James Sherr believes that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych feared Russian President Vladimir Putin so much that he agreed to effectively surrender part of the nation’s sovereignty to Russian interests.

Kyiv Post: President Viktor Yanukovych’s recent agreements in Moscow with Russia’s
President Vladimir Putin on the $15 billion loan and a gas discount for Ukraine sound like a good deal. Yet, many in Ukraine worry that it could be just the tip of the
iceberg, the rest of which is not to Ukraine’s
advantage. What do you think there is to worry about?

James Sherr: Yanukovych
handed his own independence to Vladimir Putin and much of Ukraine’s
independence as well.

KP: How?

JS: In the
critical meetings that took place last month, Putin effectively said to
Yanukovych that if he signed the association agreement with the EU he (Putin)
would break every bone in his body. And he showed him how he would do it. By
that I mean that Putin presented him with the telling details of the work done
by [Putin’s advisor] Sergey Glazyiev and others, which targeted the key sectors
of Ukraine’s economy vulnerable to Russian influence, including the industrial
and financial interests closest to Yanukovych himself. My understanding is that
he spoke in direct and brutal language: in language that would normally oblige
the president of an independent state to end the meeting and return home. (Ukrainian
Prime Minister Mykola) Azarov’s meeting with (Russian Prime Minister Dmitry)
Medvedev shortly afterwards was similar: less brutal but even more specific.


Yanukovych was not prepared for
this. Instead of putting up a fight, he folded. What he signed (Dec. 17) are
the terms of capitulation. They make it clear that Russia
will now pursue a different model of integration with Ukraine.
The Customs Union is yesterday’s story. The new framework will be built on
interlocking, inter-sectoral integration, in other words Russian co-ownership
and co-management of key sectors of Ukraine’s
economy. In 2010, Medvedev presented Yanukovych with precisely such a model,
embracing shipbuilding, chemicals, and of course, aerospace, the defense complex and energy, which every Ukrainian president has regarded as a
mainstay of national independence. All of this was very public at the time. In
2010, Yanukovych rejected it. Now he has accepted it. There are still questions
about details and bigger questions about how much can and will be implemented.
But the Russians are very happy. Their conclusion is that ‘Ukraine
is now ours’. Azarov can still insist that Ukraine
won’t join the Customs Union. But that is now irrelevant. The story has moved


Today there are only two centers of
power with leverage over Yanukovych: Russia and
the EuroMaidan. Yanukovych is more afraid of Russia
than of the Maidan. The main reason is understood by everybody: Russia’s influence over Ukraine’s

This is not the product of natural
causes. The priorities and policies of Ukraine’s
authorities have pushed Ukraine to the brink of
default against all international advice. And there should be no confusion. If
Yanukovych had implemented the IMF’s conditions, Ukraine’s
economy would not have been in this position.

What Putin has offered is a rescue
package in the form of 1/3 discount on energy and a staged disbursement of $15
billion over three years. The gas discount is likely to prove as evanescent as
the 2010 discount. The terms are renewed every quarter, that is by Gazprom and
the Kremlin. The $15 billion is not a grant, but the buying up of debt, which
remains debt. Out of this sum, the only near certainty is that the first five
billion will be disbursed. It could turn out to be $3 billion, because Ukraine
is still obliged to pay its existing gas debt. So Russia’s
help is contingent upon Ukraine’s good behavior.
Putin has every opportunity to turn off the tap if there is bad behavior. Put
all of this together, and you can see that Yanukovych is bound hand and foot.


Everything about these agreements
contradicts the notion that, unlike the EU and IMF, who give money with
conditions, Russia simply provides ‘brotherly assistance.’ The conditions of
the EU and IMF are limited, specific and absolutely open. Their purpose is to
make Ukraine’s economy and institutions work better. The conditions that
Yanukovych has accepted from Moscow perpetuate
weakness and subservience. Nothing in the Moscow
accords even addresses the causes of Ukraine’s
economic disaster. When Putin turns off the tap, Ukraine
will find itself in exactly the position it was in before, probably worse.


Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych winks at Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 17, 2013. Putin said that the state energy companies of Russia and Ukraine had signed an amended agreement slashing the price Moscow charges its cash-strapped neighbour for natural gas.

KP: You are saying that there was a meeting between Yanukovych and Putin
during which Putin used “direct and brutal language” with Yanukovych and that
Putin made Yanukovych an offer he essentially could not refuse. How do you know
this? And why, in your view, was Yanukovych not prepared to this?

JS: You as a
journalist don’t discuss your sources and I don’t discuss mine. And it’s not
important. Putin’s language is a detail, and there is nothing new here.
Immediately after the Nov. 21 decree (breaking off work on the association agreement),
Azarov told (EU Commission President José Manuel) Barroso
that Ukraine had come under very strong pressure from Russia. In other words,
it was Russian pressure, not EU conditionality, that forced Ukraine to drop the
association agreement. And please note that during two years of negotiations, Ukraine didn’t even raise the issue of large,
unconditional grants from the EU and IMF until the eve of the Vilnius
summit. So the private story and the public story are different. The issue that
matters now is what was agreed in Moscow, and
the substance of that is becoming more public by the day.

Why was Yanukovych unprepared? I see
two causes. First, the priorities of Viktor Yanukovych, a man who came to power
with the purpose of remaining in power and securing the dominance of a
relatively small group of interests. Of course, he wanted Europe
too, but not at the expense of this fundamental aim, which has never varied.
For almost four years, his policies have enriched his power base, but damaged
the country. They have crushed small entrepreneurs, dried up investment,
distorted energy markets and choked off national revenue. Since 2010, the
greatest threat to Ukraine’s national security
has been the state itself.


The second cause is the illusions of
Yanukovych and the people around him. All of these illusions are based on some
degree of truth. The first is that he can prevail internally. Well, that might
be so, at least for a time, but at ever more onerous cost. The second is that
he can keep the EU in play whatever he does: write laws rather than implement
them, make the right declarations rather than do the right things. Well, it’s
true that there are many people in Europe who pay more attention to what people
say than what they do, and some are happy to play this game because they don’t
want to do anything themselves. But as Abraham Lincoln said, you can’t fool all
of the people all of the time. And Nov. 21 (the day Ukraine’s leaders abandoned
the EU deal) was the day that most people in the EU stopped being fooled. The
third illusion was that he could manage Russia: that the Kremlin would pursue
its usual ‘whip and gingerbread’ (carrot and stick) policy, rather than prepare
its ground and strike with maximum force at the decisive moment. But his
greatest illusion was believing that he could do all of these things at once.
In part, it’s a Ukrainian national failing: the belief that you can manoeuvre forever
without making choices.


Sometime in late October reality
intruded, and from that point, surely after his meetings with Putin in Sochi
and Moscow, the biggest motivation driving Yanukovych has been fear.

KP: Fear that his own wealth or his position as a president would be

JS: How could
Yanukovych’s position survive a default? There is no equilibrium in default.
Everything is up for grabs. You have to do something. Some oligarchs would
manage for a time, and some criminal structures would even prosper, but for how
long. It doesn’t bear thinking about. The system’s opponents would solidify,
and its support base would crumble. Yanukovych could not cope with this. His
thinking is rigorously short-term. He would rather be in alliance with those
who could hurt him today than those who might help him tomorrow.

KP: Now you said the only levers over Yanukovych are in the hands of
Putin and Maidan. It is pretty much clear what Putin’s levers are. What are
Maidan’s levers? As of now it does not seem that Maidan can do much except pulling
lots of people on the streets and once there are orders the protests can be
cleaned up rather easily.

