Ukraine chooses East, for now The geopolitics of Kiev, Brussels & Moscow

  • 2013-12-31
  • By Steven G. Traylor, EU Correspondent

The European Union Summit of Vilnius held the last week of November is over, but the geopolitics of one country in particular that was involved remains headline grabbing news in Europe: Ukraine. From mid-November to mid-December the question has always been, “what will Ukraine do?”

Along with five other Eastern European countries whose political actions were basically known, Ukraine was the only undecided country present in Vilnius, bringing with it the uncertainty and attitude of “what will the EU do for me” as a Ukrainian prerequisite to initialing its Association Agreements with the European Union.

Since Vilnius, it has been a back and forth, on again off again attitude of which way the country will go in the geopolitical game played by Ukraine with Brussels and Moscow. Ukraine also considers possible involvement of Russia’s future Customs Union.

In the immediate future, Ukraine needed short term economic relief. Thus a chess match ensued, on a very large playing board effecting the lives of millions of people - not just Ukrainians but other Central and Eastern Europeans as well.

No sooner did Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich leave Vilnius, when anti-government protests in Kiev began in earnest - the first week of December. Since then the streets in center city have seen from “a few thousand to 300,000 demonstrators” protesting, depending on the mood, weather, and speakers present. Mostly young, and millennium types – these protesters and their older friends were around for the Orange Revolution in 2004, and are now back again.

Today, it’s all about “Western direction” and “government change,” away from the old Soviet style guard represented in the parliamentary-controlled government of President Yanukovich, a Soviet-styled autocrat himself.

Start at the beginning.

Since its inception in 1957 and becoming a singe institution in 1967, the European Union has concentrated its existence on Western Europe, for purely economic and political reasons, with hopes of ending European hostilities that too often took the form of war. Some 55,000,000 people lost there lives between 1915 and 1945 due to European conflicts.

From then till now, the EU has grown to include some 28 countries. The Soviet Union self-destructed in 1991 and the EU has had an eye on Eastern Europe ever since. The three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were quick to get on the anti-Soviet approach to future progress, and came into the EU fold in 2004

In 2009, the Eastern European Partnership was formed with Ukraine being the biggest member of former Soviet satellite states, along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova. Belarus eventually allied itself politically with Russia, and Armenia did likewise in September. The biggest trading block awaits Ukraine

But old memories die hard for Russia. As a former piece of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, still under the domination of Moscow. For the last year Moscow has initiated limited trade disruption, political pressure, and outright coercion in order to forestall any signing by Ukraine with the EU.

Likewise, Ukraine sees things from its perspective and has been playing one against the other, before, during and after Vilnius.

Ukraine is a divided country with ethnic Ukrainians speaking Russian as their native language - some 40 percent - mostly in the eastern part of the country. Kiev in the middle and territorial Ukraine to the west sees itself as 'more Western' and wants to align itself with the belief and hope that they too may become part of Western Europe.

Today, Kiev has become the epicenter of political protest, with President Yaukovich first negotiating with the EU for years, then, prior to the EU summit in mid-November, signaling his intentions not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU.

The mood, and the political tone of the protesters, has changed from simply telling Yaukovich to sign with the EU to now a belief that the government of Ukraine should resign and new elections should be called.

For years, each member state of the Eastern Partnership has negotiated in good faith with the EU and in turn, the EU has invested some 964,100,000 euros into Ukraine since 2007 according to /goto/ A thank you is yet to be received from Kiev. Criticism continues

Georgia has always been the biggest anti-Russian player, and a brief war with Russia in 2008 is testament to the bitterness between the two. But today, relations are improving; and, Georgia initialed its Association Agreement documents with the EU in Vilnius, a snub to Moscow.

Since the conclusion of the Eastern European Summit in Vilnius on Nov. 29, Ukraine has experienced protests and demonstrations not seen since the Orange Revolution of 2004 when protests were able to topple the government and force new elections.

Many today are calling for a repeat of 2004, for the failure of Yanukovich to side with the European Union after years of negotiations. But that is only the beginning. Most want a government corruption-free and responsive to the will of the people, but for now political power remains in the hands of Yanukovich and his Party of Regions that control the Parliament

An observer on the street-led peaceful revolution is no other than former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, in Kiev the first week of December and sounding a tone of defiance and resolve against the Yanukovich administration.

