Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Ukraine at a Crossroads
By Steven Massa
The recent protests and revolution in Ukraine have brought to the forefront once again the nation’s divided soul. One side desires closer relations with Russia, the other with the European Union (and the West more generally). This conflict highlights the important status that such issues of international relations take in the domestic politics of Ukraine; though these divisions may be based on linguistic, ethnic, and geographic culture more so than on politics (at least at the popular level), they have nonetheless proven integral to Ukraine’s path not only domestically, but internationally.
Ukraine has vacillated between Europe and Russia since its independence at the fall of the Soviet Union. A significant factor in these relations has been economic consideration. Although Ukraine was an integral part of the Soviet economy and had the foundations for a relatively strong economy, including large amounts of agricultural land and a sizable industrial sector, throughout the 1990s the country suffered a deep recession. There was a rebound and decent growth through much of the 2000s, but the country has been hard-hit by the Great Recession since 2008. In the midst of 20 years of economic difficulties, Ukraine has struggled to find a balance between its east and west. Both sides have offered chances for economic support, but at a price: EU association requires continual moves towards a stronger rule of law and decreasing corruption; Russian ties require fewer governmental changes but arguably carry a stronger sphere of influence, especially given Ukraine’s minority ethnic Russian population.
Ukraine’s current crisis is most directly impacted by (or rooted in) the Europe-Russia split. The Orange Revolution after the presidential election in 2004 carried accusations of possible Russian aid in election fraud (as well as accusations against the West of fomenting dissent), but the protests which began in November 2013 were precipitated by concerns over President Viktor Yanukovych’s position on expanding Ukraine-EU relations. Ukraine’s ties with the EU since its independence have been measured, but often publicly oriented toward fuller relations and the possibility of eventual EU membership. This was expressed most fully in 2009 with the formation of the Eastern Association, a group aimed toward easing movement and trade between the EU and Ukraine and 5 other Eastern European/Caucasus post-Soviet states. A further extension of this was to be a bilateral Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU. It was the failure of Yanukovych and the Ukrainian legislature to approve this agreement in late 2013 that sparked the protests leading to the current situation.
Ukraine’s ties with Russia since independence have often been based more on economic than political considerations, which has led to a somewhat more strained but still important relationship. Russia remains Ukraine’s most important trade partner, and provides much of Ukraine’s natural gas needs (despite Ukraine’s own abundant natural gas resources). In addition, Ukraine serves as a conduit for the movement of Russian gas into Europe, a situation that has increased tension between the two states. Finally, Ukraine has a sizable minority of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in its eastern and southern provinces (in particular Crimea). Ultimately, Ukrainian-Russian relations have (at least from the Ukrainian perspective) been based more on necessity and at times pressure from the more powerful Russia than anything else.
Of course it is reductive to ascribe domestic issues in Ukraine to a standoff between pro-EU and pro-Russian factions though the current conflict began there. But Ukraine’s immediate economic concerns are very much tied to the broader strategic and economic path the nation chooses to follow. There are many who would claim that pursuing ties with both Russia and the EU are not mutually exclusive, and certainly they are correct; indeed, this is very much the path that Ukraine has been trying to follow since its independence through attempting to maintain economic ties with Russia while developing closer economic and political ties with the EU. Unfortunately, the difficulty has been in the execution. Russia is concerned over the developing ties between Ukraine and the wider West and has used its economic power and influence in Ukraine to make such developments more difficult. At the same time, there are concerns within Ukraine over the continued pursuit of EU association and the true benefits that could be gained from it, as well as the West’s and EU’s true interest in Ukraine.
The recent events in Ukraine have underlined the importance that international politics can have at the domestic level. While Ukraine ultimately should not need to choose exclusively between Russia and the EU, it will need to reach a settlement that allows it to normalize these important economic partnerships. Russia’s actions in Crimea have made this a more difficult process, and in the end may push Ukraine further toward the EU, regardless of Crimea’s final status. Ukraine’s domestic interests have borne the brunt of external interests since its independence, and many may now feel, as their unity is put to the test, that they are being forced to choose between Russian partnership with territorial integrity and EU association from a diminished Ukraine – the devil and the deep blue sea.
Featured Image from ABC (http://a.abcnews.com/images/International/GTY_ukraine_protests_sk_131204_16x9_992.jpg)
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Putin wants to create himself as a new Hitler on the globe