Ukraine: Responding to a Meltdown

December 5, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: Ukraine

Ukraine: Responding to a Meltdown

How America should react.


For all the talk about a geopolitical showdown over Ukraine with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Obama administration has largely been a bystander to the unfolding drama in Kyiv. That may change when the lead U.S. troubleshooter, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, arrives in Kyiv on Thursday.

With John Kerry and other European foreign ministers snubbing Ukraine’s hosting of an OSCE ministerial, Nuland’s role is largely as a stand-in for her boss. Yet her presence raises important questions about the U.S. role in the crisis. Should the U.S. directly support the protesters on the Maidan seeking the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych as it did during the Orange Revolution in 2004? Can the U.S. coax Ukraine’s leaders to revive the scuttled trade and association agreements with the EU while urging the unpalatable reforms needed to stave off a financial crisis? What is the most effective response to Russia’s heavy-handed treatment of its neighbors?


With all the drama on Kyiv’s Maidan, formulating answers to these questions is no easy task.

Consider the following:

1. Yanukovych may not be going anywhere.

So far, the Ukrainian regime has basically held together, and there’s no mistaking Yanukovych’s determination to stay in power at all costs. The government easily survived a vote of no-confidence in the Verkhovna Rada on December 3, and President Yanukovych felt comfortable leaving town for a previously scheduled visit to Beijing. Apart from a handful of defections in parliament, the cabinet is intact, and the security services and army have remained loyal. Perhaps most importantly, there are no signs that any of the oligarchs who control most of the Ukrainian economy are actively trying to bring down the government.

Without a unifying leader or concrete political agenda, it’s far from clear that the opposition can convert people power into political power and break the standoff on the streets of Kyiv. Anger over Yanukovych’s resort to violence over the weekend may be widespread, but there are few signs of political upheaval from his political base in the more heavily industrialized eastern portions of the country. With Yanukovych’s longtime nemesis Yuliya Tymoshenko safely locked up three hundred miles away in Kharkiv, the protesters lack a charismatic figure as their standard-bearer.

For their part, Nuland and other U.S. officials would be better off working quietly in the background, encouraging peaceful political dialogue, and supporting the search for a possible compromise. Muddling through is an art form in contemporary Ukrainian politics, and Yanukovych conceivably might make just enough concessions (say, by firing a few unpopular figures widely blamed for the violence) to hold on to his job and remain a viable candidate in the February 2015 presidential elections.

2. The U.S. is no longer a big player in Ukraine.

Back in the 1990s, U.S. officials played an outsized role in Kyiv, supporting Ukrainian independence and helping steer the country through a series of economic near-catastrophes and contretemps with its powerful neighbor to the east. No longer.

Throughout Yanukovych’s semiauthoritarian rule, U.S. policy has been to freeze high-level contacts. That means that there is no rapport between top officials and little basis for U.S. officials to engage in serious wheeling and dealing at this juncture. (The two direct, and entirely symbolic, exchanges between Presidents Obama and Yanukovych occurred on the margins of nuclear safety summits in Washington in spring 2010 and Seoul in March 2012. John Kerry has met just once with his Ukrainian counterpart.)

U.S. economic interests in Ukraine are also quite small. Total trade in 2012 was a puny $3.3 billion—roughly on par with Nicaragua. More recently, U.S. energy majors ExxonMobil and Chevron have struck deals on oil exploration in the Black Sea and shale-gas development onshore, but these efforts are in their earliest stages.

3. The EU hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory

Rather awkwardly, the U.S. finds itself playing second fiddle to EU leaders whose strategy toward Ukraine seems, at best, half-hearted and clumsy. The dirty secret is that the trade and partnership agreements that Yanukovych refused to sign last week did not enjoy strong support in major European capitals. With Ukraine burning through meager foreign-currency reserves to service its external debt, the endless wrangling over the EU’s heavily symbolic accords became, if anything, an increasingly unhelpful distraction.

Moreover, the benefits from these EU-Ukraine agreements will only materialize over the long-term, as the country implements various administrative and regulatory reforms. They will do little or nothing to shield Ukraine’s economy from the effects of threatened Russian trade barriers or the punishingly high price that Ukraine pays for Russian natural gas to run its economy. And by insisting on the release of Tymoshenko from prison as a precondition for signature of the agreements in Vilnius, the EU introduced a poison pill that effectively made it impossible for Yanukovych to sign up.

The question for U.S. policymakers now is whether Yanukovych’s very public snubbing of EU leaders has created so much embarrassment and bad blood in Brussels and other capitals that there’s a risk that the EU will find it hard to say yes if he eventually comes around. Let’s hope not.

4. Russia may not hold as many cards as it appears.

There’s no excuse for Putin’s brazen meddling in his neighbors’ affairs. Even lowly Armenia was forced by Moscow to shelve its many-years-in-the-making trade agreements with the EU and to join the Russia-led Customs Union in September. Yet the grandiose Eurasian Union project that animates most of Putin’s actions is still in its embryonic stages and far from popular with Russian voters, who loathe subsidizing much poorer neighbors. And it’s not immediately clear that Ukraine even intends to sign up. At this point, Yanukovych is mostly talking to the Russians about, well, talking.

That fits with a long-standing Ukrainian policy of wheedling as much cash, credits, and concessions from the Russians as possible while keeping other, western-oriented options open. Clearly, Yanukovych badly miscalculated his handling of the EU, but it’s understandable why he would want a deep discount on Russian natural-gas prices in lieu of politically suicidal requests from the IMF to raise prices on Ukrainian households. It’s also clear that neither he nor Ukraine’s oligarchs have any interest in becoming Russia’s vassals or signing over their sovereignty.

Russian relations with its neighbors over the past twenty years are replete with this kind of maneuvering and bargaining. By all means, the U.S. can—and should—keep a watchful eye on developments and speak up for the right of countries like Ukraine to determine their own destinies and international partners. But we also need to recognize that entering into full-throttle geopolitical competition with Russia over its neighbors carries serious risks (cf. the disastrous effects of Bush administration’s relationship with Saakashvili’s Georgia in the run-up to the August 2008 war, or the bad blood engendered by the American military presence in Central Asia).

The U.S. clearly has any number of important interests in the post-Soviet space, not least preserving these countries’ independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. But we also should never lose sight of the fact that advancing them will require skillful diplomacy and a careful balancing act with Moscow, not just empty posturing about checking Russian neoimperialism.

Andrew S. Weiss is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served on the National Security Council Staff, on the State Department's Policy Planning staff, and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Clinton and George H.W. Bush Administrations.

Image: Flickr/thisisbossi. CC BY-SA 2.0.