Ukraine crisis: time for Russia and the West to step back?
THE CRISIS in Ukraine has entered a new and dangerous phase. Clashes between riot police and protesters this week have left more than 25 dead and hundreds wounded.
The bloodshed reflects how completely gridlocked the situation is, writes Professor Stefan Hedlund. President Viktor Yanukovych is playing a high-stakes game to preserve his own position in power, seemingly at any cost. The opposition is determined that he must go, and has little faith in any promises made by the regime.
Ukraine is still some way from outright civil war. But the absence of any sign of willingness on either side to step back and compromise is worrying.
Outside interpretations largely tend to be conditioned by domestic agendas, and therefore miss what is really going on. Western politicians favour a view of demonstrators as peaceful, liberal and democratic, reacting against the refusal of an intransigent regime to bring Ukraine closer to Europe.
Russian sources, in contrast, view rioters as driven by fascist, anti-Semitic and generally violence-prone hardline elements. While there are elements of truth in both interpretations, they fail to capture the real driving forces.
The reason the outlook is so grim is that the current crisis is firmly rooted in a failed process of state- and identity-building.
In a historical perspective, the territory we now know as Ukraine has been torn between Moscow in the east and Poland in the west. The name of the state means ‘at the border’.
During the slightly more than two decades that Kiev has been master of its own house, successive governments have failed in creating consensus on a national identity and on relations to the outside world.
From Moscow’s perspective, Ukrainian independence is an aberration that will soon be terminated.From a Western perspective, allowing Russia to reabsorb Ukraine would be a geopolitical disaster.
Moscow is bent on ensuring Kiev does not sign any form of agreement with Brussels, which would mark the end of its own ambitions of restored status as a regional great power. The West in contrast is bent on precluding precisely this from happening.
The real paradox of this game is that neither side appears to have any desire at all of actually integrating Ukraine.
The Ukrainian economy is now in such a terrible state, and Ukrainian politics so ridden with corruption and infighting, that neither of the two outside powers want anything to do with it.
The impact on Ukrainian politics of this internally inconsistent tug of war has been devastating. Successive governments have realised that playing Russia and Europe against each other is a winning strategy.
The track record of broken promises and soured relations has now reached a point where outside interest in the future of the hapless country is just the overriding desire to prevent the other side from gaining the upper hand.
The trigger for the crisis was an ultimatum laid down by Brussels in November 2013. Unless Kiev signed a partnership and association agreement with the EU, Brussels would call it a day. The sheer folly of this move was that it allowed President Yanukovych to up the ante with Moscow. In return for refusing to sign the agreement, he received a promise of a US$15 billion credit and a 33 per cent discount on gas deliveries.
While this appeared to make Ukraine hostage to the Kremlin, in reality it is the other way around. Although Moscow may threaten to trigger a sovereign default, actually doing so is politically impossible.
Russia in consequence will have to accept further non-payment of debts for gas, and will, in all likelihood, have to write off its credits.
Looking to the future, there is little to indicate the nature of the game will change.
Only days before the bloodshed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of disaster and called on both sides to effectively step back and allow Kiev to sort out its own mess.
There is wisdom in this. Outside involvement has been part of the problem, not the solution.
Meanwhile, the situation in Kiev is marked by what is best viewed as the last stand of the Yanukovych regime.
Outside Kiev, the country is being torn apart. Ukraine’s western city Lviv, with a long Polish heritage, is already essentially lost to the regime. If anti-regime sentiment spreads also to the country’s eastern part, which is heavily industrial and ethnically Russian, then things will get really dangerous.
The likely outcome is that the Yanukovych regime will be forced out of power, but the manner remains shrouded in uncertainty. A violent end would throw the country into real turmoil.