High-stakes Poker |

Ukraine Pitting EU and Russia Against Each Other

Kiev is refusing to cuddle up to EU, or Russia. But it's a calculated move. It really wants the EU to sweeten the pot.

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

When Polish soldiers served in Iraq and Afghanistan, they used American equipment, mainly because much of the weaponry in Polish army warehouses had not been replaced since the fall of the Soviet bloc.

Warsaw's decision this year to spend $43 billion over the next decade on military procurement stems partly from a desire to modernize its arsenal and partly from a desire to end its dependence on NATO. But its main purpose is to counter the Russian threat on Poland's eastern border.

Not only the countries of eastern Europe view Russia as a threat, and they very much do. A small but significant minority of Poles believe Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the plane crash in Russia, in April 2010, in which Polish President Lech Kaczynski died. And Poles are, largely, confident that their country's geostrategic position could greatly benefit from Ukraine breaking free from the Russian sphere of influence. But for its part, Ukraine has been playing high-stakes poker, playing Russia and the European Union against each other while committing its charms to neither.

But suddenly, two weeks ago, the equation changed.

Warsaw as matchmaker

For years Poland has been spearheading efforts to bring the last of the former Soviet-bloc states closer to the EU. But Kiev, the birthplace of Russian culture, balked at signing an association agreement with the EU, under Russian pressure. Poland was bitterly disappointed.

And that happened after Germany threw its support behind a Ukraine-EU relationship - which changed everything as far as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was concerned.

The stakes, realized the former Soviet political commissar, had risen. Angela Merkel's support transformed the initiative from a hobbyhorse of Poland and the Baltic nations into an all-European initiative.

Three days after Merkel’s statement, Yanukovych announced that at this stage his country would not be signing any agreement with the EU. Why? Evidently , Ukraine’s president saw an opportunity to exploit the opportunities of being a vital pawn in the power games between Russia and the West.

Western analysts say Ukrainian establishment figures back Yanukovych, fearing that rapprochement with the West – and adopting its more stringent governance criteria - would diminish their own power.

Of course, not signing a friendship pact with the EU doesn't Yanukovych intends to join Putin's tariff union, which is part of the Russian president's vision for a new Euro-Asian union.

Who's afraid of Russian sanctions

The EU admits that it can't compensate Kiev for damage caused by Russian sanctions if Ukraine signs a pact with the West. Any advantages gained by moving closer to the West, as well as any European compensation, are for the middle or long term.

Kiev's dispute with Brussels revolves around just how many billion dollars Ukraine would lose in the first months after signing.

Possibly Yanukovych wants to maintain the status quo of his country, wedged as it is between two powers. He could be manipulating Putin as much as the other way around.

But in the long run, the attraction of the West in economic, cultural, social and political terms is far greater than that of Russia. In the world of realpolitik, a leader stuck between two powers must strive to achieve the best deal possible.

It's working, evidently. Brussels is already drawing up a more attractive deal for Yanukovych. A few days before the planned signing ceremonies with the EU, senior EU officials clarified that a precondition was that Ukraine's former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko be released from prison. Two days before the signing, this condition disappeared.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets, with the tacit encouragement of the EU, demanding he choose Europe over Russia.
Brussels does not believe in exerting naked force for the purpose of achieving diplomatic goals. Imposing economic sanctions is not an option when approaching neighbors in the East, since the network of proposed ties is purely voluntary.

Yanukovych may need this pressure from below in order to choose the West, if he does. Possibly his power base in the pro-Russian Eastern Ukraine won't let him. The demonstrators may have to depose him in order to achieve this outcome. But if Ukraine hangs tough and signs nothing, it could get – as Yanukovych has shown – a much better deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych, meeting in Kiev in July 2013.Credit: AP