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Ukraine did something very Ukrainian this week. It sued for peace with Russia, apparently confirming a centuries-old subordination to Big Brother to the east. Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister jailed by the deposed President Victor Yanukovich and now leader of the political party Batkivshchyna, called the laws implementing peace by granting autonomy to parts of eastern Ukraine “humiliating and betraying.”
At the same time, Ukraine did something very un-Ukrainian. It moved westward, toward the European Union, when it ratified an association-cum-trade agreement with the EU, thus taking a decisive first move away from Big Brother to the east. “Tell me,” proclaimed President Petro Poroshenko to the 355 members of the Ukrainian Parliament before they unanimously endorsed the pact, “who will now dare to shut Ukraine’s doors to Europe? Who will be against our future membership of the EU, towards which today we are taking our first but very decisive step?” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who does not like to be upstaged by his president, said, “We are fixing a 350-year-old mistake: Ukraine is Europe!”
The president of the European Parliament, the German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, said the Ukrainian vote was a “historic moment” that met the “dreams of the people who fought for democracy” in Ukraine. A few days later, Porshenko flew to the United States to address the Congress: he said his soldiers were “fighting a war for the free world” against Russian aggression – and asked for advanced weaponry (which he’s unlikely to get).
Historic moments have been in vogue in Ukraine this year, and most of them have been quite nasty: Russia’s annexation of Crimea; the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner, probably by pro-Russian separatists using Russian-supplied rockets, and the mid-level civil war between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The EU/Ukraine association agreement is a much nicer historic moment, but the moment could turn nasty if the Russia bear sees in it a new provocation.
Spending much of the past weekend in Kiev listening to top Ukrainian politicians and distinguished foreigners talk about the crisis, I became convinced of one big thing. Russian President Vladimir Putin has “lost” the country that he and many other Russians have long regarded sentimentally as a cross between a little brother and a buffer (“Ukraine” means a border) against the West. As retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander, put it, telling people they better be your friend or else there’s trouble is no longer a winning strategy.
It will be a while before Russian leaders, or most Russians, get around to seeing that in losing Ukraine, Russia could gain a friendly opening to the EU. In the meantime, the viability of both the truce and the trade agreement is uncertain.
A number of Ukrainian politicians besides Tymoshenko will use their opposition to the pact in their campaigns for parliament. Elections are due in February.
Though the Russians acquiesced to the deal, they demanded and won a delay in its implementation, now set for the end of 2015. Until then, Ukraine will continue to levy high tariffs on EU imports to protect its own and Russia’s economy and industries. “[The delay] takes away from the pressure to make the necessary reforms,” said Erik Berglof, chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, though he added that Ukraine had to avoid having high tariffs slapped on its exports to Russia, as Moscow had threatened.
Much can happen in the next 16 months, and Russia may change its mind. According to Jose Manuel Barroso, the retiring president of the European Commission, Russian officials had appeared indifferent to Ukraine signing the same pact two years ago. James Sherr, a Ukraine expert at the Chatham House think tank, said the current crisis is so volatile and unpredictable that “it would be fanciful to have confidence that the (trade pact) will come into force at any time.”
The truce calls for an end to hostilities, the granting of temporary autonomy to the Donetsk-Luhansk region, an exchange of prisoners, the evacuation of the separatists from their combat positions and amnesty for the rebels. But at least one rebel commander has said that he and his supporters have no interest in remaining within Ukraine on any terms.
At the conference in Ukraine, a yearly exercise funded by Victor Pinchuk, one of Ukraine’s oligarchs, the top Ukrainian leaders and officials were militantly anti-Russian. Yatsenyuk saidthat Putin’s aim was to “take the entire Ukraine.” He called on NATO to admit his country. General Ihor Smeshko, former head of the state’s security services, conceded that Putin’s troops could, as the Russian president had boasted, get to Kiev in a few days – “but could they get out again?”
It was left to the veteran German politician and former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to articulate the meaning of the crisis: “The West, Europe, has to understand. This is a threat, not just to Ukraine, but also to Europe. A period of peace is over.” And though Fischer is right to say that Europe is threatened by Russia’s revived ambitions, and can no longer assert it is a continent at peace, it’s Ukraine that is bracing for further suffering.
PHOTO: A woman walks past a burnt-out train at a railway station in the town of Ilovaysk, eastern Ukraine, September 19, 2014. REUTERS/Marko Djurica