Ukrainians have staged days of protests after President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of closer trade ties with the European Union, and the size and fervor of the demonstrations highlights the ongoing struggle of the former Soviet state to carve out an identity separate from Russia, integrated with Europe, but sovereign and politically independent. This isn’t the first time Ukrainians have turned out in full force to demonstrate against Russia’s influence, and both Europe and the U.S. have a vested interest in keeping Ukraine in their corner. If all of this sounds absolutely alien to you, don’t worry. Here’s your primer on the West’s tug-of-war with Russia over Ukraine.
1. What’s going on in Ukraine?
The Euromaidan (combining Euro and the Ukrainian word for square) protests of the past two weeks are a massive turnout against the Ukrainian president’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, a step along the pathway to becoming a full-fledged member of state of Europe’s premier economic and political confederation. Many Ukrainians favor further integration with the Europeans, but Russia has applied heavy pressure to prevent this, trying to push Ukraine to join the Moscow-led Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
What has transpired is a major clash of geopolitical interests.
In the red corner, we have Russia. Moscow has spent the last 22 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union trying to reassert its influence over the former Soviet states, and has been largely successful in doing so under Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Russia often uses economic leverage—such as cheaper prices on natural gas as a reward and discriminatory trade practices as a punishment—to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence.
In the blue corner, we have the EU, peddling economic integration, higher standards of living, human rights and a pathway into trade and political agreements with the Western world.
Deep divisions persist within Ukraine’s regions. Ethnic Russians comprise about 17 percent of the population, and 25 percent of Ukrainians speak Russian as their primary language. The pro-Russian sentiment dominates in the east and south of the country, especially among the older populations, while the pro-EU Ukrainian-speakers dominate the west and north. A November 2013 poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed equal (38 percent) levels of support for membership of the EU and the Russia-led Customs Union.
2. Who is leading the current protests?
While spontaneous protests may be a cliché of the Twitter generation, that’s pretty much what happened. These demonstrations were organized by regular people using social media.
3. Why do Russia and the EU care so much?
There are several reasons why Russia cares. Geopolitically, there is currently a harkening back to the days of Soviet control. After World War II, the Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact to place its Eastern European states as buffers from NATO invasion and influence. Now the Russians fear that if Ukraine signs the Association Agreement with the EU, its one-time puppet will become a full-fledged EU member and eventually join NATO. After the Orange Revolution, Ukraine appeared on its way to NATO membership, but those plans were shelved by the current administration in 2010.
But let’s not forget about the Russian Navy. A legacy of Soviet times, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based at Ukraine’s southern port of Sevastopol, which Russia leases. Russia has very few warm water ports, and securing and maintaining them is imperative for a global power. In one of his most controversial acts as president, three years ago Yanukovych extended the Russian lease on the Sevastopol naval base until 2042, in exchange for favorable natural gas prices. The Black Sea Fleet allows Russia to have more influence in the Middle East. The fleet was deployed into combat during Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008. Southern Ukraine, where the fleet is located, is largely pro-Russian, both politically and linguistically.
Finally, there is also a deep historic connection for Russians to Ukraine’s capital of Kiev. Prior to the Mongol invasions, after which Moscow came to prominence, Kiev was the original focal point of Russian civilization.
For the EU, new members such as Ukraine represent a potential source of cheap labor. Adding a market of 45 million people, who could all be buying goods and services from EU member states, is also a tempting proposition. Ukraine has a lot of potential for trade expansion, and some of the most prized farmland in all of Europe. Plus, all of that Russian natural gas has to get to Europe somehow, namely through key pipelines that run through Ukrainian territory.
4. How is Russia exercising its influence? What does it hold over Ukraine, other than shared history?
Russia and the post-Soviet states are Ukraine’s leading trade partners, and Moscow is, by far, Kiev’s biggest energy supplier. Cut-rate gas deliveries from Russia are a major bargaining chip for Moscow. The Russian capital has halted deliveries 55 times in the past 22 years to try and move its former republic back in line with its political and economic interests. As Ukraine prepared to sign the EU trade pact, Russia turned the screw by passing a series of sanctions and trade stoppages, with Ukrainian officials estimating the potential economic loss at $15 billion. Russia also decreased its net grain imports from Ukraine by 33.5 percent earlier this year but has indicated it may boost imports again if Ukraine joins the Customs Union.
All of this is especially worrisome for a country currently battling a recession and a GDP of $176.3 billion, one of the lowest in Europe. Currently, Ukraine exports $17 billion in goods to Europe and $16 billion to Russia. With Russia threatening to forfeit many or all of those goods, the government was left staring down a potentially massive economic hole.
5. What interest does the U.S. have in all of this?
Remember the Cold War?!? Well, those underlying tensions have never fully been put to bed.
The United States, closely aligned with the European Union, wants to keep Ukraine looking West, not East. Last year, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered Russia when she said Moscow was “trying to re-Sovietize” Eastern Europe by developing the regional trade bloc, and said the U.S. was hoping to slow down the process.
Even two decades after the fall of communism, there’s still strong U.S. interest in keeping the whole of Europe aligned philosophically. ”It is in the national interest of the United States to prevent Ukraine from becoming a Russian satellite and a key member of a Moscow-dominated sphere of influence,” Ariel Cohen from the Heritage Foundation told the BBC. “Ukraine is more democratically oriented than Russia. Historically, it has closer ties with Europe; and geopolitically, it can provide a necessary check on Russia’s imperial ambitions.”