In the three weeks since Ukraine formally suspended talks aimed at signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, two important facts have become clear.
First, it is now apparent that Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, had no effective strategy to resist intense pressure against the EU deal from Moscow. The Kremlin promised big cash loans, a gas discount and debt forgiveness, while explicitly threatening to block Ukraine’s access to the Russian market and implicitly threatening to stoke separatism in regions of the country.
Second, as street demonstrations gain momentum in Kiev and other cities, it has become clear that a strong, diverse and increasingly vocal plurality of Ukrainians will not accept their country’s continued isolation from the West. The authorities have confronted street protestors with shocking violence, and have offered no significant political concessions. Yet the prospect of real reform driven by the EU association has now become a key symbol for Ukraine’s national identity.
Though these two basic dynamics may appear to confirm the cliche of Ukraine “caught between East and West,” Ukrainians themselves do not see it this way.
Yanukovich, despite the intensity of Russian pressure, did not walk away from the EU table just to please Moscow. On the contrary, his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin are devoid of any foundation of trust or even mutual respect, Yanukovich can be all but certain that the Kremlin will throw considerable resources behind a challenger in the 2015 Ukrainian presidential elections, if not sooner.