision.
This set in motion the chain of events that has now resulted in carnage and death in the streets of Kyiv. For many Ukrainians, Europe was the symbol of hope of a better life; suddenly, they felt betrayed by a political elite that they had long perceived as being incorrigibly corrupt. So, to be clear, it was the Kremlin’s pressure, and the Yanukovych administration’s vacillation, that produced the current crisis.
Had Yanukovych decided to stand up to Russian pressure, there is no doubt that Ukraine would have faced difficulties. But, with an EU Association Agreement and the possibility of solid financial aid and reform assistance from the International Monetary Fund, the Russian measures would not have been sustainable.
Of course, the reforms asked of Ukraine would have been difficult, but no more difficult than what had been asked of other ex-communist countries that saw their future in and with Europe. There would have been light at the end of the tunnel, and, as Ukraine embraced the reform process, it would have been seen as a determined and democratic European country.
Instead, Yanukovych opted for a short-term strategy narrowly focused on his own political survival – a strategy that the protesters increasingly came to view as a game of deceit and betrayal. As the regime started to use violence to repress its opponents, violent opposition groups gained credibility.
Free trade with both Russia and the EU would obviously have been good for Ukraine’s economy, thus providing a boost to the Russian economy as well, notwithstanding the oft-used but fundamentally bogus argument that EU goods would flow into Russia via Ukraine. (Has anyone heard Americans complaining that the free-trade agreement between Mexico and the EU is undermining the US economy?)
Russia is intent on building a new strategic bastion in the form of its proposed Eurasia Union, and it seems determined to force Ukraine to join. While publicly grumbling about supposed EU pressure on Ukraine, the reality is that Russia brutally extorted the country into abandoning its EU course. That is the source of this crisis; the facts speak for themselves.
Even under the best of circumstances, the road back for Ukraine will be difficult. Russian pressure and destabilization, and the crisis to which they have led, have created new fissures in Ukraine’s society and have caused further damage to its fragile economy.
And that damage could, one day, spill over into Russia. The Kremlin should have an interest in a stable and reforming neighbor that, like other countries, is also seeking a close relationship with the EU.