Coming Together and Falling Apart

STANFORD – Millions of people worldwide watched the athletic achievements at the Sochi Olympics and the opening and closing ceremonies’ majestic portrayals of Russian history and culture. But the cost was immense, the alleged corruption dispiriting, and the contrast with the political situation in nearby Ukraine alarming.

After lining up for an Association Agreement with the European Union, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych instead opted for closer ties with Russia, following immense pressure from the Kremlin, as well as a promise of $15 billion in financing. Three months of protests and riots ensued. A parliamentary vote stripped the high-living Yanukovych of power, and he fled to Russia. The situation remains tense and fluid. Russian troops have occupied Crimea, and European and American leaders are threatening to impose stiff sanctions on Russia if it does not respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

But Ukraine’s disunity is obvious. Eastern Ukraine has close linguistic, cultural, and economic ties to Russia, while western Ukraine leans more toward continental Europe. Some of Ukraine’s regions have historically been a part of Russia, Poland, or the Ottoman Empire. Peter the Great, whose eighteenth-century Westernization of Russia was portrayed in Sochi, fought the Crimean Tatars, many of whose descendants were dispersed by Stalin to other parts of the former Soviet Union. Some fear that Ukraine could break apart.

An EU Association Agreement could be a huge boon to the Ukrainian economy. When smaller economies gain access to a much larger market, trade volumes expand and wages rise, with a small part of the trade expansion diverted from other countries (one of Russia’s concerns).