On Sunday, protestors calling for new elections and the impeachment of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych toppled the statue of of Russian Bolshevik icon Vladamir Lenin in central Ukraine. Pro-government rallies in the capital, decidedly smaller, called for closer ties with the Russian government.
Since the end of November, Ukrainians gathering for demonstrations in the capital of Kiev have increasingly called on their government to impeach President Yanukovych and hold new elections. Several news outlets and blogs have provided good analysis of recent events as they have unfolded in Ukraine. Fred Dews and Steven Pifer of The Brookings Institution do an outstanding job of laying out the complicated issues surrounding the unrest in Ukraine while Max Fisher addressed misconceptions at the Washington Post. Mark Adomanis of Forbes has written another outstanding article focusing on the economic reasons for the protests. Pro-government factions assert that Ukraine’s future heavily relies on the provisions of natural gas Ukraine imports from Russia. The protests were catalyzed by the recent decision of President Yanukovych and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov to move closer to Russia and the government of President Vladamir Putin, mostly at the expense of growing economic ties with the European Union. The unrest stemmed from President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a trade deal with the European Union that would have relaxed trade restrictions between Ukraine and the EU. On December 1, BBC News reported:
“The protests started more than a week ago after President Yanukovych suspended preparations for signing an EU association agreement that would have opened borders to goods and set the stage for an easing of travel restrictions. Mr Yanukovych said pressure from Moscow had led to his decision, arguing that Ukraine could not afford to sacrifice trade with Russia, which opposed the deal.” (BBC News, December 1)
Last Tuesday, Azarov just barely escaped a no-confidence vote. On December 1 BBC News reported that demonstrators were being further spurred on by jailed opposition leader former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition party leader Vitali Klitschko:
“Jailed opposition leader and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko urged Ukrainians “not to leave the authorities’ actions unanswered”. In a message read by her daughter on Saturday, Tymoshenko urged Ukrainians: ‘Fly, drive, walk to Kiev from all parts of Ukraine, but gather everyone on 1 December.’ “We can and should remove these authorities,” an opposition party leader Vitali Klitschko told thousands of demonstrators outside Kiev’s St Michael’s cathedral.” (BBC News, December 1)
Russia has expressed its concern and has called for “stability and order”. While also concurrently making public note of the “internal nature” of the problems, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev added:
“…it’s really important to have stability and order there” (CNN, December 4)
Russia has applied significant diplomatic pressure to the government of Yanukovych, specifically in the form of trade. In response, some protests have demonstrated a strain of anti-Russian nationalism. On Wednesday, CBS News reported:
“Last month, Yanukovych’s government abruptly halted preparations to sign a key political and economic agreement with the EU and focus on ties with Russia instead. Russia has used strong economic pressure to derail the deal, unwilling to lose this former part of its empire to the West. Anger is also growing about the status of nine demonstrators who were beaten and arrested when riot police violently dispersed protesters outside the presidential administration building on Sunday. Officials have said the action was in response to provocations by the demonstrators, but supporters of the arrested say radical nationalists were responsible.” (CBS News, December 4)
The heavy-handed response of police to the protests has elicited widespread condemnation, with several protestors hospitalized after being severely beaten. On November 30, police stormed Independence Square in Kiev, the site of the 2004 “Orange Revolution”, beating and arresting scores of protestors and inspiring Tymoshenko’s response to further reinforce the protests in the capital:
“Anger is also growing about the status of nine demonstrators who were beaten and arrested when riot police violently dispersed protesters outside the presidential administration building on Sunday. Officials have said the action was in response to provocations by the demonstrators, but supporters of the arrested say radical nationalists were responsible. Six of those arrested are in intensive care and three others are in jail medical units, their relatives told a news conference on Wednesday and they complained the men have been denied adequate legal help.” (CBS News, December 4)
In 2011, Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison after being found guilty of illegally exceeding her powers in signing a gas deal with Russia in 2009. The deal was signed after Russian President Putin’s government halted supplies of gas to Ukraine following a dispute on pricing. The 2009 deal effectively ensured that Ukraine would pay the much higher European costs in importing Russian gas. Ukraine has only been an independent state for 22 years. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and subsequent events such as the Orange Revolution in 2004, the Ukraine has often been at the center of Russian-European relations. Russian analysts have often pointed to Russia’s willingness to use energy resources to secure geopolitical interests in Eastern Europe as a harbinger of how Russia views its former near-abroad. Last week, we analyzed Russian security efforts in Dagestan ahead of the Olympic Games in Sochi this February. The Crescent International also recently assessed Russian history with Muslim lands on its borders. Mike Eckel, writing for The Christian Science Monitor, observed the possibility that the Ukrainian protests are targeted more internally than externally:
