Back from the Edge?

Tony Wood on the situation in Ukraine

After six months of a rolling crisis that has brought mass street protests, the fall of the Yanukovych government, the annexation of Crimea and pro-Russian rebellions in the east and south of the country, Ukraine seemed by mid-May to be poised on the brink of a far deeper disaster. With fulsome backing from the West, soldiers loyal to the interim government in Kiev were engaged in what it called an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against pro-Russian militias in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces, where referendums were held on 11 May laying claim to virtual independence, as a first step towards secession or even union with Russia. But having encouraged pro-Russian sentiment in the east, Putin then seemed to pull back, offering only lukewarm support for the outcome of the referendums – an overwhelming but dubious Yes vote. The immediate threat of a rerun of the Crimean annexation has receded; but Russian troops are still massed near the Ukrainian border, keeping alive the possibility of a Kremlin-sponsored ‘humanitarian intervention’, in ‘defence’ of its co-ethnics. The tense situation in the east, and disturbances elsewhere – Odessa, Mariupol, Kharkiv – have stoked antagonisms of a previously unsuspected intensity, lending substance to the spectre of civil war.

For now, that catastrophe has yet to arrive. The probable outcome of the presidential elections of 25 May is a victory for Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate and former cabinet minister; Western diplomats are hoping the vote will give the new government much needed legitimacy. But it is unlikely to unfold smoothly, if at all, in many parts of the east: only a few days before the vote, the national electoral commission admitted it had no access to more than half the polling stations in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces. The de facto partition of the country remains in place. It is unclear how readily it can be welded back together, and what the ultimate costs of Ukraine’s territorial integrity – or its division – will be.

How did it come to this? There are many longstanding sources of discord within Ukraine, offering plentiful fuel for fierce ideological battles when a crisis hits. But the country’s pivotal strategic position has also been a major reason for the rapid escalation of conflict over the past few months: tragically for its inhabitants, Ukraine has become the centre of an intensifying contest between Russia and the West. What do the outside powers want? For the US and Europe, the aim has all along been relatively straightforward: to wrest the country from Russia’s sphere of influence and continue the joint eastward expansion of Nato and the EU. The push for Ukrainian membership in Nato was suspended after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and officially blocked by a 2010 law passed by the Yanukovych government; but a degree of integration with the EU remained the goal for a significant portion of the Ukrainian elite, hence the Association Agreement Yanukovych was due to sign late last year.

For Russia, the basic goal has until recently been a symmetrical pushback: to keep Ukraine out of Western security and economic structures, leaving it as at the very least a neutral state, if not an active member of a ‘Eurasian Union’ dominated by Russia. Yanukovych’s decision last November not to sign the Association Agreement was made partly under Russian pressure, but mainly because the terms were so starkly unfavourable to an economy already suffering a serious downturn. His about-face seemed to have tipped the balance Moscow’s way; but the Maidan protests that culminated in Yanukovych’s removal in February sent it lurching back in the other direction. The US moved aggressively to ‘glue together’, as its ambassador put it, a new pro-Western government under Oleksandr Turchynov and Arseniy Yatseniuk, while the EU basked smugly in the country’s enthusiastic embrace of European ‘values’ and ‘civilisation’.

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