Ukraine’s Unfolding Political Drama and its Implications

China International Studies | 作者: Zhao Mingwen | 时间: 2014-06-20 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
Adjust font size: + -


by Zhao Mingwen


Ukraine is a geopolitical pivot in the Eurasian grand chess game. Russia deems it as the core belt in its rivalry with the US and Europe, and the crux to its rejuvenation, while the US and Europe view it as an important component in containing Russia. Because of this, after the Cold War, Ukraine has always been one of the key states prone to the geopolitical rivalry between the West and Russia. Ukraine has been vacillating between the West and East, eking out a living amid fierce contest between Europe and the US as one side and Russia as the opposite. The impact of the geopolitical rivalry on Ukrainian domestic politics, coupled by economic, social and ethnic factors, resulted in the sudden change in the Ukrainian political situation.


I. Political Drama Arising from Diplomatic Abrupt Turn


Ukraine has been dedicated to the integration with Europe, and held a lukewarm attitude to the integration with the Commonwealth of Independent States, keeping its ties with Russia at arm’s length since independence. When Yushchenko took power through “Orange Revolution”, Ukraine practiced a whole-sale pro-West policy. In February 2010, Yanukovych took office and, proceeding from its national conditions, restored and developed traditional ties with Russia while not repudiating the integration guidelines with the West. He maintained a foreign policy that strikes a balance between the West and East and initiated EU Association Agreement with the European Union. However, on November 21, 2013, the Ukrainian government all of a sudden declared the suspension of the related work with the European Union over the Association Agreement and veered towards Russia in an active way. This aroused the outrages of domestic opposition and many populace who were for the European integration process, triggering a large-scale demonstration activities running on for several months.

On January 31, 2014, Ukraine issued an amnesty, releasing demonstrators arrested before and agreed to solve the crisis through political dialogue. However, instigated by the radicals and abetted by the West, those who refused to hold dialogues with the government gained an upper hand, the scale of demonstration expanded continuously. On February 18, when the Ukrainian authorities cleared the protest sites, the opposition activists and protestors clashed with the police, resulted scores of deaths and hundreds more injured. Under the mediation of the West, on February 21, Yanukovych compromised again and signed a conciliatory agreement, agreeing to hold early presidential election and resume the 2004 constitution, which gave a bigger power to the parliament and the prime minister so as to end the political turmoil lasting for several months long.

However, the Ukrainian opposition was not contented with the result of “conciliatory agreement”. On February 22, when Tymoshenko’s ally, the Ukrainian opposition Motherland Party leader Turchynov replaced parliament speaker Rybak, who resigned for “health” reason, to be the new speaker,the Ukrainian parliament then passed the resolution of relieving Yanukovych’s presidency, holding an early election and restoring the 2004 constitution and freeing former prime minister Tymoshenko. Freed Tymoshenko rushed to the “Maidan” and called for the protestors to stay on until their demands met, thus further complicating the situation. The next day, Ukrainian parliament adopted a resolution allowing the new speaker of parliament temporarily performing the duties of the president. The Ukrainian military also openly declared “neutral”, claiming it would not involve in any political conflicts, some police stood by the side of protestors. The ruling party – the Regions headed by Yanukovych started to secede, publicly declaring to draw a clear line with Yanukovych, about forty parliamentarians from the Party of the Regions quitted. On February 24, the Ukrainian acting internal affairs minister claimed that Yanukovych was now on the wanting list of police. Under such circumstances, though Yanukovych stressed that he was “legitimately elected President”, and “will neither leave the country to go anywhere, nor intend to resign”, he was forced to escape to Russia to “seek asylum”.

It could be said that the suspension of signing the Association Agreement with the European Union was the flashpoint of the sudden change in Ukrainian political situation. Although this iconic “diplomatic about-face” of the Yanukovych regime had the calculation of undercutting the signing the Agreement with the EU, forcing the EU drop the demand of freeing Tymoshenko and high requirements attached, the main reason was more of economic unquestionably.

