Original error

By Gwynne Dyer
  • Published 1.12.14

This is what the former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, subsequently driven from office by mass protests in Kiev, said to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel at the start of the crisis. It was recorded by a Lithuanian television crew, eavesdropping on the conversation with a directional mike, at the European Union summit in Vilnius where Yanukovych announced that he was not going to sign an EU-Ukraine trade deal.

“The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard, and we have big difficulties with Moscow,” Yanukovych explained to Merkel in Russian (which they both speak fluently). “I would like you to hear me. I was left alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia... one to one.”

The Ukrainian president was not overthrown by a “fascist” plot, as Russian propaganda would have us believe, nor was Nato hoping to make Ukraine a member. (Indeed, Nato had repeatedly told the previous Ukrainian government, which was very pro-Western, that under no circumstances could it ever join the Western alliance.) Exactly one year into the crisis, it’s useful to remember what really happened.

The basic question about any international crisis is: conspiracy or cock-up? The Ukrainian crisis definitely falls into the latter category. Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it. Here’s how they stumbled into it — Yanukovych inherited the negotiations for a trade deal with the EU from the previous government when he returned to the presidency in 2010. And he didn’t break off the talks with the EU because that would have alienated half the country: the western, mostly Ukrainian-speaking part.

Yanukovych was a typical post-Soviet political figure, deeply corrupt and almost comically greedy, but he was a competent politician. Almost all his votes had come from the eastern and southern, mostly Russian-speaking parts of the country, but he knew that he couldn’t simply ignore the west.

Original error

On the other hand, he couldn’t ignore Moscow either. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, saw the EU as a stalking horse for Nato, and was trying to persuade Yanukovych to join his “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) instead. Moreover, Russia had huge economic leverage, since it provided most of Ukraine’s energy and bought half of its exports.

So for three years, Yanukovych temporized, trying to get financial guarantees out of the EU that would make up for the economic punishment Putin would inflict if Ukraine signed the trade treaty. The EU wouldn’t budge: no special help for Ukraine. It would just have to take its punishment, Yanukovych was told, but the trade deal would be good for the country in the long term.

Politicians have to live in the short term, however, and in 2012-13 Ukrainian exports to Russia fell by half as Putin tightened the screws. Those exports mostly provided income for people in industrial eastern Ukraine — Yanukovych’s own supporters. The EU had left him “alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia...one to one” — so in late 2013 he made his choice: break off the EU talks, and sign up with Putin’s EEU.

Did Yanukovych foresee the big demonstrations against him in Kiev, where people had hoped for an association with the EU? Of course he did, but he probably didn’t foresee that the protests would be fuelled by the ham-fisted resort to violence by his own officials. He certainly didn’t foresee that he would be overthrown — nor did Putin, who had put him in that impossible position.

All the subsequent escalations of the conflict in Ukraine — the Russian annexation of Crimea, the pro-Moscow revolts in the two eastern provinces with the largest ethnic Russian minorities, the direct Russian military intervention that saved those revolts from collapse — have been driven by Putin’s determination to reverse his original error.