Ukraine: Responding to a Meltdown

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Op-Ed National Interest
The presence of Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland in Kyiv raises important questions about the U.S. role in the crisis in Ukraine.
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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.

This article was originally published by the National Interest.

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About the Russia and Eurasia Program

The Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program has, since the end of the Cold War, led the field of Eurasian security, including strategic nuclear weapons and nonproliferation, development, economic and social issues, governance, and the rule of law.


Comments (5)

  • Dr.Sobolev Borys
    As a signatory of the Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine's Souvereignty Guarantees the USA has not reacted to the appaling violations of Article 3 by Russian authority through Summer-Autumn 2013. Many trade and economic hostilitities and uncovert menaces have been recorded when upon Putin's order the trade turnover has been cut by 25%.
    If the state guarantors are not fulfilling their commitments Ukraine shall seek to restore it's status we inherited from the USSR to prevent such hostilities in the future
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  • Taziuk
    "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."

    This badly misunderstands the people in the street. When they shout "Банда геть!" ("Bandits out!"), they mean it. They were not drawn back out into the streets to see a few scapegoats thrown to the dogs. Nor will they be pacified by allowing a few members of the opposition to join the government.

    Yesterday - "It's a Revolution! Down with the criminal regime!"
    Today - "Hey, they made me a junior minister! Never mind everyone! Just go home now."

    This is a farce, right? Who in their right mind would accept this as it's just a continuation of the same venal criminality that finally brought them back out onto the streets again in the first place!

    The beatings of the students on the 30th November seriously shocked the nation. Yanukovich and his cronies have since floated all kinds of trial balloons in the media to explain themselves.   "The students beat the Berkut!", "We apologise for the violence against the students", "The students who were beaten were provocateurs who incited the Berkut to beat them" - these statements are more have come out the mouths of various members of the administration in the days since.

    Only yesterday, Chechetov played the "think of the children" card, saying the protesters "вкрали шматочок щастя" (""stole a piece of happiness") in denying the authorities the ability to put a skating rink and a Christmas tree in Maidan.

    The people have had enough. Enough venality. Enough criminality. Enough abuse. The people want dignity. A civil society. A government that represents the interests of the nation, not just a small coterie of oligarchs.

    I sincerely hope they get what they want because if they don't, not only will millions of Ukrainians lose. The civilised world itself loses.
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  • Sergiy, Kyiv
    An interesting article, but I am surprising that the author does not see difference between nuclear safety and nuclear security, and gives a wrong title of Washington and Seoul summits.
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  • SteveK9
    How can there be a punishingly high price for gas in one paragraph, and a deep discount in another? Which is it?
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    Lazy article. He repeats the basics. Empty vision and so weak understanding of what is, most probably, one of the most important geopolitical events in the decades! Imagine simply what it means that a population of young people - students - stand up against the Putin's dictatorship and by ricochet in China. Don't you think one second that they are not scared? The real thing is not the agreement with EU or with Russia, is that a young population is ready to defy their power because they don't want this corrupted, inefficient political power! The consequences are enormous for Putin's Russia and for China. But this poor Andrew is too bureaucratic and too narrow mind to even understand it one second. Better for him to read what happened in 1905 in Russia.
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