JS: The EuroMaidan
was a shock to the metabolism when the protests started in earnest on Nov. 22.
Like Putin, Yanukovych does not understand the human factor, and it unnerves
him. But the Maidan’s leverage has subsided with the crowds. It is containable.
It’s preposterous for Azarov to say that it is having a disastrous effect on
Ukraine’s economy. It’s not even having a disastrous effect on the centre of
Kyiv. So far, the Moscow accords have not affected this dynamic. In some
regions of Ukraine, they will be very popular.

However, I flatly disagree when you
say that ‘the protests can be cleaned up rather easily.’ The danger is that the
authorities might agree. It’s a danger for them as well as Ukraine, because
that very step could create a new dynamic, one they could not deal with.

Using force is not simple as some
people think. My understanding is that in the country as a whole there only a
few thousand Berkut and a smaller number of miscellaneous riot police. Of all
the deployable Interior Ministry forces, only some regiments are fit for
purpose, and the rest are in very bad condition. The armed forces will stay in
their barracks, but if Yanukovych is unwise enough to break with tradition and
order them into action, he will face defiance. So, the authorities have the
capacity to create carnage. But then what? That’s not the same as winning. I am
worried that as the Maidan diminishes in size, the temptation to suppress it
will increase.

My worry increases because of the
people Yanukovych now relies upon: Azarov, [Deputy Prime Minister Yuriy] Boyko,
and [National Security Council Secretary Andriy] Klyuyev and Viktor Medvedchuk
who, as in the past, is acting as the intermediary with the Kremlin. Everyone
else is frozen out. This is a narrow circle of narrow thinkers.

Now consider the following. Over the
past year, the key players in the EU established what they thought was a good
relationship with Yanukovych. There was the EU Troika, (Pat) Cox-(Aleksandr) Kwasniewski,
(Radislaw) Sikorski, (Carl) Bildt. They met frequently with Yanukovych,
sometimes for hours at a time. Yet they hardly changed his thinking at all.
Imagine how much worse it is when no one is talking to him except this narrow
circle of narrow thinkers.

Put all this together, and draw the
conclusion: the country is in a dangerous situation.

President Viktor Yanukovych was still talking European Union integration during the annual Yalta European Strategy forum in September. He is seated near Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose nation holds the rotating EU presidency.

KP: What is the role of the opposition as you see it in all these recent
protests in Ukraine, and has the opposition been effective in consolidating the
protesters, and what is their stake in all of this?

JS: Here we come
to the key issues. How united is the opposition leadership? What is their
authority? What is their strategy? If Yanukovych does become more afraid of the
Maidan than the Kremlin, who does he talk to? Who issues promises, and who
provides guarantees?

The opposition has been handicapped
by a number of factors. They are working together, but they are not speaking as
one, because they are not one. Although the opposition leaders did call for
protests after Nov. 21, they have been following a crowd rather than leading
one, and in the early days, some of them sounded more radical than they are.
Unlike the 2004 Maidan, which was spontaneous and well-coordinated, the
EuroMaidan is not a well prepared enterprise. It is made up of different
centers that have learnt to coordinate from the bottom up. It is a very
inspiring sight. But there is no coordination from the top down. The three
opposition leaders and (multimillionaire and opposition lawmaker Petro)
Poroshenko have been impressive in exposing provocateurs and keeping things
peaceful. But this is very modest compared to 2004.

KP: How do you see the way out for this political crisis that has
resulted in the EuroMaindan protests? And what could be the consequences of the
use of force by the government?

JS: First let’s
talk about outcomes, which are not the same as solutions. I can see five
possible outcomes. The first is that Yanukovych restores his authority by
force, which would have to be massive and would probably be protracted, because
it will also provoke a massive reaction. If he succeeded, his authority would
be brittle and temporary, and he would be entirely isolated in the West. In
western Ukraine, he would face a battle he is most unlikely to win. There are
no soft landings in this scenario. But it’s entirely realistic.

Second, he could restore his
authority by stealth. As the EuroMaidan knows full well, a ‘transitional’
compromise that allowed Yanukovych to preserve real power would be used to
repress them and the opposition parties. Yanukovych and his inner circle are
not capable of compromises, only Leninist compromises. I can’t see the
opposition being fooled by this.

