Suspense in Ukraine
It’s like a scene from a movie about a people’s revolution in a fabled country, except the deaths on the streets are too real. As Ukraine is passing through one of the more serious political crises in its history, the earlier demonstrations in most of the country turned into a bloody conflict least week between the security forces and protesters, leaving more than 100 dead, some of which were hunted from afar by snipers. The brutality of the security forces prompted EU leaders to pressure President Viktor Yanukovych to agree to a deal with opposition leaders on Feb. 21. The tension among the signatories of the agreement was palpable in the press photos of the event.
While the bloodshed in the country has stopped for now as a result of the agreement, Yanukovych’s hope to stay in power until the end of the year diminished rapidly, as most of the demonstrators refused to leave Maidan Square while he was still in power. He fled from Kyiv on Feb. 22 to Kharkiv, a pro-Russian eastern city, even before the ink on the agreement had dried.
In the midst of uncertainty, Parliament, under the control of the opposition parties, made several controversial decisions: It removed Yanukovych from power, appointed Oleksandr Turchynov, the speaker of Parliament, as the interim president with the task of forming an interim government and scheduled presidential elections for May. While the legality of these decisions was debated, Parliament also ordered the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, where she had been imprisoned since 2011 on corruption charges. Finally, the interim interior minister issued a warrant to arrest Yanukovych, who was last seen in Balaklava on the Crimean peninsula.
While the protesters in Maidan celebrated and security forces came out in groups to apologize for their role in the oppression of the people, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared Russia would not recognize the latest decisions by the Ukrainian Parliament, as it lacks legitimacy. While initial U.S. hesitation in recognizing the new government was most probably out of fear that such a move might trigger harsher Russian intervention, the immediate economic aid package offer and following recognition by the EU, the U.S. and China dispelled protesters’ fears.
Although Westerners evaluate the developments so far as a success against Russian strong-arm tactics, there is no easy way out for Ukraine. The possibilities for bankruptcy, civil war, the separation of the eastern part of the country and Russian intervention are still alive. The early estimate for desperately needed financial aid is around $35 billion for 2014 and 2015. While Russia has frozen its $15 billion loan and its offer to discount gas prices, promised in return for the suspension of the Association Agreement with the EU in November 2013, the IMF signaled that it would extend the same amount of aid to Ukraine. The U.S. and the EU might also come up with additional aid packages.
In addition to the economy and ongoing tension between the Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking parts of the population, Russian behavior will be the main challenge for the future of Ukraine. This is why German Chancellor Angela Merkel has tried to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin not to intervene and cooperate with the West in Ukraine. The U.S. also warned against sending Russian troops into Ukraine. The memory of August 2008 and Russian intervention in Georgia is still fresh.
It is clear that the tug of war between Russia and the West over Ukraine will not settle down easily.
Though he assured his German counterpart of a hands-off policy, Putin cannot accept defeat over Ukraine so easily. As Zbigniew Brzezinski once said, “Without Ukraine, Russia is no longer an empire;” it’s a notion that necessitates serious adjustment among the Russian governing elite.