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Ukraine a pawn in high-stakes global game with no quick win in sight for EU, US or Russia

It was just last Friday that the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych and three leaders of the parliamentary opposition – Vitaliy Klichko, Oleh Tyahnibok, and Arsenij Yatseniuk – signed an agreement…

To Russia with love? AP Photo/Darko Bandic

It was just last Friday that the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych and three leaders of the parliamentary opposition – Vitaliy Klichko, Oleh Tyahnibok, and Arsenij Yatseniuk – signed an agreement on how to end the two-month crisis that has engulfed Ukraine. They did so as the protests turned increasingly violent, with up to 100 people killed in the days immediately before the agreement.

Witnessed by the foreign ministers of France, Poland and Germany, the agreement was hailed as another major success of EU diplomacy. A special envoy of the Russian president had also participated in the negotiations, but refused to sign the agreement as a witness, arguing that it was difficult to see how it could be implemented.

That gloomy assessment unfortunately proved accurate. The agreement, among other things, optimistically laid the ground for the restoration of the 2004 constitution of Ukraine, the formation of a national unity government, constitutional revisions to limit presidential powers, presidential elections, and an amnesty. But within three days, President Yanukovych had been impeached by parliament and a warrant for his arrest had been issued after he left Kiev on Saturday, insisting that he did not resign, and apparently disappeared entirely by Sunday. Meanwhile, protests in Kiev’s Independence Square continue, encouraged (to a mixed reception) by former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, newly freed from prison.

Demonstrations have also escalated elsewhere in the country in response to the agreement and its subsequent partial annulment. They extend even to Yanukovych’s presumptive stronghold in the southeast. Meanwhile, in the western parts of Ukraine, where pro-Western and nationalist Ukrainian sentiment are strongest, protesters established so-called People’s Councils – alternative and informal parallel structures of governance at the local level – that have assumed control of local administrations and security forces. These “takeovers” took place before the agreement was signed and continues at the time of writing, highlighting the long-standing fragility of the Ukrainian state and its institutions.

Meanwhile, tensions have also escalated between Russia on the one hand and the US and the EU on the other. Russia has condemned the developments in Ukraine since the agreement was signed as an unconstitutional, Western-backed coup, while the US and the EU have warned Russia not to stoke Ukraine’s continuing crisis.

Deep trouble

There are some fairly obvious underlying problems perpetuating the Ukrainian crisis. For one thing, only the current government and the parliamentary opposition were party to the agreement; the opposition in the streets were left out in the cold.

On top of this, the parliamentary opposition is not homogeneous in its composition or political platforms; it is neither fully representative of the protesters in Independence Square nor in any position to control them. In fact, many of the protesters, who themselves are highly heterogeneous and have no unified leadership either, deeply distrust the parliamentary opposition, and see it to some extent as part of the same corrupt system to which they are opposed.

Another problem is that Ukraine has become a pawn in a much larger geopolitical game with significantly higher stakes. The current crisis was triggered by Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, arguably under significant pressure and incentives from Russia. For both the EU and Russia, Ukraine is a valued prize in the competition for influence in the post-Soviet borderlands, similar to Georgia and Moldova but much more important because of its size, its strategic location, and its potential to destabilise the entire Black Sea region – and NATO and EU borders along with it.

That said, Ukraine’s fundamental problem is not really whether it faces east towards Russia or west towards the EU, the US and potentially NATO. The really pressing issue is whether Ukrainians have a choice about their country’s direction and whether they can take for granted the rule of law and the protection of their human rights as they go about making that choice.

While the EU has steadily worked on improving the rule of law and the protection of human rights across the area of the Eastern Partnership, in which Ukraine is a strategic “target”, this is still a long-term work in progress. The Association Agreement was just one step along the road in an environment of taut geopolitical competition. When Yanukovych brushed the Association Agreement aside, the geopolitical dimension of the EU’s engagement in the region suddenly became more open than ever.

The result is an elite-level agreement that can at best be interpreted as an attempt to foster a political situation in which Ukraine’s underlying governance problems can finally be addressed. But so long as the agendas of domestic and external actors remain as disparate as they are today, the prospects for this look bleak indeed.

Neither Russia nor the EU and US has a clear interest in further escalation, but it is equally hard to see any incentive for Russia to work with the West to calm the crisis. Yanukovych may have been disowned by his Party of the Regions and a “unity government” including the parliamentary opposition may have been formed, but this has simply entrenched rather than done away with an essentially dysfunctional and corrupt governance system. Many of the Maidan protesters rightly loathe it, and they are very unlikely to lend it any support.

Given the depth of these problems, Ukraine’s crisis is certain to continue. Any effort to resolve it in a sustainable way will require a more comprehensive agreement and the breathing space to negotiate it – neither of which will be possible without highly responsible and strategic leadership in Kiev, Moscow, Brussels and Washington.