Up to the end of 2013, Ukraine was still in the grip of financial crisis, with a GDP growth rate no more than 1%, lagging far behind 4.5% target set by the government. In 2014, Ukraine needs to service $3.7 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund, and pay $170 billion natural gas fees to Russia. Besides, Ukraine also faces the “high risk” of sovereignty debt to the tune of 60 billion Euros. The Standard Poor forecasts Ukraine’s national debt will soon increase to 40% of its GDP, and has lowered its credit ranking from B- to CCC+ and later to CCC. According to the most optimistic estimates, Ukraine’s economic growth rate will not exceed 1.5%; this has landed the Ukrainian government in a situation whereby it can not make both ends meet, but to seek foreign assistance.

But, the EU could not come to the rescue of Ukrainian economic and financial dilemma. The EU had neither the ability to increase investment in Ukraine nor to earmark extra capital to fill the vast financial shortages of Ukraine, thus it had to count on the international financial organizations to provide aid to Ukraine. In 2013, the IMF declared that only when Ukraine met its demands, i.e. carrying out privatization, expanding government reform, relaxing market control, liberalizing its trade and raising the price of natural gas, etc, was it able to offer aid to Ukraine. Even though Ukraine would sign the Agreement with the EU, it could not solve its pressing financial difficulties. Under this circumstance, Ukraine had no way out but to resort to Russia.

The Customs Union, with Russia as the head, has always been the main trading partner of Ukraine. As the biggest trading partner of Ukraine, Russia imports one fourth of Ukraine’s total grain export annually. Nevertheless, since the inception of the Customs Union in January, 2010, Ukrainian economic relations with CIS countries have dwindled drastically due to commodity quotas, tax as well as quality inspection etc. In 2012, Ukrainian total volume of goods with CIS countries dropped 4.7% compared with the same period of previous year. Since early 2013, Ukraine and Russia bilateral trade volume plummeted by a big margin and Ukrainian import and export of goods kept on going downwards, its income of foreign currency declined markedly. Ukrainian Prime Minister Azarov expressed that Ukraine could not live with this telling blow. Ukraine’s suspension of the Agreement may contribute to the easing of wide pressure of marginalization by the Customs Union over a period of time.

Meantime, Russia tried every possible means to win over Ukraine. When Yanukovych was facing the choice of whether signing the Agreement with the EU or establishing “3+1” cooperation mechanism with the Customs Union, or simply remained as a observer to the EU, President Putin repeatedly reminded Yanukovych that if Ukraine went ahead with the Agreement with the EU, Russia’s door would not be as wide open to Ukraine. And most probably the aeronautics and astronautics as well as military cooperation between the two countries would be cut. More importantly, Russia’s natural gas supply to Ukraine would be reorganized in a way of “payment before usage” as far as the mode of payment was concerned. If Ukraine accedes to the Customs Union, nothing of this will change, what is more, Russia will buy Ukrainian state bonds to help assuage Ukrainian financial dire straits. Because of all this, suspending the Agreement, resuming positive dialogues with Russia and expanding the economic and trade cooperation with the Customs Union countries, with Russia included, become the only option available for the Ukrainian government. Then, Eurasia Economic Commission trade minister declared the Customs Union would remove technical barriers to the import and export of Ukrainian goods and practice lasses-faire policy in terms of inspection of goods, license as well as other documents.

On December 17, 2013, President Putin said in a press conference after the conclusion of Russia-Ukraine Interstate Commission Meeting that Russia would lower the natural gas price offered to Ukraine from the previous $400 to $268.5 per thousand cubic meters from 2014-2019. To rescue Ukrainian financial difficulties, Russian government decided to earmark $15 billion from the state welfare fund to buy in euro bonds issued by Ukraine. At the time when the Ukrainian opposition inveigled protestors to heighten offensive against the Ukrainian government, President Putin promised an emergent $2 billion economic aid to Ukraine to help alleviate Ukrainian economy and to quench the dissatisfaction of the Ukrainian opposition and populace to the government. The Ukrainian Prime Minister Azarov conceded that Ukraine would face the risk of state bankruptcy and society crumbling down.


