Understanding the situation in Ukraine through its political history and EU relations

A primer on how historical context informs the current situation in Ukraine

Violence in Ukraine has greatly escalated in recent weeks. The death toll has climbed to 28, while over 200 people have been injured. In order to understand the chaos in Ukraine, it is important to understand the historical context.

Differences between the EU and the US

Many media outlets have characterised the conflict in Ukraine as a tug-of-war between the West and Russia. Russia has a clear policy, as President Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine to join his Eurasian Union. As reflected by the recorded phone call between Washington’s European envoy Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, there is a divide between the US and EU. Her tone recalled the 2003 book “Of Paradise and Power” by Nuland’s husband, historian Robert Kagan, who asserted that “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus”. In other words: Americans are tough and Europeans are wimps.

Both the EU and US are now threatening targeted sanctions against Ukrainian officials they hold responsible for the violence, with the EU on the cusp of joining the US on a much wider package of coordinated sanctions. But while the US announced Wednesday that it had imposed visa travel bans on around 20 senior members of the Ukrainian government, all the while maintaining a further package of measures against Ukraine ready to be implemented, the EU has been more restrained in its response. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel expressed shock at the scenes of violence but said there was “no point in having sanctions that hit the civil population” and that “sanctions alone are not enough.” These differences between the EU and US are not new.

During his second term (1999-2004), President Leonid Kuchma shifted Ukrainian foreign policy toward Russia. Authoritarian tendencies, corruption, stalling reforms and Kuchma’s implication in the murder of a journalist all further isolated Ukraine from the West. In addition to these factors, Kuchma leveraged security and geopolitical concerns to make the US and NATO feel the threat of a Ukrainian re-orientation toward Russia.

After the ‘Orange Revolution’ protests against fraudulent elections, and with Viktor Yushchenko’s election (bringing into office a pro-Western figure) in January 2005, Ukraine experienced widespread optimism about integrating into the EU. During the ‘Orange Revolution,’ the United States led the way in refusing to recognise the original official election results.

The EU proceeded with caution, disregarding this democratic development and continuing to treat Ukraine under the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). In 2005, under the ENP, the EU placed Ukraine on the same level as northern African states, Israel and Russia. The northern African states and Israel are not part of Europe and have no right to join the EU while Russia has never declared its intention to seek EU membership.

EU engagement with Ukraine

Four factors impeded the EU’s engagement with Ukraine during this period. First, the ‘Orange Revolution’ occurred at a time when the EU faced enlargement fatigue with the recent addition of ten new members.

Second, the EU faced an identity crisis, which was especially an issue for France as it had envisioned the EU as a European super-state that could compete with the US. The increased tensions in transatlantic ties in 2003 before the Iraq invasion reflected the unraveling of this vision, as the Baltic and central European countries that were to join the EU a year later backed Washington. Hence, EU enlargement has meant more pro-US and pro-Atlanticist countries within the EU.

Third, there have been concerns over offending Russia. The Russia factor has also played a role in perpetuating the conception in Western Europe that Ukraine is culturally not aligned with the EU.

Fourth, lagging reforms within Ukraine have also impeded their integration. For a long time, the EU dealt with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as one Eurasian entity rather than separate countries, unlike the United States and NATO, which had separate policies towards Russia and Ukraine.

After the ‘Orange Revolution’ there was some progress in terms of EU relations. In 2005, a three-year Action Plan was signed, and in 2009 the EU launched the European Partnership. However, on 28-29 November 2013, Ukraine declined to sign the Association Agreement at the Vilnius Summit.

A divided nation

The one constant in Ukrainian history has been division: between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia in the years 1569-1795, between the Austrian and Russian empires in the years 1795-1917, and between Greek Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy from 1596 until today. There are clear regional differences in pro-Western and pro-Russian support as shown in the map below, with Yushchenko being the pro-Western candidate and ViktorYanukovych backed by Putin.

2004 Ukraine Presidential

Ukrainian Presidential Election, 26 December 2004

This division lines up with ethno-linguistic differences, with the mostly Russian-speaking South and East and the Ukrainian-speaking West.

Ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine

Ethno-linguistic Map of Ukraine

There are clear links between the regions experiencing mass protests and those that are more pro-European in their voting orientation, as shown below. The 2010 elections in which Yanukovych beat Yulia Tymoshenko were heralded as fair and truly competitive by international observers.

2010 Ukraine Elections

Ukraine’s 2010 election outcome and January 2014 protest status

This regional division in voter preferences can be traced to when Ukraine found itself split between the Austrian and Russian Empires. Not only did this cause linguistic divides, but Ukrainians were also subject to widely divergent identity-building projects which continue to affect political identities. People living in the area once under the Austrian Empire tend to support more Western parties, while people living in the area once under the Russian Empire tend to support more Russian-leaning parties. In addition, there is a split in views on issues such as how the groups perceive Ukraine’s past and future, as well as on the practice of collective property ownership. The diffusion of more authoritarian norms from Russia and  democratic ideals from the West also explain the regional division of voting preferences.

