Ukraine is in a worse situation than ever – now facing the threat of massing Russian troops on its border. The accepted wisdom is that seven years ago former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych sought to sell his country under a trade deal with Russia instead of joining the European Union as a member associate. This led to the Maidan Square democratic movement, which forced Yanukovych out of power. In response, Russia invaded Crimea and started a civil war in eastern Ukraine. Today Ukraine is trying to repel Russian aggression, calling on Washington and NATO to step in and protect its nascent democracy from Russian threats and intimidation.
This is not quite the whole story. The consensus view conveniently ignores how EU and US diplomacy actually paved the way for Ukraine’s destabilization and break-up. By playing their game in the EU’s negotiations with Ukraine, Brussels diplomats, backed by Washington, ended up offering Vladimir Putin a golden opportunity to reclaim Crimea and destabilize Ukraine’s development towards the democracy. Without Brussels’ excessive negotiating demands, mainly on governance issues, the breakup of Ukraine could have been avoided, along with all the negative consequences that have since ensued. As Ukraine has acquired associate status with the EU, it has paid a heavy price for its membership: the occupation of Crimea, the stalemate of the civil war in the Donbass and 14,000 lives lost. How Ukraine has come to this point holds important lessons for Western allies in dealing with the current crisis.
The real story begins with Yanukovych, an ethnic Russian, who was elected president of Ukraine in 2010 by barely a third of the country’s voters, mostly from the Russian-speaking regions, Donbass and Crimea. According to Freedom House, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe estimated that “the vote met most international standards for democratic elections and consolidated the progress made since 2004”.
After his election, the challenge for the new president was to negotiate a possible EU membership, while facing competing demands from Russia for a closer trade relationship. In walking this tightrope, Yanukovych had to fight against divided Ukrainian public opinion. EU aid has been concentrated more in the western regions of Ukraine than in the ethnic Russian regions. According to independent polls up to August 2013, only 42 percent of the electorate supported the EU-Ukraine association agreement, while 31 percent preferred a customs union agreement with Russia.
Despite polls showing less than majority support for a Russian or European deal, Yanukovych has resolutely sought EU membership. Today, it is widely forgotten that he initialed an association agreement with Brussels in March 2012. At the same time, Yanukovych openly opposed joining the Russian Customs Union. In response, Russian pressure has grown increasingly heavy. Moscow opened a trade war against Ukraine in 2013. When Putin visited Kiev in July 2013, he did not even speak to Yanukovych as the two stood side by side during official ceremonies.
In public speeches at the time, Yanukovych defiantly reaffirmed his determination to finalize the deal with the EU, including enacting the controversial judicial and governance reforms demanded by Brussels regarding the rule of law, independent media and law enforcement. The Ukrainian parliament has adopted a series of reforms by a two-thirds majority to ensure broad parliamentary support for the changes requested by Brussels.
Yanukovych had also come under pressure from Brussels to end the criminal prosecution of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for his negotiation of the controversial 2009 gas deal with Russia. The court’s conviction of Tymoshenko in 2011 and his sentence to seven years’ imprisonment have become the focus of the EU’s demands. Brussels has warned that Tymoshenko’s treatment threatens the initialed trade deal, which is slated for formal signing on November 29, 2013 in Lithuania. As a condition of signing, Brussels insisted on Tymoshenko’s release from prison for medical treatment abroad. This demand turned out to be a very difficult pill for Ukraine’s domestic politics to swallow.
Ukraine has started to seriously destabilize. On November 21, the parliament did not pass motions for the release of Tymoshenko’s medical treatment, which means that the EU’s demand could not be met. On the same day, the Yanukovych government desperately issued a decree calling for three-way negotiations between Ukraine, the EU and Russia to settle any issues between the competing blocs. Yet at this point Yanukovych didn’t seem to hesitate. On the very day when the parliament did not approve the release of Tymoshenko, he reaffirmed that “an alternative to reforms in Ukraine and an alternative to European integration do not exist … We are walking in this path and not let’s not change direction “.
Adding to the pressure, over the next few days the Maidan protests began, largely covered by Western media. Thousands of people, mostly Western Ukrainians, took to the streets of Kiev, protesting, often violently, against any backtracking on the finalization of the Association Agreement with the EU and calling for greater democracy in the western one.