Saakashvili said to those assembled in Independence Square: “I am Ukrainian, I am Georgian, and I am European. I knew that one day Ukraine would become an example of success and an example of an Eastern European nation integrated into the European family of free, democratic, prospering countries. Today, I see that I was right. Ukraine will be able to do this; we will do this together,” according to Radio Free Europe. He added, “nothing can prevent our common aspirations of freedom.”

Saakashvili is a never tiring critic of Moscow, Western educated and credited with bringing Georgia from a Soviet puppet state into a democratic and parliamentary democracy, who relinquished his office in Tbilisi and now has time to encourage other like-minded street leaders in the ways of peaceful protest.

He was not the only Georgian in Kiev, as the distinctive red-and-white five cross flag of Georgia was on display alongside the Ukrainian flag. Fellow Georgian Giorgi Zhvania has been camped out since the start of the street protests, working as an organizer by handing out food and offering other logistical support to fellow protesters.

Said Zhvania: “There are ten of us Georgians here. I’ve personally been here more than two weeks, almost from the [first] day of the resistance. I want to work with the Ukrainian people and my Ukrainian brothers shoulder-to-shoulder to get rid of the corrupt government and to secure a better future in the European family. It's a desire we all share,” he was quoted as saying by Radio Liberty. Geopolitics plays itself out

The intrigue in Kiev, Brussels and Moscow came to a head in December when Ukraine sided with its long-time historic partner and accepted a Moscow deal that involves some 15 billion euros in economic assistance and reduces energy rates from its number one energy supplier.

“The European Union and Russia have long fought for influence over Ukraine, but with this deal Moscow proved its willingness to pay a steep price to keep Ukraine in its orbit. While Ukraine is a matter of interest for the European Union's neighborhood policy, it is vital to Russia's geopolitical existence. Therefore, Moscow was willing to put up billions of dollars if that is what it took to guarantee Kiev's orientation away from the West,” writes Stratfor, a U.S. based global intelligence firm.

“This is not to say that the European Union has completely lost out in the ongoing geopolitical tug of war over Ukraine. Yanukovich's moves have created dismay among EU officials and led to the eruption of protests in Kiev. The Europeans have supported these protests, and emerging opposition leaders such as Vitali Klitschko (a political opposition leader) have backing from the likes of Germany. It is not clear whether Yanukovich will be able to manage the political opposition indefinitely, as he will face a significant challenge in the upcoming presidential election in 2015, if not sooner,” Statfor concluded.

European Parliament members Vira Ratsiborynska and Justina Vitkauskaite Bernard write, “The Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius became an event that increased the pressure of this dilemma by exposing the decision process more to the public in Ukraine and Armenia, resulting in heated discussions and confrontation. For Moldova and Georgia this summit was the starting point in determining and finalizing their pro-European choice. It was a time of abstention for Belarus and Azerbaijan.”
The different geopolitical interests of Russia and the EU became visible in the regions. Various integration and disintegration forces, respectively pro- or anti- with regard to the offered integration models, had become active and began confronting each other in these countries at the time.

Russia has a very keen interest in the Ukraine for many reasons. Today Russian gas pipelines run through the country. But this short-term tension between Russia and the Ukraine is not a new one; rather, is goes back centuries. 

Russia and Ukraine's histories are so intertwined that it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. In fact, modern day Russia was born out of Kiev Rus, a loosely defined federation of East Slavic tribes. The Kievan Rus was formed in what is modern day Kiev, and the capital of the Ukraine. So without the Ukraine there would never have been a Russia.

These facts did not fall on deaf ears in the private discussion between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Yanukovich the second week of December.

Those discussions and eventual outcome of the decision reached will have far reaching consequences. They played the geopolitical chess game to its fullest in the early part of the 21st century.

Score a political victory for Vladimir Putin and his desire to maintain his sphere of influence with Ukraine (and Armenia). However, the European Union will get a political rematch in the future with the Balkans, and eventually Turkey, both poised to make their move one way or another, to the East or West in the years to come.