Pulled apart by two global powers: Quo vadis people of Ukraine?

Peace & security

Who will win the early 21st century global European chess game between the EU and Russia on the back of the local population?


What will the election of Petro Poroshenko, a pro-Western oligarch mean, if the country is equally divided as in 2010? The 11bn € IMF loan will pull the country towards the West, whereas Russia’s influence in the East won’t miss its impact. The proposed federation could help to ease the tensions, but also accelerate the breaking up. What do the Ukrainians want?

The West and Russia used the crisis to openly interfere in Ukrainian internal affairs. While the West’s role is opaque, Russia has acknowledged its actions on the Crimean Peninsula. Further, it influences the separatists in Donetsk or Luhansk. However, Putin’s strategy is different on the two issues. The smooth incorporation of Crimea into the Russia has further cemented his legacy in Russian history. It was about national pride and the correction of historical border making. The West’s soft reaction proves him right. The EU’s sanctions are eyewash for the public, as too much is at stake for Western investors and states (e.g. France’s 1.2bn € armament deal with Russia and Germany’s 76bn € yearly trade volume). Contrarily, incorporating the Donetsk and Luhansk regions could trigger harsher reactions. As Putin and his equally beguiling foreign minister Lavrov are always one step ahead of the West, they will think twice about welcoming the separatist regions. The West’s puzzled reaction is implausible and Putin’s Ukraine plans must have been ready for a long time.

Russia is back

Russia “maintains regions of ‘privileged interest’ […] in the former Soviet states called ‘Near Abroad’”(Julien Cheseaux’s article). Its re-born economic and political strength, as illustrated at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the past decade, make it yet an important player in the geopolitics of the 21st century. In 2010 at a conference in Moscow, the answer to why Chechnya couldn’t become independent was straightforward: “The breakup of the Soviet Union had already been bad with regards to the imperial size of Russia, so it had to stop somewhere”. The inclusion of all former Warsaw Pact members into NATO only left Belarus and Ukraine as the remaining buffer zone between Russia and the West. The Ukrainian presidential election of 2010 displayed the deep division amongst Ukrainians which direction the country should take; West Ukraine pro-West, East Ukraine pro-Russia (see red divisional line in picture). Hence, the events following the planned ratification of the EU association agreement were the tip of the iceberg, for which the EU/US and Russia are equally responsible.

Self-determination of people

The West sees the incorporation of the Crimea as an illegal annexation; yet, this approach disregards the right of self-determination of people. To label the latter as an obsolete concept (e.g. liberal EU parliament member Lambbsdorf) is dangerous. Even the EU has no coherent policy on this, see Kosovo. But accepting it would send a wrong message to those peoples/minorities within the EU who thrive for more independence (e.g. Scotland, Catalonia, Transylvania).

Ukraine, the eternal bone of contention between Russia and the West

The EU, if to be seen as a determined global player, needs to keep and enlarge its influence in its backyard and Russia does not want to completely lose it. For the EU, Ukraine is a new market with 45 million customers, highlighted by the Kornkammer Europas, the industry in the East and possible drilling fields for shell gas; Russia needs it as a buffer and foot in Europe. The EU and Russia act as if it were their decision, although it is neither’s front porch! Poland of the 1930s comes to one’s mind, decision making from outside.

The laughing third is China, as the concluded gas deal and closer cooperation with Russia proves. The international observers (OSCE, EU and UN) have been ousted or taken hostage in certain cities. Putin and Lavrov are currently in charge and know how to play global chess. On the other side the EU is, once again divided, and not (yet?) willing to risk real economic sanctions with them. People’s and human rights are eventually difficult to weigh into the financial balance for Brussels.

And the winner is?

The Ukrainians can only win, if they pull together in the fight against corruption, the oligarchs and the outside influence. If not, they will lose, as this almost bankrupt country is pulled into opposite directions by two strong forces and their local henchman, beyond their strength and influence.