Ukraine: Background, Sanctions, and the Sword of Damocles

by Chris Borgen

The BBC is reporting that dozens of people have died today in new fighting between police and protestors in Ukraine.  For a background to what is underlying the protests, see these posts concerning the struggle over the norms that will define Ukraine,  how Ukraine’s domestic disputes interact with Russian and European regional strategies, and the significance of the eastward spread of the protests and Russia’s technique of push-back against the norm-based arguments of the EU.

Some of these themes are echoed in the BBC report:

Ukraine seems be caught in a modern “Great Game”. Vladimir Putin wants to make Russia a global economic player, rivalling China, the US and EU. To that end he is creating a customs union with other countries and sees Ukraine as a vital and natural element in that – not least because of the countries’ deep cultural and historical ties.

The EU says assimilation and eventual membership could be worth billions of euros to Ukraine, modernising its economy and giving it access to the single market. It also wants to reverse what it sees as damaging infringements on democracy and human rights in Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians in the east, working in heavy industry that supplies Russian markets, are fearful of losing their jobs if Kiev throws in its lot with Brussels. But many in the west want the prosperity and the rule of law they believe the EU would bring. They point out that while Ukraine had a bigger GDP than Poland in 1990, Poland’s economy is now nearly three times larger.

While the immediate issue in the streets of Kiev is an end to the violence, the medium-term Western response may be sanctions against Ukraine, particularly targeting the assets of President Yanukovich and his allies.

But, hanging over all of this like the sword of Damocles is the concern over the stability of the Ukrainian state. The previous Opinio Juris posts, the BBC report linked-to above, and others have noted the sharp electoral and linguistic (Ukraine-speaking/ Russian speaking) divide between western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine. Some have voiced concern that Ukraine faces a possible civil war or a break-up of the country.  Edward Lucas of The Economist has written in an op-ed in today’s (February 20) Telegraph:

Perhaps the authorities will decide that they cannot crush the protesters and will draw back, meaning months of tension, jitters and uncertainty. Even then, Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been shattered, perhaps fatally. In the west, government buildings have been set ablaze. The region – the old Austro-Hungarian Galicia – was the site of a decade-long insurrection post-war against Soviet rule. If pro-Moscow authorities in Kiev try to crack down there, civil war looms…

Equally worrying is Crimea – site of the Charge of the Light Brigade 160 years ago – which could now be the flashpoint for another conflict with Russia, with far more devastating effects. The region is on the verge of declaring independence from Kiev (a move likely to prompt Russian intervention to protect the separatist statelet).

The BBC report sounds a more hopeful note:

Some commentators suggest this shows the country is liable to split violently across the middle. But others say this is unlikely – and that many in the east still identify as Ukrainians, even if they speak Russian.

As I mentioned in my previous post on Ukraine, the answer to the question of whether or not there is civil war or secession, depends in part on what the protestors in the eastern part of the country are protesting about.  If they are willing to continue on the path to closer integration with the EU and set aside closer integration with Russia, then the strand of hair keeps the sword suspended. If the Ukrainians in the east just want Yanukovich out, but still want to avert integration with the EU and increase integration with Russia, then the strand doesn’t necessarily break, but it does fray, as the normative conflict over the future of Ukraine will persist.

But while the question of civil war and secession depends in part on the severity of normative friction in Ukraine, that is not the only determinant. Also important is what role Russia will play in either further exacerbating the conflict or finding a peaceful solution. In September, Russia raised the specter of secessionism in Ukraine, specifically linking it to Ukraine’s signing the EU Association Agreement. Russia actively supports secessionist movements in Moldova and Georgia, two other countries seeking closer relations with the EU. Whether President Putin believes that preventing Ukraine from  signing an Association Agreement with the EU is important enough to push that country to war remains to be seen.

The issue for today is ending the violence in the streets of Kiev. But that is the first step in a long road to finding stability in Ukraine.

6 Responses

  1. To what extent can there be studied ambiguity given the aspirations in the west and the east – some sort of hybrid solution that puts Ukraine not at the border of two worlds but more at the center of one world.  Can European and Russian blandishments be melded in some way?  I am not sure, but stark choice vision seem to engender violence.  It is the old Marxist praxis that leads to radicalization on all sides.  I guess I am trying to imagine a third way that is both dissatisfying to Europe and Russia but relatively more satisfying than the present for the Ukrainian peoples.

  2. Great question, Ben.  So, in various statements the EU has stated that Ukraine can be a bridge between east and west and that this is not a zero sum game. For this to be true, however, two issues must be addressed: Putin’s perceptions and legal drafting.

    The issue regarding Putin’s perception is that he seems to view this as a zero sum, all-or-nothing game. In terms of the accession countries, in general, see the quotes in this post. If one party sees a situation as winner-take-all, and plays the game as zero-sum, it makes it very hard to find a middle way.  So, one challenge here will be a diplomatic one of addressing Putin’s perception.

    A second challenge is perhaps more an issue of legal drafting. The post that I linked to in the previous paragraph has a quote from this Radio Free Europe article in which the EU commissioner in charge of the Neighborhood Policy:

    < <…said a country cannot enjoy both a DCFTA [free trade agreement with the EU] and membership in a Russian-led customs union.

    “It is true that the customs-union membership is not compatible with the DCFTAs, which we have negotiated with Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia,” he said.

    “This is not because of ideological differences; this is not about a clash of economic blocs; or a zero-sum game. This is due to legal impossibilities. For instance, you cannot at the same time lower your customs tariffs as per the DCFTA and increase them as a result of the customs-union membership.>>

    First, I should note again that I think the EU has been emphasizing in more recent statements the idea of Ukraine as a bridge between east and west. But the underlying legal issue holds: whether signing both the EU and the Russian agreements would cause a significant treaty conflict. But, assuming for the sake of argument that Ukraine wants to join both treaty systems, this is an invitation to good lawyering. There are many approaches to resolving treaty conflicts and there may be a way (assuming the good will of all the parties) to come to a negotiated solution regarding the content of the treaties in this case. That could be one lawyerly approach to get to the possible  hybrid solution you asked about.

  3. seems that we are witnessing another example of a peoples’ aspiration for democratic freedom and human dignity — a Ukrainian Spring.

  4. Thanks Chris. One thought could be Ukraine signs both acts and a third transition document with both groups with a phase in over 15-20 years of incremental integration steps. Like being in an antechamber for BOTH groups.  That may have already happened but just trying to think of ways out whede all save face and Ukrainians have autonomy.

  5. did you see the parliamentary vote today? 236 against the repression law and a vote to turn security forces back to their normal roles. Brought chills and tears watching the parliament members singing the Ukrainian national anthem after their votes.

  6. “and the dream shall never die”

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