II. Main Factors to Ukraine’s Political Drama


The demonstration by opposition and part of populace triggered by the suspension of the Agreement ended up being the second “Color Revolution” in which opposition usurped power and changed the government. Apart from the underestimates of the severity of developments by President Yanukovych and government, his weak ability of controlling the situation, his fragile ruling base, the European and US instigation as well as the onslaught of the opposition constituted the main reasons.

Pushing Ukraine to “break away from Russia and align with Europe” was the fixed strategy of the West after the Cold War, and they did a lot of preparations for this. Ukraine became a country in the CIS receiving the most aid from the West. In 2012, when Ukraine initialed the Agreement with the EU, the EU was of the view that Ukrainian parliament would smoothly pass this milestone document. Conversely, Yanukovych government’s “diplomatic about-face” at this critical moment almost dashed hope of the EU and the US in rivalry with Russia, the West thus added up more political pressure and economic seduction in a bid to make Ukraine change its mind and return to the track of integration with Europe.

To buttress demonstrations of the Ukrainian opposition, the EU and US high-ranking officials frequently flied to Ukraine to drum up support for it. Soon after the Ukrainian government took actions to clear the protest site, the West and the US stepped up their pressure on Yanukovych. The US took the lead in practicing visa sanctions on the Ukrainian officials who “used excessive force” in clearing the protest site. Obama censured that Kiev’s violence was attributed to Yanukovych and Ukrainian government. The EU had a emergency meeting condemning Ukrainian government, voicing that targeted measures would be taken to punish those who used excessive force and exacerbated the tension, such as travel ban, capital freezing. At the same time, the EU also tried to win over Ukraine by promising that so long as Ukraine would go ahead with the Agreement and agree to the loan conditions set by the IMF, Ukraine was able to acquire 1.5 billion Euros of aid from the EU and 17.5 billion Euros of loans from the IMF in the next seven years. Acting on the actual deteriorating financial and economic situations of Ukraine, the EU proclaimed that it could consider offer Ukraine 610 million Euros of conditional aid to Ukraine beforehand.

Yanukovych himself was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the privatization reform in Ukraine. In his career of merchant turned politician, Yanukovych was focused on building an oligarchy clique, controlled the security forces and amassed a large fortune particularly after taking office in 2010. This had aroused further strong discontentment of the general public and the opposition at a time when the Ukrainian economy was going downwards. The Ukrainian government’s decision to suspend the Agreement provided an opportune chance for the opposition to attack the government.

The erstwhile oligarchies and interest groups that support Yanukovych left him at this juncture was the direct cause for the sudden change of the political situation. The noted merchant Victor Pinqiuk who mainly conducted business in Europe, had not been on good terms with Yanukovych. As signing the Agreement could exempt the tariff for his import and export goods from Europe, Pinchuk had from the very beginning been supporting the Ukrainian opposition and attacked Yanukovych through the media he controlled. Ukrainian chocolate guru Petro Poroshenko, whose business was stormed by the Customs Union barriers, was a strong advocate of the Agreement and was active in developing ties with the EU. Rinat Akhmetov,Ukraine’s wealthiest man, and Dmitry Firtash, Ukraine’s media tycoon, who were long-time allies of Yanukovych, felt a sense of foreboding that Yanukovych could not hold the ground and went their own way by leaving Yanukovych behind, Fertash’s media even sided with opposition. Fertash also inveigled Yanukovych’s top aid to go to Davos at the critical time, which dealt a blow to Yanukovych. Moreover, scores of parliamentarians from Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions withdrew, and the Party then switched sides and proclaimed Yanukovych removed from the Party and drew a clear line with him. Before all this, the forces sustaining Yanukovych in the Parliament finally vanished and the last bedrock underpinning Yanukovych government crumbled.


III. The Impacts of Ukraine’s Unfolding Political Drama


Although the dust of the sudden change of Ukrainian political situation is settling down, the rivalry between the West and Russia as well as the arm-wrestling among Ukrainian various domestic political forces over the battle of Ukraine is far from being over yet, and it might become even acute.

