Russia's Ukraine Power Play Pays Off

Well-timed pressure, combined with Yanukovych's own domestic worries, kept Ukraine away from the European Union.

The will-he-won’t-he suspense sowed by the speculation over whether Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych would formally sign the Association Agreement with the European Union is over.

On November 21, Yanukovych ended the guessing game that had produced a cottage industry of op-eds and blog posts. He told Brussels to buzz off. Well, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, deep-sixed the accord, but Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions (PR) dominates the legislature, and he dominates the PR, so it was really his decision. And it has set off a firestorm. Soon after the news became public, demonstrations erupted in Kiev and other major Ukrainian cities. Sunday’s rally in the capital brought some one hundred thousand people to the streets. Protesters clashed with police, who used tear gas to disperse them. Kiev’s main square is festooned with tents. More demonstrations are in the works. The scene is reminiscent of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which began nine years ago.

What mobilized the masses is the realization that, barring some deus ex machina development, Yanukovych has pretty much put the kibosh on Ukraine’s chances for a journey, however long, uncertain, and slow, toward the EU. His choice is not surprising. The implementation of the Association Agreement (AA) and the accompanying Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement (DCFTA) would have required Ukraine’s leadership to undertake far-reaching economic and political reforms.

One problem with signing the accords has been, all along, that this is a group that rules and enriches itself thanks to rampant crony capitalism and corruption. It’s good work if you can get it—and once you do, why would you give it up voluntarily? Signing the AA would, for Yanukovych and Co., have been tantamount to self-liquidation. What ruling elite does that? This is why Ukraine’s PR-dominated government has been ambivalent at best about the AA, something that was clear to me as far back as July 2011, when I met with its several senior officials as part of a European-American delegation.

No less important in shaping Yanukovych’s apparent decision to kill the AA is the controversy over the jailed opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, the only politician with the charisma and national standing to rally Ukrainians against their government, even in the Russophone south and east, Yanukovych’s base, and to challenge him in the 2015 presidential elections. Yanukovych both fears and loathes Tymoshenko, who has been languishing in jail since October 2011, serving a seven-year sentence after having been convicted of abusing her power when she was prime minister. Despite her own past failings, she has become a symbol of all that’s problematic about Yanukovych’s regime, not least because she was imprisoned following what were clearly kangaroo court proceedings. The EU’s demand that she be freed was arguably the biggest stumbling block in the AA endgame. To give Yanukovych a facing-saving formula, one that he could have used to come off as the compassionate leader, the EU had even worked out a compromise under which Tymoshenko would have been liberated and allowed to leave the country for medical treatment—related to back problems—in Germany. Yanukovych could have let his nemesis wander into what might have become open-ended exile.

But that wasn’t good enough for him. For all the benefits that the Association Agreement would have brought Ukraine, albeit not to him and his coterie, the risk of allowing Tymoshenko out in public, free to give interviews and make speeches denouncing his government, was unacceptable to Yanukovych. Apart from his outsized instinct for self-preservation, the animus he harbors toward Tymoshenko begat a determination to persist with her punishment, come what may—a pattern of behavior that Schopenhauer and Freud, among others, would have understood, but that puzzles the prophets of instrumental cost-benefit analysis and rational-choice theory.

Ukraine stands to gain from the AA in many ways; among them, easier access to a big export market, economic assistance, credit lines from the IMF, and reduced dependence on Russia. But for the id-driven Yanukovych, a fog of fear and hatred obscures the national interest.