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Europe’s Ukrainian Blunder

BERLIN – The European Union has probably never experienced anything like it before: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government pretended to negotiate an association agreement, only to back out at the last minute. EU leaders felt duped; in Moscow, however, the mood was celebratory.

As we now know, Yanukovych’s real motivation for the negotiations was to raise the price that Russia would have to pay to keep Ukraine in its strategic orbit. Only a few days later, Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a Russian loan worth $15 billion, a cut in natural-gas prices, and various trade agreements.

From Yanukovych’s point of view, this agreement made sense in the short run: the gas deal would help Ukraine survive the winter, the loan would help keep it from defaulting on its debt, and the Russian market, on which the economy depends, would remain open. In the medium term, however, by rejecting the EU and embracing Russia, Ukraine faces the risk of losing its independence – on which the post-Soviet order in Europe depends.

In terms of its strategic orientation, Ukraine is a divided country. Its eastern and southern regions (especially Crimea) want to return to Russia, whereas its western and northern regions insist on moving toward Europe. For the foreseeable future, this domestic conflict can be resolved, if at all, only with a lot of violence involved, as the ongoing mass protests in Kyiv suggest. But no sensible person can seriously desire such an outcome. Ukraine needs a peaceful, democratic solution, and this will be found only within the status quo.