Putin’s Gambit: How the EU Lost Ukraine

By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: Russia's Ukraine Power Play Photos
AP/dpa

The inability of European bureaucrats to keep up with the Kremlin’s manipulations — or Kiev’s political calculations — has cost the EU a trade deal with Ukraine, and severely damaged its foreign policy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decisive move came on Nov. 9. That day, after years of courtship, and several months of promises and threats, he met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich at a military airport near Moscow. The meeting was so clandestine the Russians initially denied that it had taken place at all.

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Before that point, the plan had been for Yanukovich to sign a 900-page association agreement, a sort of engagement contract, with the European Union in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on Nov. 29. But in early November near Moscow, Putin seems to have sealed an alliance with Ukraine, preempting his rivals in Brussels. And last Thursday Yanukovich postponed the signing of the EU agreement indefinitely.

After giving temporary asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden and brokering a deal to have Syria give up its chemical weapons, it was Putin’s third recent victory over the West, albeit probably not a permanent one. After all, Yanukovich’s agreement with Putin is a marriage of convenience, not a marriage of love.

Europe’s ‘Eastern Partnership’ Dream

This tug-of-war began four years ago, when the EU proposed an “eastern partnership” with Ukraine as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus. The EU offered cooperation, free trade and financial contributions in exchange for democratic reforms. Officials in Brussels spoke enthusiastically about the emergence of an historic Eastern European policy not unlike former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s rapprochement with the Warsaw Pact countries in the 1970s. The planned partnership agreements were intended to facilitate visa-free travel, reduce tariffs and introduce European norms. The only thing that not offered was EU membership.

The EU’s other goal, even though it was not as openly expressed, was to limit Russia’s influence and define how far Europe extends into the east. For Russia, the struggle to win over Ukraine is not only about maintaining its geopolitical influence, but about having control over a region that was the nucleus of the Russian empire a millennium ago. The word Ukraine translates as “border country,” and many feel the capital Kiev is the mother of all Russian cities.

This helped create Cold War-style grappling between Moscow and Brussels. The Russian president, hardened by his fights in the Kremlin, is more adept than EU bureaucrats at manipulating people with venality and affections. None of the top European politicians made a serious effort to win over Ukraine, with neither German Chancellor Angela Merkel nor European Commission President José Manuel Barroso flying to Kiev to convince its wavering president.

‘Unprecendented Pressure’ from Russia

“I believe the unprecedented pressure from the Russians was the decisive factor,” says former Polish Prime Minister and intermediary Aleksander Kwaniewski. “The Russians used everything in their arsenal.” Elmar Brok, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament, says: “Yanukovich kept all options open until the end, so as to get the best possible deal.”

The official reason for the agreement’s failure is Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition politician who has been in prison for the last two years. The EU had made her release a condition of the agreement. Yanukovich was unwilling to release his former rival, and last week the parliament in Kiev failed to approve a bill that would have secured her release.

But then there are the financial incentives. In the end, the Russian president seems to have promised his Ukrainian counterpart several billion euros in the form of subsidies, debt forgiveness and duty-free imports. The EU, for its part, had offered Ukraine loans worth €610 million ($827 million), which it had increased at the last moment, along with the vague prospect of a €1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yanukovich chose Putin’s billions instead.

The EU had been banking on its radiant appeal, and on its great promise of prosperity, freedom and democracy, but now Brussels must confront the fact that, for the first time, an attempt at rapprochement was rebuffed because the price was wrong. “If Yanukovich doesn’t want to make a deal, then he simply doesn’t want to,” says Brok.

Battle of the Unions

The EU’s eastern partnership had gotten off to a rocky start even before the Ukrainian incident. Belarus dashed the EU’s hopes it would join when protesters were violently suppressed after the reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko in 2010. Armenia called off an association agreement with the EU this September.

In the case of Ukraine, it initially seemed as if the Europeans’ rational arguments would prevail over Russia’s threatening gestures. According to an internal EU analysis, joining the “Eurasian Union” — a Russia-backed proposed political and economic union including Russia, Tajikistan, Kayahkstan, Belarus and others — would severely limit Ukraine’s sovereignty. Once such a union had been formed, Kiev would no longer be able to enter into any other free trade agreements without Moscow’s approval. An alliance with Moscow would thus have the exclusive nature of a marriage. The EU’s eastern partnership, in contrast, would still allow Ukraine to enter into other alliances.

