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Can Ukraine resist Putin’s pull?

August 6, 2013   ·   1 Comments


After the unfortunate case of Serga the tiger, a zoo-dwelling animal released in public and shot with one too many tranquilizer darts by the Russian President himself in a state-run publicity stunt, it now appears that Russia’s neighbour, Ukraine, has entered Putin’s sights.

Ukraine, roughly the size of Texas and situated between Russia and the EU, is quite literally a bridge between East and West and the strategic value of the country, referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’ for its prosperous wheat fields, is hardly lost on the Kremlin. 70% of all gas shipped from Russia to the EU flows through Ukrainian pipelines and both the United States and the Russian Federation have been attempting to secure a military presence on Ukrainian territory.

The foreign policy of Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian President since 2010, has thus resembled something of a balancing act, an attempt to please both his Russian and European neighbours. Leaning to the West, Ukraine has continued its support of the Eastern Partnership, a EU-led initiative aiming to strengthen political and economic ties with post-Soviet states of “strategic importance”. To the East, Yanukovych has stopped Ukraine from selling arms to Georgia, which has clashed with Mother Russia more than once in the last decade.

Time to choose

Now, however, the clock is ticking for Ukraine to choose once and for all whether it views its destiny with the EU in the West or with Eastern Russia. This November, the Eastern Partnership summit will take place in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, where Ukraine is expected to sign an Association Agreement with EU leaders, a decisive move towards Brussels. Russia, however, is simultaneously placing pressure on Kiev to join its own customs union alongside Kazakhstan and Belarus, a new Moscow-dominated trading bloc that former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has referred to as a new Soviet Union. If Ukraine joins one of these regional groups, it cannot join the other.

The Kremlin, for its part, has been using crippling gas prices to corner Ukraine into submitting to their customs union. Last year, Ukraine paid a price of $430 for a thousand cubic metres of Russian gas whereas the richer and more distant Germany paid only $379 for the same amount. In Kiev to honour the religious celebration Kievan Rus, when mass baptisms led to the integration of Ukraine into Russia, Putin took advantage of the occasion to comment on the smaller country’s new ‘civilizational choice’.

“We will respect whatever choice our Ukrainian partners, friends and brothers make,” Putin remarked. “But there are facts that speak for themselves. Our bilateral trade with Ukraine fell by slightly over 18% in the first quarter of this year. Our trade with the Customs Union countries increased by 34% in 2011, by 11%.” Such statements send clear messages to the Ukrainian authorities that Russia exact retribution in the form of trade restrictions if Yanukovych signs the Association Agreement in Vilnius.

Europe’s move

While Russia has subtly and not so subtly shown the lengths it will go to reel Ukraine into its customs union, European leaders have been at best lethargic at welcoming this strategic country into closer cooperation with the EU. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that until Ukraine releases former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, imprisoned on corruption charges, the Association Agreement cannot be signed. Tymoshenko was imprisoned for signing a gas deal with Russia that committed her country to the exploitative prices mentioned above. Her opponents claim that the former Prime Minister signed the contract for personal gain while her proponents argue that she was jailed because she constituted a political threat to the ruling party.

More than anything, however, the Tymoshenko affair is a symbol of what for many European leaders represents a failure on Ukraine’s part to reach EU standards in human rights and judicial impartiality. No one doubts that Ukraine has made progress in these areas. Indeed, the 2013 European Partnership report notes that Ukraine has already enacted significant reforms, including a new criminal code and new protections for freedom of association. The question is whether these reforms are enough for Angela Merkel.

Former EU Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen has perhaps put forward the strongest argument for Ukrainian Association so far. For Verheugen, the Association Agreement is a small act from the EU’s point of view but one that will forever change Ukraine’s place in on the Eurasian continent. “It will mean that Ukraine has made an irreversible choice and will no longer be in a limbo between the EU and President Putin’s Eurasian Union,” Verheugen said. After two centuries of Russian dominance, Ukraine finally has a chance to set its own destiny as a Western democracy. Time to see if Europe extends its hand.

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Deborah Matvienko

Deborah Matvienko is a freelance journalist currently based in Kiev, Ukraine.




  1. […] Likewise, the association agreement Ukraine is about to sign with the EU is, as far as Kiev is concerned, one of the single most important actions in the country’s history for the last two decades. Former President Viktor Yushchenko explained in an interview with the EU Observer that every major politician in the country is behind efforts to sign the agreement, as it is the highest hope for the nation to escape Russian President Vladimir Putin’s voracity for the sovereignty of his neighbours. […]