Time for U.S. to prod Ukraine
October 26th, 2012
12:13 PM ET

Time for U.S. to prod Ukraine

By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Anna Borshchevskaya is assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. The views expressed are solely her own.

On Sunday, Ukrainians will head to the polls to elect a new parliament. The elections will be pivotal. Once a promising democracy, Ukraine has become increasingly authoritarian over the past two years.

In a close 2010 election, Ukrainians elected Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency. Yanukovych hails from eastern Ukraine, which is traditionally pro-Russian and, during his first two years in office, he has pushed Ukraine slowly but surely away from the West and back into the Russian sphere.

Yanukovych not only stopped his predecessor’s push for NATO membership, but also extended Russia’s lease over its Sevastopol naval base for 25 years, despite public outcry. Russia now “silently dominates” that city, according to the Kyiv Post. Yanukovych also accepted the Russian position on Holodomor, the great 1933 famine, which many Ukrainians believe was deliberate genocide perpetrated against them by Josef Stalin. He also supported South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence, puppet breakaway states supported by Russia in the wake of its 2008 invasion of Georgia. This past summer, his Party of Regions pushed through a controversial bill to give Russian official language status in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine (13 out of 27) and, in August, Ukraine joined Russia and Belarus in a Russian-led free-trade zone for former Soviet republics.

The Obama administration has been largely silent over Ukraine’s backslide toward Russia. Perhaps the White House feared antagonizing Russia against the backdrop of President Barack Obama’s marquee “reset” policy. Many American diplomats also suggested that criticizing Yanukovych’s policies could push him and his supporters further into a Russian embrace.

They are wrong. Pressure could be welcome, not least because Yanukovych has been unable to curb Russia’s aggressive position towards his country despite many concessions. While the Kremlin traditionally prefers leaders from Ukraine’s pro-Russian east, Putin would be mistaken to believe that those like Yanukovych and his eastern Ukrainian supporters would turn their back on Ukrainian nationalism. Many eastern Ukrainians are far more sympathetic to Russian culture more than its politics, and Yanukovych has lost much popular support over the past two years.

As Brookings Institution scholar Steven Pifer has noted, the West should not be afraid to call Yanukovych on the Russia bluff. Yanukovych’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is complicated, and infused with mistrust.

Putin has, for his part, humiliated Yanukovych. During one recent visit to Moscow, Putin reportedly made Yanukovych wait for four hours. Putin’s proffered reason? He had to stop on the way to the meeting to talk to some bikers. As one senior Ukrainian official explained, according to Jamestown, “It is not we who are moving away from Russia, but the latter that pushes us off.”

Yanukovych tried to pursue what he perceived to be a multi-vector policy – to balance European and Russian interests in the Ukraine. In the end, that has not been enough for the Kremlin. When push comes to shove, Putin and the Russian leadership refuse to accept that Ukraine is a separate nation. In 2008, Putin famously told President George W. Bush that Ukraine “is not even a state.” Facing such attitudes, it is unlikely Yanukovych will run eagerly into the Kremlin’s arms should President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton use their bully pulpit to criticize Ukraine’s democratic backslide.

Almost a quarter century after George H.W. Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech sought to subordinate Ukraine’s interests to Russia’s, it is time for the United States to recognize that Ukrainian freedom matters, and that the former Soviet Union's second-largest state is too big to lose. A Western-oriented Ukraine will not only bolster freedom and liberty, but will also advance American strategic interests.

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Topics: Russia

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Max Kovalov

    I’m glad to find a piece on Ukraine here. You start it with assertion that Ukraine is moving towards authoritarianism and then the rest of the post discusses Yanukovych’s foreign policy with Russia, which does not support your initial thesis. Yes, the relationships with Russia is an important agenda but this is not the core of the problems with Ukrainian pseudo-democracy.

    It is true that today Ukraine is sliding further away from being a democracy. The freedom of speech is being curbed and the media is controlled by pro-presidential forces. The election is not going to be free and fair because two of the most prominent opposition leaders are in jail for political reasons; the electoral commissions are stuffed by pro-presidential members; two parties – UDAR and Svoboda – that according to the polls should clear the 5% threshold, were not granted any representatives in electoral commissions, while 3 technical or “sofa” parties got representation in all 225 commissions (and they nominated 6!!! candidates all together); almost half of the TV air time for political ads is given to pro-presidential Party of Regions. Finally, the records of bribing voters are so rampant that young voters are willing to sell their votes for $30 in the social network V Kontakte, which is the Russian version of Facebook. The judiciary is dominated by president, so is the parliament, and the police ignore appeals to justice. THESE are the problems of Ukrainian democracy and a threat of authoritarianism; not relations with Russia.