On November 26, 2013, cracks in Yanukovych’s resolve to move forward with Brussels emerged. While attending the EU summit at the end of November, the association agreement was not signed. Acknowledging that Russia had asked Ukraine to delay the signing, he again called for further negotiations with the EU on its terms. Yanukovych also asked Brussels for substantial compensation to make up for any lost trade costs with Russia if Ukraine goes ahead with Brussels. Finally, he again called for three-way talks between Ukraine, Russia and the EU to attempt to diplomatically resolve all outstanding issues and controversies. The EU refused to participate in any three-way process and instead demanded that Yanukovych sign the trade deal immediately. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel, has declared that the EU will not tolerate “the veto of a third country”.
From that moment on, the Ukrainian government began to break up. The Maidan Square movement has taken on an increasingly revolutionary air with the United States openly fanning the flames of opposition to Yanukovych, the president-elect. Notwithstanding article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which calls on diplomats “not to interfere in (…) internal affairs”, the American Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs has appeared openly in December 2018 in Maidan Square with the American Ambassador. They encouraged peaceful protests against the elected ruling government, even handing out pastries to protesters and security forces.
In February 2014, as European and American diplomats sought to negotiate a transitional solution between opposition activists and Yanukovych, the situation on the streets of Kiev continued to deteriorate. Clashes between protesters and riot police grew increasingly out of control with more than 130 dead, including eighteen police officers.
On February 22, 2014, Yanukovych fled Kiev as an angry mob ransacked his official residence. On the same day, the Ukrainian parliament relieved Yanukovych of his powers as president, declaring that he had stepped down from power and that he “was not fulfilling his obligations”. Parliament has set a new presidential election for May 25, 2014, and an interim government has been put in place. Finally yielding to the demands of the EU, the government released Tymoshenko from prison. Police quickly changed their loyalty, saying they now stood “alongside the people”. The military and security services followed suit, announcing that they would not oppose the popular will.
Russia protested against the violent overthrow of Yanukovych. After seeing ethnic Ukrainians, with the open support of the US and the EU, forced democratically elected Yanukovych out of office, Putin moved from diplomacy to considering other options to ensure the protection of interests. of Russia, knowing that Washington and Brussels had no military cards to play. . On February 23, the day after the Ukrainian parliament’s action against Yanukovych, pro-Russian protests broke out in Sevastopol, Crimea. Days later, on February 27, masked and uninsigned Russian troops seized control of the Crimean parliament and quickly occupied strategic locations throughout the region without significant military or civilian resistance.
A majority of Crimea may well have supported the arrival of Russia, content to break with Ukraine. In a 2001 Ukrainian census, 65 percent of Crimeans were considered ethnic Russians, with only 15.7 percent identifying as Ukrainians. In a 2008 poll conducted by the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies, 63.8% of all Crimeans supported Ukraine’s succession and accession to Russia. In a series of polls conducted by a United Nations between 2009 and 2011, a majority of 65 to 70% of Crimeans consistently declared their preference to join Russia. Particularly after seeing how NATO had used military force to support Kosovo’s break with Serbia to become an independent state, Putin showed little concern over international protests that Russian troops were violating the territorial integrity of ‘a sovereign nation by occupying Crimea.
Putin also simultaneously stoked the Russian ethnic uprisings in the region of eastern Ukraine. The protests quickly escalated into fighting between the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics and the Kiev government. On August 22, 2014, Kiev accused Russia of openly invading Ukraine. The Donbass conflict has been brewing for seven years now. Russian troops, exceeding 100,000, are currently massing along the border area of Donbass, raising fears that Russia is launching a large-scale invasion.
As George Kennan warned decades ago in his Long Telegram, Russia’s “neurotic” worldview emanates from a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity” about its borders. Particularly after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Washington and Brussels should have considered that changing the status quo by bringing Ukraine into the status of association with the EU, combined with promises of definitive membership in the EU. NATO, could trigger an extreme Russian reaction. Instead, the European Union, backed by the United States, has largely exaggerated its hand, leading to a diplomatic debacle for stability in the region.