“The vast majority of protesters in Kiev are targeting their ire at the Yanukovych government, not necessarily Russia, according to Oleh Kotsyuba, online editor of the literary journal Krytyka. However, the perception that the Putin government strong-armed Yanukovych is definitely present; some are calling for a boycott of Russian goods.” (Eckel, Christian Science Monitor, December 8)
Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, asserts that the issues are due to Russian posturing:
“It’s a geopolitical contest,” says Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe Center. “Mr. Putin wants to regain some of the Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. This is important for him, it reestablishes some sort of glory, it has nationalistic overtones… All of sudden, it becomes clear to the Kremlin that there was a possibility that the Ukrainians might sign this … thing, and the Kremlin elevated it to a geopolitical competition… This is not a Communist policy, not a Putin policy, this is a thoroughbred Russian policy…. It gives you a bit of the key of the understanding to why they look at this this way.” (Christian Science Monitor, December 8)
Anna Nemtsova of Foreign Policy Magazine has written another excellent piece, analyzing the possibility of wider conflict in Ukraine and identifying Yanukovych’s missteps:
“Schlegel claimed that a civil war in Ukraine is an all too plausible scenario due to tensions between the country’s ethnically Russian East and its pro-Western West. Would Russia ever cheer Ukraine’s accession to the EU? Certainly not under the “enslaving conditions” of the EU’s Association Agreement, Schlegel declared. ‘Yanukovych knows all too well that if our economy, our market, our factories are under a threat, we’ll have to strike back just to defend ourselves.’
Yanukovych tried to straddle these differences and keep power at the same time. It proved impossible. Images of bleeding faces destroyed by police stun grenades, of beaten teenagers and women, will now remain a part of Ukraine’s history forever.” (Nemtsova, Foreign Policy Magazine, December 6)
President Putin has methodically raised Russia’s international profile in recent months, most prolifically in challenging the United States’ effort to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons this past summer in the Syrian conflict. After the diplomatic row ended with the Assad regime’s acquiescence to dismantling its chemical weapons program and allowing international inspectors access to facilities, Putin has repeatedly sought to strengthen Russia’s international hand. On December 3, Al Arabiya reported that Putin met with Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia in Moscow. Ostensibly, the meeting was to discuss the Geneva II conference on the Syrian conflict. However, other recently reported associations between Russia and Saudi Arabia have inspired curiosity and concern among Western observers. This was especially true after reports of Russian-Saudi cooperation on a Russian-Egyptian arms deal last month. We addressed the arms deal and the ramifications for shifting alliances in the Middle East and North Africa at Foreign Intrigue on November 26 in our article “Geostrategic Seismology: Realignment”. When analyzed in conjunction with the protests and civil turmoil events in Kiev, Russia’s continued strengthening of its international posture could further raise concerns in the United States that a realignment of alliances in energy-rich regions could catalyze conflict in the near future.
While many analysts would assert that the protests represent a pivot point in the dynamic of Ukrainian relations with both Russia and Europe, many others will state that the protests are more appropriately characterized as more indicative of citizens’ frustration with a government that has been unresponsive to popular demand in the country. In order to effectively analyze the Ukrainian unrest, one must address the domestic unrest in the context of the country’s geo-strategic importance. The EU and Russia have a lot at stake in the stability and economic viability of Ukraine. But significant problems stand in the way of a stronger Ukraine. As Mark Adomanis states in urging a closer look at the causes for the civil unrest, Ukraine faces significant economic problems in its future, largely derived from its demographics:
“Ukraine is not a ‘prize,’ it’s a rapidly aging society that is one of the most demographically unstable in the planet.Regardless of whether Ukraine integrates with Europe or with Russia it is going to face massive challenges from a shrinking and aging workforce.” (Adomanis, Forbes, December 3)
It is difficult to imagine a scenario where the protests, the ousting of the government, new elections, or an impactful European-Russian compromise will be sufficient to guarantee a better economic future in the near-term for Ukrainians. What is occurring in Kiev may be prologue to further instability.
References and resources for further information on the demonstrations in Ukraine are linked below.
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