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Aborted EU Deal: Massive Protests Rock Ukraine After Pull-Back

Photo Gallery: Kiev's Day of Protest Photos
REUTERS

In the wake of Ukraine’s withdrawal from EU trade deal discussions, Kiev was rocked by the biggest protests since the Orange Revolution while the daughter of imprisoned former Ukrainian leader Yulia Tymoshenko pled for Germany’s help.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Kiev to protest the Ukrainian government’s decision to call off plans for a trade deal with the European Union. The protests were the largest to take place in the country since 2004’s Orange Revolution, when accusations of corruption and electoral fraud during that year’s presidential election brought thousands of people to the streets and helped overturn the election of Viktor Yanukovych. According to police estimates, Sunday’s protest attracted 23,000 people while organizers estimated the number at over 100,000.

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The protests were set off by the announcement on Thursday that the Ukrainian government would no longer pursue preparations for the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union in order to “ensure the national security of Ukraine” and “restore lost trade volumes with the Russian Federation.” The deal would have created a new framework for trade between the former Soviet republic and the EU, but was seen as worrisome by Russia, which had threatened economic sanctions and travel restrictions should the deal go through.

The Ukrainian parliament had also voted down bills last week which would have allowed imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko — a key figure in the Orange Revolution — to go to Germany for medical treatment. The release of Tymoshenko, whose jail term for abuse of power and embezzlement is widely seen as politically motivated, was one of the conditions for the EU deal. Kiev has instead announced intentions to create a joint commission to discuss relations between Ukraine, Russia and the EU.

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Russia ‘blackmailed Ukraine to ditch EU pact’

Yulia Tymoshenko calls for Ukrainians to take to the streets as President Yanukovych comes under pressure from Kremlin
Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich

The Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, abruptly pulled out of the deal on Thursday, leaving EU policy in shreds. Photograph: Reuters

The European Union and Russia traded charges of blackmail on Friday over the future of Ukraine.

The Kremlin threatened the country with trade losses worth billions and costing hundreds of thousands of jobs if it signed up to a strategic pact with the European Union, senior Lithuanian officials said.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia said the EU was putting pressure on Kiev and organising mass protests against President Viktor Yanukovych.

A week before a critical EU summit in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, that was to be capped by the Brussels-Kiev pact, Yanukovych abruptly pulled out of the deal on Thursday, leaving EU policy in shreds and Putin relishing victory in the contest for Ukraine’s future.

The volte face was a result of Russian blackmail, the Lithuanian president’s office said as senior officials in Brussels said Yanukovych was sacrificing the hopes and wishes of most of his countrymen on the altar of Russian money and contracts.

Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned former prime minister and arch-rival of Yanukovych, whose release and transfer to Germany has been the central condition for the EU pact, pleaded with the president to reverse his decision.

In a letter to Yanukovych from prison, she renounced the release condition and pledged she would stay in jail in Ukraine if Yanukovych relented. Fear of facing Tymoshenko in a 2015 presidential battle is believed to be one of the main reasons for the president’s rebuff of the EU.

“I give you my word that, if you make a decision to sign the [EU] agreement, on the same day I will appeal to European leaders asking them to sign the agreement without fulfilling all criteria including the part regarding my release. I don’t know if they will listen to my appeal but I will do everything possible for the signing of the agreement even as I continue to sit in prison,” said Tymoshenko. “This is the only chance for you to survive as a politician,” she told Yanukovych. “Because now, when you are killing the agreement you are making the biggest mistake of your life.”

The thunderbolt from Yanukovych brought pro-European protesters on to the streets of central Kiev before what promises to be a weekend of campaigning climaxing in a large rally on Sunday. Around 1,500 took to the streets waving EU flags on Thursday evening. Organisers expect tens of thousands to join protests on Sunday. Jovita Neliupšiene, foreign policy aide to President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, said Yanukovych had called her before announcing he was ditching the EU pact, arguing that the pressure from Moscow was irresistible.

Yanukovych and Putin had a secret meeting last week. The Ukrainian and Russian prime ministers then met in Saint Petersburg on Wednesday.

 

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