First, the struggle between Europe, the US and Russia is slated to become even fiercer and more apparent.

Ukraine, being one of the three main Slavic states, constitutes the key of reconstituting the Slavic core of Eurasia and the promotion of the integration of the CIS. From a geostrategic perspective, for Russia, losing Ukraine would absolve it of the buffer zone to ward off the onslaught of the NATO. Equally to Europe and the US, preventing a return to traditional ties between Ukraine and Russia represents a fixed strategy of containing and minimizing Russia. Notwithstanding switching of the grounds constantly, the tussle between the West and Russia over Ukraine’s future is certain to continue unabatedly.

Russia attacked the EU for staging a coup d’état through inciting riots, condemned American concoction of a rebellion and voicing irresponsible remarks over a sovereign state and its wish to impose a Western-style development model on Ukraine. Russia foreign minister Lavrov said over telephone conversation with the US secretary of state Kerry that, Russian president Putin called for the US leaders to take all necessary steps to stop the unlawful acts of radicals and put the developments of Ukraine back on the track of constitution. Kerry responded that, the US would urge all parties concerned to implement the agreement reached on February 21, and committed to use all means to exercise pressure on the opposition. But the US also welcomed the releasing of Tymoshenko, saying this conflicts-ridden country’s future should be decided by its own people. This led to Russia’s dissatisfaction. On February 25, Lavrov noted that, Moscow had no intention of intervening in the internal affairs of Ukraine, but called for other countries to take the same stance, saying forcing Ukraine to take the choice of “either side with us or against us” is rather risky. But shortly after this, Russia, on the pretext of a turbulent Ukraine might relax its foodstuff quality inspection, declared that Russia and the Customs Union countries might limit import of high-risk Ukrainian foodstuffs or the business cooperation ties built up over the past many years might be affected if the Ukrainian leadership changed. Up till Yanukovych fled to Russia, Moscow still refused to recognize Ukrainian interim government. On March 4, Putin said openly that Yanukovych was still the only legitimate president of Ukraine.

Although the US time again warned Russia against sending troops to Ukraine, Russia Federation Commission forged ahead to adopt the decision of enabling president Putin to use Russian armed forces in Ukraine. In following this decision, Putin dispatched part of military forces in the name of military exercises. Russian president secretary explained Putin was entitled to all the necessary means to solve the current tensions, the head of state would take actions as he deemed fit according to the latest developments.

The US and its allies voiced strong opposition to Russia’s “response”. The secretary of NATO said in an emergent meeting that Ukraine was our neighbor and a precious partner, Russia’s actions over Ukraine had violated the UN Charter, was actually threatening the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as peace and security of Europe. Russia should stop its military actions and threats. On March 4, the US secretary of state Kerry said during his visit in Ukraine that, the US would fully support Ukrainian interim government and provide $1billion aid to Ukraine. Meanwhile, the US Sixth Fleet sent two war ships to Crimea Peninsular across the Russian Sevastopol Navy Base. However, Putin continued to stress over the phone with Obama that had the violence run rampant in the eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia had the right to protect its own interests and Russian-speaking populations. In responding to the threats of boycott by the seven western nations to the G8 Summit in Sochi in June 2014, Putin replied that “we will keep on preparing the G8 summit and welcome the arrivals of our colleagues. Should they do not want to come, then forget it”. Obviously, Ukrainian political crisis plunged the ties between Russia and the West into a deep valley.

Secondly, the conflicts among various domestic political forces and contradictions between the eastern and western part of Ukraine stimulated.

Ukrainian political crisis made the inherent domestic contradictions more pronounced and produced spin-off latent ills.