    As far as the details are concerned, some of your facts are not entirely accurate.
    – There are 24 administrative regions in Ukraine (oblast) + Crimean autonomy+ Kyiv + Sevastopol. Russian was not made an official language. Rather, the bill passed in Rada allows local territories to use another language in paperwork if 10% of the territory (a town or a raynon) speaks the language.
    – Yanukovych had to wait for Putin for 4 hours while Putin was hanging out with bikers on his way to Yalta, Ukraine.
    – When you write that “many Ukrainians believe [Holodomor] was deliberate genocide,” you are not incorrect. However, it’s not only the belief held by Ukrainians. The Ukrainian parliament passed legislation calling Holodomor a genocide and 2 dozen countries, including the US and many European states, adopted this position.

    October 26, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  2. Roma

    Wow, what an untruthful piece of garbage you have produced here, Anna Borshchevskaya, shame on you.

    Well, Anna, could you please tell me why should Ukraine be joining NATO in a first place. We, Russians do not pose any threat to them, because we are brother-nations, and you f*** b***h know that very well.

    Why does Canada live and officially speak two languages and is actually, sort of, proud of it???

    How come there are 185 ethnicities live in Russia and not a single language is banned???

    And what is USA's interest in Ukraine??? Why America want to have influential on Ukraine's politics???

    October 26, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  3. guest

    Sevastopol is a Russian city. It was administratively changed by Khrushchev, and the population would overwhelmingly prefer it to be Russian if they were given the chance for self-determination. (Although I am certain a greater part of south and eastern Ukraine would also choose that, which is one reason why no one wants to press that issue. Ukraine is poorer than many Third World countries, which does not make people proud to be Ukrainian.)

    Letting regions choose whether to make Russian a regional language proved to be immensely popular and a boost to the Party of Regions's support. Why should all of Ukraine be run by the center, and that center dominated by a perspective from Western Ukraine? When you take into account that all the country's wealth is generated in Eastern Ukraine, it is clear that Eastern Ukrainians are getting a very unfair deal letting poorer Western Ukrainians tell them what to do.

    Also NATO membership has very little support, and Yanukovych has not recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So that part of your article is pure garbage.

    October 26, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Reply
    • Vladinahor

      your an idiot. its a ukrainian city, always was always will be

      November 9, 2012 at 7:53 am | Reply
  4. Marine5484

    Let's all hope that the Ukrainians stick with Viktor Yanukovitch. The last thing the Ukrainians need is a pro-western stooge like Boris Yeltsin of neighboring Russia to sit around and take orders from Washington D.C.

    October 26, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  5. the social network book

    great...post...!!! I really appreciate it...

    October 27, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
    • Roma

      What exactly did you like about it?

      October 27, 2012 at 12:25 am | Reply
  6. Joe

    The article mentions giving regions where there a large Russian minority language rights. Why is respect for historical ethnic minorities a big problem? They were there before the borders of Ukraine became set. Should not their right to keep their language and culture be respected. This article shows just how shallow some can be when it comes to trying to make a political point.

    October 27, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    It looks as if Yanukovych dances on two weddings. Despite Russia's interest in Ukraine, he insists European integration is one of his government's main goals. But he has rejected any calls to free Yulia Tymoshenko, maintaining that she was sentenced by an independent court. Critics claim she was prosecuted and imprisoned in order to prevent her running in this election.
    Ukrainian authorities hope that the 3,500 international election observers will have a fair assessment of Sunday's election. If the process is determined to be free and fair, then Ukraine feels its case is strengthened and that it remains committed to democratic values, despite a few hiccups.

    October 28, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply
  8. thumbsihave2

    The Ukraine? You know what the Ukraine is, it's a sitting duck. A road apple. The Ukraine is weak. It's feeble. I think it's time to put the hurt on the Ukraine.

    October 29, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
  9. John

    Was visiting Ukraine last month, and my personal opinion is that Ukraine will never be strong and powerfull with such citizens. Too stubborn to reach their goals on their own!! (yes there are good honest people there but not enough)Every political job is not honestly reached or voted for!! everything is bought out!! Shame on some of you "Rich" ukrainians!! its disgusting so see how they look at the poor.. there is almost no middle class..just the rich stealing from the poor. their entire system is just set up for the rich to live as they please.. just reading about any of their politicians makes me cringe. nothing is set honestly!!! ok enough... wouldnt want to wast my nerves on those politicians..

    October 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Reply
    • Vladinahor

      yes you are so correct!! you have great knowlege

      November 9, 2012 at 7:55 am | Reply
  10. ukraine-vacation-guide.com

    Doing business in Ukraine is not so easy, this economy is very regulated. You should have support and consultations of a local bank for business without problems in this country. I created a list of trustworthy Ukrainian banks http://ukraine-vacation-guide.com/dir/bank/35 They are good both for business and private issues. What else Ukrainian banks you can recommend?

    November 1, 2012 at 7:04 am | Reply
  11. Victor Yanyvovych

    Ok people, Ukraine needs to step it us and not worrie about those Russians

    November 9, 2012 at 8:01 am | Reply

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