KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine is in agony. In its 22 years of sovereignty, it has never had political leadership that could foster a national feeling among all Ukrainians. The previous, pro-Russian government was reviled by those who saw it as little more than an organized criminal gang. The new, pro-European government, propelled into power by the demonstrations in Kiev’s central square, has given those Ukrainians who opposed the protests very little reason to have confidence in it. The new government’sswift downgrading of the status of the Russian language made it appear to many that this was just another case of one clan taking power from another — and probably getting ready to snatch the spoils.
Ukraine spent 2013 dealing with the need to resolve a choice of its own making: whether to lean toward Europe or Russia. Both Europe and Russia showed keen interest in the outcome, and each tried to gain the upper hand. The result is today’s crisis.
But, given Kiev’s evident dysfunction, why were outsiders so interested in Ukraine?
●President Vladimir Putin wanted Ukraine to be part of his new Eurasian Economic Union, based in Moscow. If Kiev signed on with the European Union, thus reducing trade barriers to Europe, it would have scotched Putin’s plan.
●Part of the ideology behind the Eurasian union is that Russia and its neighbors have a different value system than the West. Putin has been pushing that idea hard. It contains a thinly veiled ethnic appeal, to fellow eastern Slavs. If Ukraine joined Europe, and prospered while abiding by European values, that would contradict Russia’s contentions.
●Russia feared that if Ukraine and the EU reduced trade barriers, European companies would use Ukraine as a conduit for flooding the Russian market. (Russian tariffs for Ukraine are lower than they are for Europe)
●Integration with Europe might be a prelude to integration with NATO, which Putin would see as a disaster. Russia bases its Black Sea fleet in Crimea; it would be unthinkable to maintain that base if Ukraine joins NATO.
●Much of the natural gas that Russia sells to Europe flows across Ukraine, and Russia’s state-owned Gazprom would very much like to gain control of Ukraine’s pipeline system.
●Putin was not a fan of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, and he apparently decided that the way to handle him was to smother him in the Kremlin’s embrace.
●Standing up for ethnic Russians abroad — millions live in Ukraine — is good politics at home.
The downside: Russian dominance of Ukraine would force Moscow to deal with extremely strong anti-Russian feeling among a significant part of the population.
The European Union
●Poland was the most enthusiastic proponent of the Ukraine trade deal. Polish leaders believed that it would lead to having a competently managed, largely democratic, non-corrupt nation as a neighbor. And that, they thought, would be better for Poland than the Ukraine that currently exists.
●Many in Europe — and in the United States — saw Ukraine as a nation not yet fully formed, and worried that without assistance toward becoming one it could turn into a flash point of East-West tension. (They were right.)
●The EU has launched a legal case to force Gazprom to divest itself of pipelines feeding Europe. Allowing Gazprom to assume control of Ukraine’s pipeline system would be a step backward.
●European leaders were also not fans of Yanukovych, and they decided that the way to handle him was to smother him in their embrace.
●European leaders are not fond of Putin. Denying him control of Ukraine might take him down a peg or two.
The downside: Owning Ukraine’s myriad problems.
So what’s their prize?
●For Russia: Putin offered Ukraine a $15 billion bailout in the fall. He had committed $3 billion by the time Yanukovych’s government came undone. That’s a write-off, but Russia gets to keep the other $12 billion.
●For Ukraine: The country is appealing to the EU and the International Monetary Fund for short-term and long-term loans. They will most likely be forthcoming, and for far more than $15 billion.
●For Ukraine: The Ukrainian people will have to bear the austerity that comes with the international assistance.
●For the West: They will be blamed for the austerity.
●For Russia: It may decide to keep control of Crimea. It will gain Russia plenty of enmity in Ukraine — and elsewhere.
The really big downside: All bets are off if the Crimea crisis leads to war.