Ukraine too important to be left alone

SMOULDERING barricades, toppled statues, a detested president fleeing for his life and delirious, flag-waving crowds: The events in Ukraine resemble a classic revolution.

But "revolution" may be a weak description for the battle now unfolding on Ukraine's soil. It pits most of Europe and the United States against Russia, in a confrontation which may produce no winner. But it is a confrontation which will rumble on for years and may yet result in the onset of a new Cold War.

From the moment Ukraine became independent in 1991, the country was destined to become the battleground between Russia and the West.

Similar in size to France, Ukraine is far too big to be easily integrated into the European Union (EU), as all the other former communist countries in Eastern Europe did. But it is far too strategically important to be ignored either: It is the most significant buffer zone between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the US-led military alliance in Europe.

Ukraine also has deep religious and economic bonds with Russia stretching back almost a millennium. For leaders in Moscow, relations with Ukraine are not just a practical matter, but also a deeply emotive question of national existence.

As they see it, a Russia without Ukraine will be a rump state which the world will ignore, but a Russia with Ukraine within its fold will again be a great power.

No guesses which option Russian President Vladimir Putin goes for. As he once dismissively told then US President George W. Bush: "Ukraine is not even a state." In public, Mr Putin cannot bring himself to call Ukraine anything but a "krai", the Russian word for "territory".

Identity questions also cut through Ukraine itself. The country's western half, which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918, is staunchly independent and views itself as an integral part of Western Europe.

But Ukraine's east is mostly Russian-speaking and looks to Moscow for inspiration and economic prosperity.

Between East and West

THE only way such a country can prosper is through cooperation between Russia and the EU. Yet, nothing of the sort happened. Soon after independence, Ukraine was urged by the West to give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It became nuclear weapon-free in 1996, but was then promptly forgotten.

The EU's attention was rekindled in 2004, when Ukraine underwent its so-called Orange Revolution, a period during which pro-Western leaders were in power. But that interest soon faded away.

And when the European Union finally came up last year with a coherent strategy to engage Kiev in the shape of a new association agreement and free trade clauses, this only infuriated Russia. In effect, Europe's offer put Ukraine in precisely the dilemma that the country should never have been put: Facing an existential choice between opting for integration with either the East or the West.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to reject the deal and opt for an alliance with Russia, thereby setting in train the current popular revolt. A crisis was always inevitable, yet Europe's miscalculation in not doing anything for years, but then pushing through a radical association package, hastened the showdown.

Still, Europe's miscalculation does not equal guilt, for the responsibility for the current bloodshed rests solely on the shoulders of the Ukrainian and Russian leaders. Mr Putin is responsible for resorting to frequent economic sanctions such as cutting off essential oil and gas supplies in order to prevent Ukraine from developing a productive relationship with the West.

Poor governance

MR YANUKOVYCH and the country's oligarchs are responsible for leaving Ukraine in an economic shambles. The figures speak for themselves.

When communism collapsed in Europe, the per capita wealth of a person in Ukraine and Poland were identical. Today, Poles are six times wealthier than average Ukrainians - that is the price of bad governance.

Ultimately, Mr Yanukovych destroyed himself by overestimating his strength.

He ordered police and security services to clear the streets of demonstrators, but he did not have the necessary power to do it, and he forgot the critical lesson from all recent revolutions: That a national military which depends on conscripts is always reluctant to fire on its own people. So, when the generals refused his orders to deploy tanks, the system crumbled in less than 24 hours, as all authoritarian governments do when they no longer inspire fear.

For the moment, there is no question that this represents a strategic victory for the West, and a massive humiliation for Russia's President Putin. There is no chance of Mr Yanukovych regaining power, and any leader likely to be elected after him is bound to be anti-Russian.

But the really dangerous strategic games are only unfolding. Ukraine will now have to be kept afloat with money from the EU, since the US$15 billion (S$19 billion) in subsidies which Russia promised Ukraine are now off the table, and the country is bankrupt.

European leaders have mouthed some generalities about implanting "economic reforms", supposedly "in coordination" with the International Monetary Fund, but getting anyone in Ukraine to focus on and implement reforms at this stage is a tall order.

Ukraine leader braces for fresh mass demonstration

If the empire strikes back

COBBLING together a functioning government will not be easy either. Mrs Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and putative opposition leader, was hailed by the crowds after her release from jail. But the wheelchair-bound Mrs Tymoshenko is no longer in complete control of her own party.

The last three months of almost constant political agitation have thrown up a number of new contenders, and especially Mr Vitali Klitschko, a former boxer turned politician who revels in the nickname of "Dr Ironfist", as well as a whole host of quasi-fascist right-wing movements which go by the name of Right Sector.

In the time-honoured tradition of all successful revolutions, a long period of internal fighting and score-settling is now in the offing.

Nor is Mr Putin, who never forgets or forgives humiliations, likely to take kindly to his Ukrainian defeat. He has kept quiet up to now, largely because he did not want to do anything which might overshadow the Sochi Winter Olympics. But with the games now over, the empire will strike back. And Russia has plenty of means of doing so.

It could simply switch off oil and gas supplies, throttling Ukraine's economy. Or it could encourage the Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine to declare their independence as a prelude for joining Russia. That is what Mr Putin did in Georgia, where a separatist movement served as a justification for a war in 2008, incidentally also at a time when the world's attention was diverted to the Olympic Games.

The snag is that the impact of any Russian military intervention in Ukraine will be of a completely different magnitude than in Georgia. It will spark off demands for a rapid Nato rearmament. Countries such as Poland and Romania, which border Ukraine, will demand US troops for their defences, and the Americans will not be able to resist such appeals, which are already being made behind the scenes.

But even if no active Russian military intervention takes place, Moscow's long shadow will loom over Ukraine. The fact that Mr Yanukovych, the deposed Ukrainian president, has now established his headquarters in eastern Ukraine is an ominous sign. Equally ominous are indications that Russia's official media is already lavishing attention on those Ukrainians who are talking about establishing separatist regions.

There is still a chance that a serious showdown between the West and Russia over the fate of Ukraine may be averted.

European leaders led by Germany are anxious to avoid anything calculated to further annoy Mr Putin. And Mr Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US presidential national security adviser, has come up with the innovative idea of making Ukraine a permanently neutral country between the EU and Russia, similar to the way Finland was during the Cold War.

But even Mr Brzezinski admits that, if Mr Putin does not accept such a deal, the imposition of Western political and economic sanctions on Russia will become inevitable which, in effect, will signal the return to policies last deployed during the Cold War.

Either way, it is clear that the fate of Ukraine will remain a matter far too important to be left to the Ukrainians themselves. And although the country has succeeded in overthrowing a hated government, it has forged no consensus on who should replace him.

"Heroes never die," shouted Mrs Tymoshenko, the opposition leader, upon her release from jail at the weekend. Perhaps. But Ukraine's history is full of examples of people who died in vain.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

 

Ukraine leader braces for fresh mass demonstration