Last week, the long awaited deal between Ukraine and the EU fell apart unexpectedly. Ukrainian president Yanukovich did not sign the association agreement that many Western leaders had considered all but formally established.When looking for the cause of this catastrophe, blaming looks are directed toward Russia, who would have made Yanukovich bend under its pressure. Russian President Putin is said to have used both soft and more aggressive diplomatic measures to prevent Ukraine from joining the European ranks. But why the effort?
Two factors play an important role in the Russian-Ukrainian relations and in this issue specifically. Ukraine has had a free trade agreement with Russia for a while now. These kinds of agreements with several adjacent countries have led Russia to coin the idea of a Common Economic Space of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, in which these countries have been cordially invited to join.
Until now, Ukraine has remained surprisingly hesitant to join. Sure, their tariffs would have to be raised to impossibly high Russian standards. Sure, they would be so high that they would immediately violate the WTO agreement, make it virtually impossible to conclude any bilateral agreement with other countries and that they would also probably ruin what’s left of the Ukrainian economy. But in the end they would accede to a union of friends, that is reaching out to where the EU seems to be unwilling to lend a hand.
Indeed, both the IMF and the EU have expressed their reluctance to help Ukraine given both its economic and its human rights records. It is the concern about the latter that has spurred the EU to approach the eastern country. As before, they have waited for so long that the Ukraine-Russian friendship was rekindled. The fact that Ukraine signing the association agreement would effectively entail the end of its free trade agreement with Russia -and more generally the end of the legal basis for dialogue between the two countries- is probably coincidence also. Russia could not only lose a member for its Common economic space –that, granted, was never really eager to join- but also their trade partner. In the words of Glazyev, advisor of the Kremlinon the ‘Common Economic Space’, this would have been “suicidal.”
The Russian reactions have been manifold: from diplomatic efforts, to trade blocks and cuts of gas deliveries. Granted, Putin has not been nice: “The weak get beaten”, has he undoubtedly told to his Ukrainian counterparts many times, and he has been listened to. The very high requirements that the EU puts up have scared away many interested before and Yanukovich is no exception. Eager to escape the demanding European standards, but also the Russian Economic space and moreover eager to improve its gas prices, Yanukovich has assumed the role of a puppet master.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a Ukrainian opposition leader, only recently declared that “Putin deserves a medal for boosting Kiev’s chances of signing its association agreement with the EU. “ Seemingly interested in the European offers while refusing to accommodate the furious Russian reactions, the president has negotiated new gas prices –although not very good ones- and he has gotten the reassurance that he does not have to join the Russian Economic space. The deal has moreover been sweetened by a massive amount of money only Russia was willing to lend to Ukraine to cure its economy. All the while, no external force asks impossible human rights standards that must be tiresome to comply with.
“The weak get beaten”, and in Ukraine the EU most certainly was beaten. In this story, Russia is not the bad guy. Rather, it is the player that got lured into a game and won. The EU is the player that never stood a chance. While president Yanukovich is the puppet master, whose plan might backfire now that thousands of citizens seem not to be able to appreciate his cunning plan.