Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.
Opposition activists have just staged their first demonstration of the new year in Kyiv. Nine years after the Orange Revolution against electoral fraud, opponents of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych hope to stage a repeat.
But the issue today, whether Kyiv aligns economically with Europe or Russia, doesn’t much concern the United States. Other than warn against violent repression of peaceful protests, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration should not meddle in Ukraine.
Ukraine was part of both imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, despite the persistent desire of many for independence. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, Ukraine became the largest territory to split off. However, in the years since it has been badly divided and governed.
In 2004 the Orange Revolution helped deliver the presidency to Western-favorite Viktor Yushchenko over Yanukovych. However, Yushchenko proved to be ineffective and inconsistent. He fell out with his one-time ally, “gas princess” Yulia Tymoshenko, the now-imprisoned former prime minister who made a fortune in the natural gas industry. When he ran for reelection five years later he finished fifth with 5.4 percent.
Yanukovych, a former convict allied with many of the country’s business oligarchs, narrowly won the 2010 race. Although representing Ukraine’s Russophile east, he kept Ukraine’s distance from Moscow. His government prosecuted Tymoshenko for abuse of power in her natural gas negotiations with Russia. She is no virginal naïf, but the case was mostly about politics.
Most Ukrainians seem to favor a Western economic orientation while opposing a confrontation with Russia by joining NATO. Yanukovych followed that course, negotiating over an association agreement with the European Union. However, full membership remained far away given Kyiv’s manifold infirmities and EU angst over the messy incorporation of Bulgaria and Romania.
Yet for just a halfway connection, Brussels demanded painful economic reforms and significant political concessions, most importantly Tymoshenko’s freedom, and refused to offer cash assistance. At the same time Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed Kyiv to forswear the EU and join the Moscow-led Customs Union. To the consternation of Brussels, last November the Yanukovych government dropped the EU option and signed an accord with Russia — though without joining the Customs Union.
Although European officials later said that financial benefits would have followed signing the association agreement, Kyiv saw more conditions than payments. In contrast, Moscow brought cash to the table even as it threatened trade sanctions and a natural gas cutoff. Russia agreed to buy about $15 billion in Ukrainian government bonds and cut natural gas prices by a third, worth another $2 billion. The first gave Yanukovych’s government financial aid.
The second benefited consumers — including the heavy industries located in Donetsk and elsewhere which tend to support Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions. Noted the New York Times, the accord provides “Yanukovych an economic and political lifeline that will spare him for now from negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, Europe or the United States.”
Brussels and Washington were shocked, shocked at this terrible act of coercion on Russia’s part. New German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “It is utterly scandalous how Russia used Ukraine’s economic plight for its own ends, also in order to prevent the signing of the association agreement with the EU.”
The ever-bombastic Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) visited Kyiv, where he announced that Russian “interference in the affairs of Ukraine is not acceptable to the United States.” He complained that “Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate and threaten Ukraine away from Europe.”
Western hypocrisy is breathtaking.
After all, complained Nicolai Petro of the University of Rhode Island, the EU was “attempting to force Ukraine to choose Europe over Russia” rather than “adopting a strategy that would have allowed Ukraine to capitalize on its close cultural, religious and economic ties with Russia.”
The Europeans offered the prospect of economic gain through increased trade. After Kyiv said no European officials let slip that billions in grants and loans would have been forthcoming had Ukraine signed with the EU. Steinmeier criticized his European colleagues for not offering more, complaining that “we presented a financial and economic aid package that lay far behind what was necessary to keep Ukraine competitive and permanently tie it economically to Europe.”
Yanukovych doesn’t have much credibility, but he still had a point when he observed: “I am categorically against anybody coming and teaching us how to live.” It is up to the Ukrainian people to choose their future and they remain deeply divided.
A November poll found 45 percent wanted their government to sign the association agreement, 14 percent wanted to join the Customs Union, and 41 percent wanted neither or hadn’t decided.
While Yanukovych is an unpleasant character, he was legitimately, if not cleanly, elected.
Yes, the West offers a better, freer path, which is why protests broke out over the government’s abandonment of the EU. It’s fair for Washington to wish Yanukovych’s critics well and warn him against a violent response, but Western officials need to engage more than the English-speaking opposition activists who dominate Kyiv.
More fundamentally, why should Brussels or Washington meddle in Ukraine’s decision? This isn’t 2004 when the issue was ballot integrity. This is dissatisfaction with a policy decision within the normal competence of the government.
Yet Western officials and commentators act like they are confronting the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin.
Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland declared at an opposition rally in Kyiv: “The U.S. stands with you in your search for justice, for human dignity and security, for economic health, and the European future that you have chosen and deserve.”
Washington should endorse justice and human dignity, which justifies support for honest elections and warnings against police brutality.
But Ukraine’s “economic health,” “European future,” “turn toward Moscow” and reengagement “with the EU” aren’t American values and are barely American interests. Indeed, they really aren’t proper U.S. concerns. Alexander J. Motyl of Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, spoke of Washington and Brussels having “vital interests at stake in Ukraine.” Only in Kyiv’s dreams. To suggest that Ukraine is vital to global peace is beyond exaggeration.
A stable, democratic Ukraine would be good for all concerned — and America’s Ukrainian diaspora deserves credit for its longstanding support for its homeland — but Kyiv’s orientation isn’t important to Washington. Ukraine spent centuries subject to Moscow and the U.S. never noticed. Putin wants to reestablish Russian influence, but that doesn’t mean he can put the Soviet Humpty Dumpty back together. Today’s protests in Kyiv demonstrate that Ukraine will never be a quiescent tool of Moscow.
The better strategy would be for the West to treat Russia with respect, acknowledging that it has legitimate interests in Ukraine, while using the prospect of greater economic opportunity to convince Kyiv to look westward. Yanukovych has been rented, not bought. Complained the Economist: “Mr. Yanukovych’s favored option seems to be to preserve the status quo and refrain from joining either camp while continuing to milk both.” This seems like a sound strategy from Ukraine’s standpoint.
Ukraine matters, to Ukraine. It also matters to Russia, but less to Europe and much less to the U.S. If Kyiv wants to look east, so be it. The West is most likely to win influence if it makes itself more attractive, not if it treats the issue like a new Cold War. Despite Russia’s money, Yanukovych’s reelection prospects are weak and Ukraine is likely to eventually join the West. If not, however, so be it. The country never was the EU’s or Washington’s to lose.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. His biography can be found here: http://www.cato.org/people/doug-bandow