What’s Next for Ukraine?
February 23, 2014 - 7:13 am
The Ukrainian parliament put the finishing touches on its legislative coup that overthrew the Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich. They named the new speaker of parliament president, impeached Yanukovich, seized his opulent country house, and appointed new ministers to fill out the cabinet. They plan to vote in a new prime minister by Tuesday.
Two questions overhang the events in Ukraine: What will Russia do about this turn of events, and will the rest of Ukraine accept what parliament has done?
As for the latter question, signs are hopeful that Yanukovich’s party will accede to reality and allow the change in government.
What will Vladimir Putin do? At the moment, the Russian prime minister is taking a “wait and see” attitude.
“In these days the most important thing is to form a functioning government,” said Vitaly Klitschko, a former world boxing champion and a leading figure in the uprising.
“We have to take very important steps in order to ensure the survival of the economy, which is in a very bad shape,” he told a news conference. He denied there had been a coup.
“Parliament is the last legal official institution in Ukraine,” he said. “Nobody knows where the president of Ukraine is. We tried to find him all day yesterday. His location is unknown. He left the country without a president.”
Even the president’s Party of the Regions, backed by many of the wealthy “oligarchs” who dominate Ukraine’s post-Soviet economy, seems to have given up on a wavering leader with whom Moscow had last week appeared to be losing patience.
“The changes that have happened, have happened. It’s already done,” said Tatyana Bakhteyeva, a parliamentarian from Yanukovich’s home region of Donetsk. Party lawmakers issued a statement blaming Yanukovich and his entourage for the crisis.
Instability in Ukraine, a vast territory of 46 million, is a major concern for both Russia, where President Vladimir Putin supported the Yanukovich administration financially, and for the European Union to the west, which had offered Ukraine a far-reaching trade pact that Yanukovich rejected in November.
It was that decision, taken after threats of retaliation from Moscow, which sparked the protests. The European Union, which has worked closely with the United States on Ukraine, said the trade deal was still open, and EU aid was on offer.
Klitschko is expected to challenge Tymoshenko for the presidency, elections for which have been scheduled for May. And while Tymoshenko has a large, loyal following, the corruption charges that landed her in jail will probably dog her campaign.
As Christopher Dickey points out at the Daily Beast, Tymoshenko is no angel:
In a country with endemic and rather extraordinary corruption—which is really the most important issue for many Ukrainians—Tymoshenko’s best hope may be that Yanukovych has left behind such obvious symbols of his stupid cupidity. On Saturday, the people of a nearly bankrupt nation flooded into his Yanukovych’s country estate to gaze in wonderment at the extravagances he left behind, from gilded bathroom fixtures to his own-brand vodka, terraced gardens, and a personal menagerie.
All that makes Yulia Tymoshenko’s alleged corruption look rather like ancient history, but it doesn’t erase the memories altogether. It is a fact she half-acknowledged when she apologized to the crowd in Kiev last night for the unspecified mistakes of the past and talked about turning the page.
Ukrainians remember that in the 1990s, before the braids, Tymoshenko was a shrewd businesswoman with dark hair and a dark side: tough, unrelenting, unforgiving, and in a league with then-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. She amassed an enormous fortune in the natural gas business. People started calling her “The Gas Princess.” And there she was helped by the sweetheart deals Lazarenko allegedly sent her way.
Given all the talk that later charges against Tymoshenko were trumped up or falsified in the Ukraine, it’s probably important to know that her ally Lazarenko was prosecuted in the United States, where he was convicted and imprisoned for money laundering and other crimes. Tymoshenko was not charged in that case and she has denied wrongdoing, but she was named explicitly as part of the conspiracy detailed in the indictment.
Walter Russell Mead doesn’t see a “Ukrainian Spring” either:
There are three possible futures for Ukraine. In the short term some kind of continuation of the status quo of indecision and drift seems the most likely alternative, but such a volatile and unsatisfactory status quo is unlikely to endure into the indefinite future. When and if the status quo finally ends, Ukraine can go one of two ways. One is partition: the east and the west go their separate ways, as the eastern portion returns to the Kremlin’s embrace, and the west prepares for the EU. The alternative is that either Moscow or the West succeeds in drawing the whole country to its side.
Mead points out that the latter possibility is unlikely, writing: “Ukrainian society is unable to produce a strong and united government that could limit the influence of foreign interests and lobbies so that the Ukrainian state and people would follow a consistent course toward either Moscow or Brussels, much less find some kind of effective pathway in between.”
And Putin? Great Britain warned the Russian government not to intervene in Ukraine, although such a turn of events doesn’t seem likely as long as the pro-Moscow east grudgingly accepts the new situation in Kiev. But as Anshel Pfeffer writing in Haaretz points out, Putin has a few aces up his sleeve that he can play to influence events in Ukraine.
Putin will use all his levers – the Russian army and navy stationed on Ukrainian soil; his control of the country’s economy and its energy supplies; the Russian television channels that are popular also in Ukraine; and historical memories. The 2008 precedent of Georgia, where Putin took advantage of the Abkhazian region’s independence demands to launch a war and humiliate the recalcitrant Georgians by advancing without opposition to within 40 kilometers of Tbilisi, has not been forgotten.
The Kremlin has suffered a setback with the (at least temporary) loss of Kiev, but Putin cannot allow himself to give up on Ukraine. If his allies lose there, the downtrodden opposition within Russia will receive a massive boost and once again take to the streets challenging his rule.
Putin would suffer tremendous consequences abroad if he loosed the Russian army on Ukraine. His recent successes in Syria, Iran, and the Olympics would be washed away and Russia would lose some of the prestige that Putin has so carefully amassed over the past few years. Dare he risk it? The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, and yesterday, thousands of pro-Moscow protestors poured into the streets to demonstrate against the events in Kiev. What with the other levers Putin has at his disposal — including the energy card he has shown no reluctance to use in the past — it seems likely that Putin won’t have to invade to get what he wants.