The future

Ukraine’s future is very uncertain. The protests have spread into Russian-influenced areas, as this is not just about ideological orientation; it is about ordinary citizens wanting a better life. The political outlook of people in Russian-speaking regions may be different from those protesting in Kiev, but many, especially middle class and business owners, express dissatisfaction with the current regime due to the unlawful actions of local authorities and a difficult business environment. Some oligarchs have also started to side with the protestors such as Hennadiy Korban and Borys Filatov in Dnepropetrovsk, 300 miles to the east of Kiev. The defection of two provincial businessmen will not tip the balance of power, but it highlights the erosion of loyalties of those who greatly profited under Yanukovych as they recognise that their businesses cannot function in an environment of lawlessness.

Protestors are very unlikely to back down, with the recent tradition of large-scale protest working in their favour. Activists are generally acquainted with the organisational and tactical aspects of mobilising large numbers, and parts of the population are also familiar with protesting, despite the dangers involved. Analysts have also pointed out that there may be a division in the army which makes it less likely that Yanukovych will use them against protesters. However, Putin will most likely exert even more pressure on Yanukovych once the Sochi games end.  He already increased economic pressure on 8th February by drawing a link between disbursement of the next tranche of Russia’s $15 billion aid package to Kiev with repayment of a hefty gas bill owed to Russian firms.

Dr. Tomila Lankina from the London School of Economics summarised the situation:“Unfortunately, there is political stalemate in the Ukraine. The political opposition is divided, and the recent leaked conversations of Victoria Nuland in which she discusses the prospective makeup of the Ukrainian cabinet has played into Russia’s hand which can now accuse the US of meddling in Ukrainian affairs and justify its own interference in Ukraine’s domestic politics.”

Many questions remain regarding the future of Ukraine.

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Categories: Europe, Politics

Author:Tiia Lehto

Tiia Lehto is currently a master’s candidate in MSc International Political Economy at the London School of Economics (LSE). She received her BSc in Economics, Politics and International Studies (with a major in Economics) from the University of Warwick in 2013. She has lived in seven countries within Europe and Asia, and has completed internships within a number of industries and functions varying from Finance to Sales and Marketing. During her time at LSE, in addition to her core course she is taking ‘Politics of Money in the World Economy’ to deepen her knowledge of the intersection between financial markets and politics, and is gaining regional expertise from the course ‘Russia and Eurasia: Foreign and Security Policies’. In addition, she is the president of the LSE SU Political Risk & Investment Society, and enjoys travelling and sports.

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8 Comments on “Understanding the situation in Ukraine through its political history and EU relations”

  1. Mirek
    February 23, 2014 at 4:06 am #

    In reality Ukraine did not exist as country till 1991 when Soviet Union started to collapse.Ukrainian language is like Polish with Russian influence in it. And that is what Ukraine is all about.
    Throughout the history like it is now ,there was tug of war between west and east about this land, the breadbasket of Europe.

  2. February 24, 2014 at 5:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on econprofaj and commented:
    Tiia Lehto of Global Risk Insights offers an insightful primer on Ukraine

  3. February 25, 2014 at 1:31 am #

    Admittedly somewhat unfamiliar with the politics surrounding the European Union and wanted some clarification on what you meant by this statement, “The northern African states and Israel are not part of Europe and have no right to join the EU…”

  4. Tiia Lehto
    February 25, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Hi Aaron,

    According to Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, any European state which respects the principles on which the EU is based may apply for membership. There is no definition of what is meant by ‘a European state’ but, for example, when Morocco applied to join the EU in 1987, the application was rejected in an opinion of the Commission on the grounds that Morocco was not a European country (non-European states are not
    considered eligible to be members).

    Hence, I was trying to show that Ukraine was treated in the same way as countries that have no possibility of joining the EU even though Viktor Yushchenko (the president at the time) was pro-EU, highlighting how Ukraine was ignored by the Union.

    Does this clarify the statement?

  5. February 25, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    Yes, it does. Thanks for the reference to the treaty and enjoyed your article!

  6. Tiia Lehto
    February 25, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

    Okay, great. Thank you!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Sifting Through Ukraine’s Turmoil | econprofaj - February 26, 2014

    […] Lehto of Global Risk Insights offers an insightful primer on Ukraine, which is currently embroiled in civil unrest where its President Viktor Yanukovych was […]

  2. Ukraine remains caught in tug-of-war between Russia and West | Global Risk Insights - February 28, 2014

    […] is going through the worst political crisis since the country gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The first […]

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