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Power Plays in Ukraine

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 4, 2013

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Mass demonstrations have roiled Kiev's streets since November 22, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich turned down an association agreement with the European Union in favor of a customs union with Russia. Despite the December 3 failure of a no-confidence vote in parliament, protests are continuing, with resistance leaders vowing a long fight. "The regime has to see that its maneuvering room here is less than it thought," says CFR's Stephen Sestanovich. "It can't just orient itself toward Moscow and expect civic peace." This is a blow to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, says Sestanovich, who "had orchestrated…a diplomatic coup for Russia [that] has ended up as a dramatic demonstration of how unwilling many of Russia's neighbors are to move toward closer ties, or let themselves be seen as part of a kind of any neo-imperial Russian order."

Demonstrators at Independence Square in Kiev. (Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Courtesy Reuters)

Despite the failure to get a no-confidence vote, the opposition is still calling for the overthrow of Yanukovich's government. What's happening there?

The first thing we've seen is that Ukrainian politics are much more brittle than many people thought. The government's decision to yield to Russian pressure and reject an arrangement with the European Union at the last moment produced a show of public disapproval, and when the authorities tried to clear the demonstrators from downtown Kiev, the response to their heavy-handed tactics was even stronger. That's when you got five hundred thousand people in the middle of Kiev. The regime has to see that its maneuvering room here is less than it thought. It can't just orient itself toward Moscow and expect civic peace. The opposition has been invigorated; important leaders have come to the fore, and that may give them a platform for continuing political pressure in the near term and for presidential runs in the next election in 2015.

Explain the agreement Ukraine was supposed to sign with the European Union at last month's meeting in Vilnius.

It was what the EU calls an "association agreement." It's not the beginning of negotiations for accession—and this was a source of some dissatisfaction for Ukrainians—but it was to bring Ukraine into closer trading relations with the EU. As a symbol it would have indicated that Ukraine saw its future more with the EU than with Russia. The outburst of demonstrations shows that the EU has a little more soft power than it may have reckoned. They were very eager to have Ukraine sign this agreement, and many European leaders were probably a bit complacent about how easy it was to bring this off—and shocked when Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Russian government mobilized a lot of counterpressure. Now the EU has seen both that it exaggerated its ability to bring Ukraine into this association and that it probably underestimated the degree of popular support for doing so.

What did Putin do to get Yanukovich to back off from the EU deal?

He said that Ukrainian goods would be at a severe disadvantage in the Russian market—they would be essentially kept out of the Russian market. And he offered the prospect of lower natural gas prices if Ukraine would move to join the customs union that Putin has set up between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Putin offered primarily economic inducements, but there's been a lot of heavy geopolitical rhetoric associated with this. The Russians have accused the EU of trying to "capture" Ukraine, of trying to isolate Russia, of trying to make Ukraine a vassal state and subordinated, whereas for many Ukrainians this would be a big promotion and an upgrade of their status.

Russia's historical origins come from Kiev Rus, which is in Ukraine. Is there a sentimental relationship here?

There's some appeal to history and to cultural unity in the Russian approach. There's also the calculation that Ukraine would increase the size of Russia by a third, if [the two countries] were really united. There's a lurid picture sometimes drawn by Russian analysts of the rest of Europe using Ukraine as a tool to keep Russia out of Europe. There's a mix of different motives and tools in this confrontation. For the Europeans there is a conviction, which is stronger among states in east-central Europe, that Ukraine should not be left under Russian sway, but the EU as a whole has been reluctant to raise the possibility that Ukraine could actually become a member of the EU. In that respect it has not risen to the level that Turkey has, which has been for decades in discussion with the EU about joining. Nothing that the Europeans have said opens the door explicitly for Ukrainian membership.

What is Georgia's status with the EU?

"When you have big news of this kind, and when the EU itself gets energized, and when there are demonstrators in this number out in the streets of Kiev, even the White House takes notice."

Georgia and Moldova signed the association agreement, and Moldova is being rewarded by getting a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry, who wants to show his commitment to the process of bringing countries that want to join Europe into a closer relationship in the transatlantic community. The American policy overall here has been somewhat distant. This is not a high-priority issue for the Obama administration. But when you have big news of this kind, and when the EU itself gets energized, and when there are demonstrators in this number out in the streets of Kiev, even the White House takes notice. I mean, you had a statement Monday from the White House—contradicting the Ukrainian prime minister—saying that there was no coup attempt being made by peaceful demonstrators.

But Kerry obviously did not want to make headlines by showing up in Kiev as he had originally planned.

That's absolutely clear. I would contrast that with the kind of interest that the United States took during the Orange Revolution in 2004, when American commitment interests were much greater. There was a lot of active encouragement of European leaders, for example, to go to Kiev. The decision to rerun the election in 2004 was made essentially when the presence of many European leaders showed up in Kiev as mediators of this political crisis. You may yet see that degree of EU interest and possibly even American interest, but we're not there yet.

I guess Washington feels it wants to deal with the Russians very carefully, because of delicate issues such as Syria in the Middle East.

Yes, this is an interesting moment for Russian policy, because Yanukovich's decision to back away from the EU was widely seen—especially by Russia—as a big victory for Putin. But the aftermath has cast a somewhat different light on it. Putin obviously takes this very seriously, [and] does not want to experience a big setback, but for him the demonstrations are a pretty personal affront. He has seen that what he had orchestrated as a diplomatic coup for Russia has ended up as a dramatic demonstration of how unwilling many of Russia's neighbors are to move toward closer ties, or let themselves be seen as part of a kind of any neo-imperial Russian order.

What has been the role of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the current turmoil?

Yulia Tymoshenko was absolutely at the center of this when it was a story about the EU negotiating with Yanukovich, because the EU said it was a condition for going forward with the agreement that Yanukovich release her from prison. [She has been in prison for two years, serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power for signing a gas deal with Russia.] He refused, even though he'd given a lot of indications that it was moving in that direction. What's interesting is that although she has been a very visible part of this drama in its early stages, in the most recent days of crisis in Kiev she hasn't been so prominent. The opposition leaders are not primarily committed to bringing Yulia Tymoshenko back into Ukrainian politics. They'd rather bring down the government themselves and establish their own status as challengers to Yanukovich and his circle. The demonstrations have been more about protesting police brutality, about objecting to official corruption, and [about] a desire to orient Ukraine toward Europe as a way of solving those problems.

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