One is that opposition’s contradictions in the redistribution of power will become tenser. The former ruling Party the Regions, excluded from the power by the opposition though, will not resign to its defeat. On February 27, Yanukovych, who was removed from the Party expressed in Russia that, he was “still the legitimate president of Ukraine elected on the free expression of people, the related resolutions passed in the parliament was unlawful”, he would continue to fight for the future of Ukraine. To avoid the threats from the radicals, he had to rely on the Russian federal government to protect his safety and Russia had accepted and promised his safety in Russia. The third biggest party Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms leader Klitschko and his team is also kept outside of the new government. The radical rightwing Liberal Party leader is not willing to cooperate with other opposition in the government; the cracks among opposition are hard to fill. With the new election nearing in May, it is difficult to find a person who can unite various domestic political forces as well as the eastern and west part of Ukraine.

Another is that the inherent differences between the eastern and western part are sure to heat up. If it can be said that the direct fuse of this Ukraine “Street Revolution” was the suspension of the Agreement, the underlying reason was the serious antithesis among Ukrainian various political forces and people over diplomatic orientation of being either “eastward” or “westward”. Given the factors of population, geography, history and culture, one third of Ukrainians in the eastern part of country adjacent to Russia wish to develop traditional ties with Russia, while the western part is more exposed to the clout of the West and more prone to join the European community. The EU’s aim to draw Ukraine to break away from Russia and join Europe has exacerbated the old contradictions between the eastern and western part of Ukraine. Even if one day a “democratic”, pro-Europe candidate wins the presidential election, no matter who rules the country, it is no easy job to do to solve the acute ethnic problems, still less to bridge the gap of various sides’ political aspirations.

On February 23, when the parliament adopted a series of resolutions favorable to the opposition, a 20 thousand-strong demonstration erupted in the south Sevastopol and elected a Russian citizen to be its new mayor, and further put forward claims of non-payment of tax to Kiev, to put the police under the jurisdiction of municipality. The demonstrators held unanimously the Russian flags, holding high the placards of “Putin-Our President” and “Russia, Please Retrieve Us”. Odessa and Kerch also had similar demonstrations, replaced Ukrainian flags over the city halls with the Russian ones, chanting slogans against the integration with the EU. A petition calling for Putin to dispatch troops to the eastern part of Ukraine received more than 100 thousand autographs within 24 hours once posted on the Internet.

On February 25, Crimea citizens started to gather around the parliament building to stage a open-ended demonstration, refusing to accept the new leadership after Kiev riot, requesting 1992 version of constitution of Crimea be restored, asking for the right of independent foreign policy. On February 27, Crimea parliament passed the resolution of holding a referendum of breakaway from Ukraine. On March 1, Crimea autonomous republic prime minister Sergei Aksyonov requested Putin to protect Crimea’s peace and order. On March 6, Crimea autonomous republic parliament adopted a resolution, stating the republic would join the Russian federation as a republic and bring forward the referendum regarding this from March 30 to March 16. Ukrainian pro-Russian secessionism is becoming more prominent.

Although the new speaker Turchynov expressed in his letter dedicated to the Ukrainian people that Ukrainian new leaders would develop its ties with Russia under the premise of true equality and peace and acceptance of Ukraine’s choice of Europe. Ukraine’s main task was to return to the route of the integration with Europe and to European community. And it is no easy task for this foreign policy to be the common wish and aspiration of all quarters of life and various political forces. “It is unimaginable to believe that under the present circumstance that winner of an early presidential election could have the recognition of all”. Seen from this perspective, the “Street Revolution” of the Ukrainian opposition will not end easily; the orientation of Ukraine being either westward or eastward, which has plagued the previous governments, will continue to be the main insurmountable obstacles for the new leaders of opposition in the course of the state development path.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the successive Ukrainian governments were never able to shake off the scramble between the West and Russia. Historically and culturally, Ukraine has inseparable ties with Russia and its economy and energy are so heavily relied on Russia, thus its total inclination towards the West and the US is not feasible. In the near future, though Ukraine’ diplomatic pendulum will move more towards the West, in the longer term, the character of the Ukrainian society will not allow it to identify itself with either side wholeheartedly. The possibility is that Ukraine will keep on vacillating between the West and East. Like what Lavrov noted, a simple glance of Ukrainian history since independence shows that, any effort to switch its diplomatic orientation at one stroke – either to the East or West, will end in failure.


 Source: China International Studies March/April 2014 99-112