Mar 07 2014
Whither Ukraine?
By Li Xin
Three months into the turmoil, the opposition party in Ukraine finally seized power and ousted Mr. Viktor F. Yanukovych, the democratically elected president, with more than one hundred dead or injured in the conflict. The opposition, backed by the West, took advantage of the Ukrainian pro-Western forces’ resentment towards the government to turn the demonstrations into a struggle for political power. The new Kiev government will legitimize its authority in the general election scheduled on May 25th. With a looming polarization hanging over the interim authorities, the new government now are confronted with four possible scenarios.

The first and the least likely is that it will do whatever it takes to be part of the EU and NATO. The EU, emerging from the deadly debt crisis, is unlikely and unwilling to take on the extra burden of the near bankrupt Ukraine. The 610 million worth of aid in euro the EU promised to Ukraine had been shifted onto the International Monetary Fund. Russia will certainly close the door of the Eurasian Customs Union to shut Ukraine out, raising the tariff for imports from Ukraine, driving high Russian natural gas prices exported to Ukraine, further constraining the Ukrainian economy. The interim authorities’ aspiration for NATO is also likely to meet strong opposition from the east of the country and may even lead to separation of the nation. Moreover, Moscow surely will not sit idle to see Kiev, long regarded as Russia’ southern gate and a buffer zone,  become part of NATO. President Putin will try every means to preserve the frontiers of the former Soviet Union. Though declaring his non-intervention principle, Mr Putin ordered a surprise inspection of Russia’s central and western military region and launched a high-profile exercise on the western borders.

The second scenario is that the interim government’s hope is dashed by the West’s lip service. And falling short of the IMF requirements and left with no other better choice, a bust Ukraine find it hard to turn its back on Russia’s helping hand, and join the latter’s Customs Union. In that case, both the pro-Western constituencies in Ukraine and the West will feel betrayed by the new government, triggering a new round of protest or even social and political turmoils.

The third scenario is that the new government will try its best to avoid the above possibilities by adopting a hedging attitude to strike a balance between the east and west, a line that Mr. Yanukovych has long insisted on. Neither the European Union nor Russia will allow that to happen. So Ukraine has to make a hard choice.

The fouth and also the saddest scenario is a separated Ukraine. Either the first or the second scenario may lead to a divided country. In fact, protests against the new government have already broken out in the pro-Russia east and south Ukraine, urging Russia to protect the Russians with military force. A message of independence was sent out from the Crimean Peninsular. If Crimea secedes from Ukraine, it may seek to be part of the Russian Federation because it was part of the former Soviet Union’s territory and was given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev as a gift. Once Crimea declares its independence, it will send a ripple effect across east Ukraine. The interim authorities will surely use violence to stymie any separatist plot. Then Russia’s military intervention will seem inevitable, since it must protect the Russians living there and ensure the security of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Right now the Fleet is already on high alert. The east will certainly oppose any efforts by the west to join Russia and at the same time, the West needs to take advantage of the anti-Russia sentiment in west Ukraine to foment internal conflicts and precipitate the west’s independence and accession to NATO.

The foreseeable future is unlikely to see the accession of Ukraine to the European Union. And equally unlikely is the prospects of Ukraine’s joining the Customs Union or the Eurasian Economic Union. Yet internal conflict can break out at any time, which will be an enduring headache for Ukraine’s leadership.

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