Since Ukraine’s government broke off talks on an Association Agreement with the European Union, protesters have poured onto the streets of Kyiv. Meanwhile, disappointment in Ukraine and the West has coalesced into two main camps. The first camp—let’s call them “sour grapes Euro-integrationists”—have huffed that it’s just as well Europe didn’t choke down the Ukrainian poison pill, given how little Ukraine seems ready to do the hard work it takes to become part of the West. The second camp—let’s call them “Chicken Little geostrategists”—are consumed by the notion that Ukraine’s rejection of EU Association has doomed the continent to decades of deepening division between Brussels’ sphere in the West, and that of Moscow in the East.
Actually, neither dire prediction about the future is likely to hold, at least not for very long.
With every passing day, Ukraine becomes more thoroughly connected to Europe and the global information economy, while Ukrainian civil society builds up its own capacity to influence politics. The apparently close coordination among street protesters, social-media activists, and opposition politicians is only the latest indication that despite the disappointing outcome of the 2004-05 Orange Revolution, Ukrainians still strive to hold their leaders accountable. Meanwhile, the old saw about Ukraine as the key to Russia’s Eurasian empire gets things exactly backwards, since absorbing Ukraine into a Russia-led post-Soviet bloc is surely the best way to undermine Moscow’s perquisites.
The bigger problem with lamentations about “who lost Ukraine” is that they offer no useful assessment of why Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich actually decided to walk away from the table, while painting the future with a hopelessly broad brush, and sidestepping the most urgently important question—what to do next.
There is more than enough criticism to go around for the EU’s too ambivalent, inconsistent, and ultimately over-bureaucratized approach to the Eastern Partnership, to which Ukraine’s EU integration agenda was an obvious centerpiece. Yet it was Yanukovich who decided to put the brakes on the European Association process, not Brussels. That choice derived above all from the President’s two irreconcilable fears: On the one hand, despite European pressure to release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko as a precondition for EU Association, Yanukovich could not risk forfeiting the modicum of control he maintains over his archnemesis as long as she rots in a Kharkiv prison cell. On the other hand, Yanukovich has been forced to reiterate Ukraine’s commitment to EU integration, even after suspending the formal process, because without an EU perspective he forfeits his bargaining power with Ukraine’s big business oligarchs (who favor it) and the Kremlin (which does not).
Despite a torrent of light and noise, including the latest mass protests in Kyiv, in the short term Yanukovich’s decision helps him avoid political risks, whether from a crusading political rival cloaked in the glory of her recent martyrdom, or from Putin’s retaliation against Ukraine’s economic ties with Russia. However, Yanukovich’s next big challenge is just around the corner—presidential elections scheduled for January 2015. Without the tangible benefits of EU visa and trade liberalization to offer up to Ukraine’s intensely pragmatic swing voters, the president can hardly expect to win on his record alone. Yet under the microscope of international scrutiny he cannot easily steal the vote, while Putin, who despises Yanukovich personally, has no incentive to help out, even if he could.