Photo by Sasha Maksymenko
Europe / Ukraine

Ukraine in Flames

The Olympics regularly goes to great pains to celebrate the togetherness of the world. Sochi was no different: both the opening and closing ceremonies proudly displayed all 2,873 athletes participating. The athletes came from 88 countries in total, with athletes hailing from everywhere from Russia to Timor-Leste.

Yet for skier Bohdana Matsotska, the Olympics’ togetherness could only feel somewhat disingenuous. While countries all over the world celebrated the good feeling, Matsotska retired from all her alpine skiing events, in favor of returning home to her troubled country, Ukraine. Ukraine had experienced increasingly passionate protests in recent months, but the day before her event, the violence exploded into a bloody fiasco, with death tolls rising by the hour.

Two weeks later, the situation has improved, albeit marginally. Ukraine’s corrupt and incompetent leader has been deposed—he left his palace without notice and is now wanted for mass murder—and the country’s future now lies in an increasingly fragmented oppositional party. In order to avoid the political disasters that have plagued places like Egypt or Libya, the US, the EU, and Russia must work together to ensure Ukraine stays on stable footing.

The strife began in November of 2013, when Ukraine’s former President, Viktor Yanukovich, rejected a long-awaited deal promising increased trade and political cooperation with the European Union. He did so under heavy pressure from Vladimir Putin, who had designs of creating a Eurasian Alliance in eastern Europe to rival the EU. The alliance, named the Eurasian Economic Union, intends to unite many post-Soviet states currently working in close economic cooperation and already counts Belarus and Kazakhstan among its members. But for Mr. Putin, the alliance’s success hinges on the inclusion of Ukraine, one of the biggest economies in the region.

Mr. Yanukovich’s rejection of the EU treaty signified a tacit approval of Mr. Putin’s plans. The Ukranian President tried to blame much of his rejection on the International Monetary Fund’s proposed economic sanctions, but he almost immediately faced massive protests calling for him to accept the EU’s deal. The protests began slowly, but by February quickly escalated to horrifyingly violent levels. Early estimates claim that as many as 100 people have died, with likely hundreds more injured. The violence seemingly clued Mr. Yanukovich in on his likely demise, as he fled his palace not long after the escalation. Since Yanukovich’s deposition, the Ukrainian Parliament has unanimously instated popular opposition leader Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk as temporary Prime Minister. He will remain in this position until scheduled May Presidential elections. He faces pressure from newly-freed former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a notoriously clever firebrand responsible for the 2004 Orange Revolution, which was also designed to modernize and reform Ukraine.

Ukraine faces an incredibly uncertain future. But a few priorities must be set in order for the beleaguered country to emerge as the successful country it wants to be. The most important clearly lies in its future with Russia. Putin’s Eurasian Union is far from dead, although it should be. The Eurasian Union can only promise more of the corruption and economic woes that Ukraine has been trying to escape. The 2004 Orange Revolution faltered due to Ukraine’s incredible corruption. Any governmental policy collapsed under heavy favoritism and the political system routinely dished out favors before even attempting to help Ukraine’s needy. The problem came to a head under Mr. Yanukovich. He should be roundly criticized for the excesses of his rule, but his corruption will not fade away if Ukraine accepts the Eurasian deal.

However, polls show the country only slightly prefers increased cooperation with the EU over the Eurasian Union, and this comes from the still starkly pro-Russian Crimean portion of Ukraine. The rest of the country, however, passionately supports increased EU cooperation. Recent media reports suggesting a possible civil war brewing over the divide are entirely overblown, but Russia’s interest in the division may not be.

Russia has good reason to want Ukraine well within its sphere of influence. As the second biggest economy in the region, Ukraine plays a big role in Russia’s economy. Perhaps more importantly, Mr. Putin also knows that he controls a huge part of Ukraine’s economy. With the new government struggling to respond to the hyperinflation that the unrest has brought about, the $15 billion loan Russia promised to Mr. Yanukovich in exchange for his rejection of the EU deal becomes more and more appealing every day. And even if the country decides to look at further westernizing, they likely will need Russia’s help in the process. Given the International Monetary Fund’s hesitance to supply Ukraine with any aid—the fund currently plans on implementing tough austerity measures and long-delayed economic changes in exchange for any help—and the EU’s more general hesitance to commit concrete funds to Ukraine, Russia may hold an even more powerful hand in any negotiations.

This cannot be the case. The EU has spent the last few years finally emerging from a prolonged recession, and things appear to be more stable for now. Ukraine’s oil and gas commodities should be seen as an opportunity to modernize and improve a potentially valuable economy currently mired in political depression. And from a political standpoint, the West’s experience in the Middle East should serve as a keen reminder for any future action. The EU cannot become Ukraine’s enemy or be seen as blameworthy in what could have been a revolutionary turn for the country. If these deadly protests ultimately amount to nothing because the EU refused to donate temporary monetary aid to a struggling country, one can hardly expect Ukraine to remain pro-West in the future. Instead, the EU must work with Russia to develop a trade agreement that benefits the EU, Ukraine and Russia; further interaction between each party only helps those involved. Furthermore, the IMF must take steps to mitigate the economic distress that increased cooperation with the EU would currently entail. Between private investment from the EU’s more stable member states and temporarily favorable treatment from the IMF, Ukraine should be able to stay afloat, even in a difficult economic situation.

While the West will continue to celebrate the international brotherhood of nations in the 2016 Olympics and beyond, the development of crises across the world tells a far different story. The crisis in Ukraine must be considered a serious foreign policy undertaking because a positive impact can be made. The Ukrainian people truly want a better state—whether they side with the Russians or not—and any steps towards reducing the corruption that characterized Mr. Yanukovich’s regime can only be seen as positive. Yet the West should also realize the importance of the opportunity presented before it. A rising tide should lift all boats and thus any deal agreed upon by Ukraine and the EU should also help Russia. Mr. Putin owes it to himself to recognize this. The US and EU owe it to themselves to act upon it.