Waiting to See If Ukraine Tilts East or West
Curiously, the ferocious tug-of-war between Russia and the European Union over Ukraine has come down to whether Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who is serving a seven-year prison sentence, is freed in the next few days. Today's Editorials Editorial: China’s New Agenda (November 17, 2013) Editorial: Sentenced to a Slow Death (November 17, 2013) Editorial: Reining in Payday Lenders (November 17, 2013)
In less than two weeks, Ukraine is supposed to sign an “association agreement” with the European Union at an E.U. summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania. The agreement is far short of E.U. membership, or even candidacy for membership, but it includes a free-trade pact and promises of financial aid that Ukraine, in dire straits, desperately needs. The agreement is essentially ready, the Ukrainian Parliament has voted for it, and President Viktor Yanukovich says he is prepared to sign.
But it may not be. President Vladimir Putin of Russia is fiercely opposed to the agreement. While a large majority of Russians seems to accept the idea that Ukraine is a separate country, Mr. Putin has become increasingly emotional in asserting that Ukraine belongs with Russia, and only with Russia.
His pet international project is a Eurasian Union, which he depicts as a sort of eastern E.U. but Western critics view as an incipient Soviet reincarnation. At this fall’s annual meeting with Russia experts and journalists in Valdai, Russia, Mr. Putin spoke of Ukrainians and Russians as one people, and he has threatened Ukraine with severe consequences if it signs the agreement with the E.U. Last August, the Kremlin fired a warning shot, ordering tough customs restrictions against Ukraine and all but halting Ukrainian imports for a week. (This month, Ukraine halted Russian natural gas imports, but that seems to be more of a dispute over payments than tension over the E.U.)
On the E.U. side, East European members like Poland and Lithuania have been particularly keen to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit as a further buffer against Moscow’s ambitions.
Other members farther west, like Germany and France, already suffering from pronounced “expansion fatigue” and the euro crisis, have been less enthusiastic about Ukraine, especially given its rampant corruption and cronyism. (Ukraine ranks a dismal 144th out of 176 nations and territories on the corruption perceptions index compiled by Transparency International, an organization that monitors corruption around the world.) The United States, which in the first years after the breakup of the Soviet Union ardently courted Ukraine, has basically lost interest.