Skip to main content

The battle over Ukraine: Towards a new geopolitical game

By Ulrich Speck, visiting fellow at Carnegie Europe, Special to CNN
December 4, 2013 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Newlyweds Mikhail and Margarita Nakonechniy kiss in front of barricades on Independence Square in a gesture of support for pro-Europe activists in Kiev, Ukraine, on Saturday, December 21. Protesters have poured into the streets of the Ukrainian capital, angered by their government's move away from the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Newlyweds Mikhail and Margarita Nakonechniy kiss in front of barricades on Independence Square in a gesture of support for pro-Europe activists in Kiev, Ukraine, on Saturday, December 21. Protesters have poured into the streets of the Ukrainian capital, angered by their government's move away from the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
HIDE CAPTION
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thousands have been protesting in Kiev after the Ukrainian government rejected an EU deal
  • The deal would have made Ukraine's political sphere more democratic, Ulrich Speck says
  • But he says it was not in the president's own interests to sign and move away from Russia
  • Germany has shown it is not afraid to confront Russia over Eastern Europe, Speck says

Editor's note: Ulrich Speck is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. Follow @uli_speck on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Ultimately, it's about power.

When Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich suspended an agreement with the European Union (EU) on November 21, his personal considerations would certainly have been a driving factor.

Ulrich Speck
Ulrich Speck

Signing the agreement would not only have brought Ukraine much closer to its Western neighbors. It would also have made its political sphere more democratic and competitive and its economy more transparent -- outcomes that would have been unlikely to fit with Yanukovich's personal interests.

Read more: Russia calls for stability and order

What the EU did in the past with its enlargement policy, and what it is trying now to replicate with its "Eastern Partnership", is to use its economic power as a tool to push neighboring countries towards liberal democracy.

The more these countries -- among them Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia -- move towards rule of law, democracy and a market economy, the more access they have to the EU market, and the easier it is for their people to travel and work in the EU.

Ukraine's Prime Minister calls for peace
Estonian president talks Ukraine crisis
Ukraine protest organizer relates demands
Fighting for Ukraine

But the project to transform Ukraine's political and economic structures is unlikely to please Yanukovich. Allegations that his party had rigged voting in 2004 triggered the "Orange Revolution," forcing him from office and giving power to his political opponents, including Yulia Tymoshenko, who became prime minister.

Soon after Yanukovich was elected president in 2010, Tymoshenko was jailed after being found guilty of abuse of office, in a case many believe was politically motivated. In its negotiations, the EU had been demanding that Yanukovich free Tymoshenko.

Ukraine is seen as a deeply corrupt country, ranked number 144 out of 177 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. This environment provides a breeding ground for arbitrary rule by powerful clans. A rapprochement with the EU would, at least on longer term, put pressure on that rule.

Another reason to put the agreement with the EU on hold seems to have been the Russia factor.

Read more: Opinion -- why Ukraine's future lies with the EU

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to bring the Ukraine into his sphere of influence through integration into a Moscow-led customs union which in the future shall be transformed into a fully-fledged "Eurasian Union." In the past few months, the Kremlin has put considerable pressure on Ukraine to move over to this camp.

But for Yanukovich, an alliance with Russia would be a double-edged sword. While Putin is likely to give the Ukrainian leader a free hand to consolidate his power base, he would also want control over key economic and political decisions. In a close alliance, Ukraine would lose core elements of sovereignty.

If Yanukovich were to hand his country over to Moscow, he would very likely be met with another revolution.

Since the Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine's political class has been aware that it needs to stay in tune with popular opinion. And a clear majority wants to go West.

People see a prosperous, well-governed EU next to their borders -- in sharp contrast with their own economic and political misery. That's why they are on the streets now, in Kiev and elsewhere.

Yanukovich, however, is likely to try to keep Ukraine in the middle -- going neither West nor East. He wants to keep the status quo, where he feels safe. But the economic crisis is getting worse, and he needs help. Without a rapprochement, neither the EU nor Russia will invest substantially in his regime.

Read more: Opinion -- beware Russia's power play

And there is a new factor which may bring additional dynamism into the game. Germany, now seen by many as the leading power in Europe, has recently put its weight behind the Eastern Partnership -- which had mainly been driven by Poland and Sweden in the past.

In a speech on November 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel flatly rejected Russia's claims over the region. Eastern European countries, she said, "must decide themselves on their future direction." "Third parties" -- ie Russia -- "cannot have the right to veto," she said.

Berlin would urge the EU to counter Russian pressure on Eastern Europe, "be it in the form of additional sales opportunities for products from our partner countries, which for instance may not be exported to Russia, or in the form of assistance to diversify their energy supply," Merkel said.

This is quite a turnaround in German policies towards Russia. It is the first time Merkel has spoken to Moscow with the assertive attitude of the leader of a great power. And she was doing what great powers usually do: pushing back other great powers and offering protection to smaller powers.

In other words, Merkel took a first step towards a geopolitical competition with Russia over Eastern Europe -- effectively ending years of cozy bilateral relations with Moscow.

Merkel has picked up the gauntlet thrown by Putin at her and the EU. But it is still unclear to what extent she will follow-up her rhetoric and push the EU towards making more substantial offers to Ukraine -- especially after the hopes of signing an agreement at the Vilnius summit have been disappointed.

But she has shown a Germany that no longer afraid to confront Russia over Eastern Europe.

This is starting to look like an entirely new game.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ulrich Speck.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT