Since the Ukrainian government’s November 21 decision to suspend free trade talks with the European Union, the country has descended into crisis. Hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets, angry with President Viktor Yanukovich’s choice and its implications. Violent clashes between law enforcement and protestors have stoked tensions even more; most recently, the government’s failed attempt to forcibly clear protestors out of Independence Square — their nexus of operation — has made the chance for compromise even bleaker.
So how did we get here? Ukraine is the perfect case study for what I’ve referred to in the past as a “shadow state”: it cannot free itself from Russia’s overwhelming influence, nor is it beneficial or domestically popular for it to give in and integrate with Russia further. So while Ukraine cannot leave Russia’s orbit, in recent years, Yanukovich’s government has managed to juggle between the competing spheres of influence of Russia and the European Union.
However, this fragile status quo has fallen apart thanks to a worsening economic situation and more pressure from Russia. Ukraine faces a three-prong predicament, starting with a struggling economy that is forcing Yanukovich to look for aid — or risk full-fledged economic crisis or default. Second, the EU and Russia, the two major powers that could provide this assistance, have serious quid pro quos attached to any economic relief they might offer. Third, the two powers’ demands have become mutually exclusive: the EU won’t accept Ukraine if it gravitates toward Russian President Putin’s geopolitical pet project, the Eurasian Union, while Putin won’t accept Ukraine if it moves toward EU partnership.
All of this is taking place in a country that broadly favors tighter ties with the EU, but is economically dependent on Russia: defying its neighbor could lead Russia to engage in trade retaliations. The decision to veer away from the EU has led to unrest on a level we haven’t seen since the Orange Revolution of 2004. And for President Yanukovich, these tensions play out against the backdrop of the 2015 presidential election. Now Yanukovich has two challenges to address: the growing financial storm, as well as the fervent public protests and opposition. There is no good path forward — there are only bad and worse choices — but Yanukovich’s decisions could determine his political survival, and Ukraine’s future.
So what can Yanukovich do? For now, first and foremost, he needs to continue to move back toward Europe politically to appease protestors and opposition groups, while veering toward Russia for stopgap funding (to buttress financial support from domestic banks and oligarchs). Yanukovich also has to manage public anger, first by not cracking down on the protestors (like what we saw earlier this week), and second, by reshuffling the cabinet in some way — perhaps by jettisoning Prime Minister Mykola Azarov for a candidate more aligned with the interests of key oligarchs, and more favorably disposed to Europe.