Third, he could restore his
authority by apparent coexistence with a diminishing Maidan, by creeping
repression and by return to an apparent normality.  That’s his preferred option, and there are
signs of it being implemented. It will not restore normality, but it will
require a shift of tactics by the opposition, and it will weaken them if they
do not mobilise enough people to expose it and oppose it.

Fourth, it is possible that some of
the mainstream oligarchs—Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoisky, Viktor Pinchuk and
possibly Dmytro Firtash will offer their good offices to achieve a compromise.
The oligarchs need it. They are not pro-Western. But they are pragmatists who
know that Ukraine cannot afford to alienate the West. They know how to play the
game there, and they are willing to play it through PR companies and lobbyists
of all kinds. I can imagine quite a few in the West would welcome this option
if it avoided force, even if it restored the pre-crisis status quo. But it is
the status quo that caused the crisis in the first place, and I don’t believe
it is restorable. This scenario might avert disaster, but it doesn’t provide an
attractive future for Ukraine.

That leaves the fifth scenario:
recovery of initiative by the EuroMaidan and the opposition leadership. I fear
this is more likely to come about because of some ghastly miscalculation by the
authorities than anything the opposition does on its own. We then come back to
the key questions. Why should Yanukovych give up power if he is threatened with
the confiscation of his wealth and imprisonment? If there is to be a soft
landing, what should its terms be? Who is going to negotiate these terms and
guarantee them? With good answers to those questions, a solution is possible.
It is in this scenario that the EU or Council of Europe might be able to
mediate, along the lines of what took place in 2004. But that possibility is
further away than it was before Moscow, and I am not sure we will get there by
entirely peaceful means.

And if somehow the opposition
succeeds, there are elections and a new president and government come to power,
then what? In 2005, (then President Viktor) Yushchenko and (then Prime Minister
Yulia) Tymoshenko held legal power, but real power was still held by the people
who held it before. How do you take power away from the people who run Ukraine’s
economy at present? How do you do it lawfully, justly and intelligently?
Equally big question: how do you persuade the majority of Ukrainians in eastern
and southern regions that this is about them?

Conclusion: the opposition needs a
strategy, not only for today’s reality but tomorrow’s.

KP: U.S. recently threatened Ukrainian officials with targeted
sanctions, if the government resorts to force against peaceful protesters. Do
you think the threat of such sanctions is credible and will that be viewed by
Yanukovych and his inner circle as credible? How, in your view, the situation
in Ukraine will evolve before 2015?

JS: You wisely
mentioned sanctions in response to repression and force. This would be
perfectly legitimate. Forceful suppression of opposition is not a purely
domestic matter. Ukraine’s commitments to the OSCE and the Council of Europe
rule out the employment of such means. However, if someone thinks sanctions
should be imposed because Yanukovych has changed his policy regarding Europe,
that enterprise has no legitimacy at all. Ukraine is a sovereign state. The
shelving of the association agreement and the Moscow accords might or might not
have constitutional implications. But Ukraine’s constitution is a matter for
Ukraine alone.

The nub of your question is
effectiveness. The people who are considering sanctions know what they are
doing. The sanctions would target those who commit atrocious acts, those who
give orders and those who command them. But I am not sure that sanctions of
this kind will be enough to deter a President who decides that force is the
only way of keeping himself in power. One would need comprehensive sanctions to
deter that, and I don’t see anyone devising them.

One last point. While Ukraine has
every right to alter its course, Russia has no right to force Ukraine to alter
it. The December 1994 Budapest Memorandum obliges all parties to ‘refrain from
economic coercion.’ Coercion does not show respect for sovereignty. It is a
violation of sovereignty. A number of European leaders are as persuaded as I am
that Russia employed economic coercion. The Budapest principles underpinned the
post-Cold War settlement. The principles that defined that settlement then
should define it now.

Yuriy Onyshkiv is a former Kyiv Post staff writer.

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