Why Ukraine debate has Cold War echoes
December 12th, 2013
11:27 AM ET

Why Ukraine debate has Cold War echoes

By Kavitha Surana

Editor’s note: Kavitha Surana is an intern with Fareed Zakaria GPS. The views expressed are her own.

As the protests in the heart of Kiev continue, one thing is clear – a process that began as an overture aimed at drawing a cluster of post-Soviet countries towards greater political and economic integration with the European Union has escalated into a tug of war over Ukraine’s identity. But the refusal so far of Ukraine’s government to sign an association agreement that would have boosted cooperation with the European Union has raised another question – is the region facing a renewed era of Cold War-style confrontations?

Certainly, in the lead up to last month’s Eastern Partnership summit, which was supposed to see Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine sign up for closer ties, Moscow signaled that it intended to play hardball on the issue. It restricted imports like chocolate and steel from Ukraine and wine from Moldova and Georgia, briefly halted gas flows to energy-dependent Ukraine and hinted that further discomfort would be on the horizon if the agreements went forward.

“Russia kept ratcheting up the pressure,” says Andrew Weiss, a specialist on the region who served on the National Security Council staff under President Clinton and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. “All of this looks like it’s politically motivated and not grounded in solid economic concerns. The signal was very clear that Russia would go to the mat so that Ukraine, especially, would not sign this agreement.”

Such opposition is likely in part an emotional response to the protracted disintegration of the Soviet Union’s once far-reaching empire. After all, Ukraine is the country with the closest historical and cultural links to Russia.

“Russia never saw Ukraine as a different part of the country, just a different region,” says Lucian Kim, a Berlin-based journalist who has been covering Eastern Europe for almost two decades. “From Russia’s perspective, there’s a hole in the country if they don’t have Ukraine.”

Will Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute, agrees. “Russia believes its power would be significantly diminished if it didn’t have Ukraine on its side. It sees this as a crucial part of its international stature,” he says. “To lose Ukraine has a symbolic value. It has been portrayed as: no Ukraine, no Russian Empire, and no great Russian influence.”

But Russia’s attachment to Ukraine isn’t just emotional – there are strategic reasons Moscow might be concerned, not least the worry that any deal with the countries on its border risks letting the European Union into its backyard.

“For Putin, it really is a zero sum game,” Kim says. “If a country very similar to Russia can become Western, it upsets Putin’s idea of Russia as something special, beyond East and West.”

Putin may have famously blasted “American exceptionalism” in a New York Times op-ed in September, but he has also seemed to cling closely to the idea that Russia represents a unique third way to the East-West model. Perhaps with this in mind, Russia has accelerated plans to establish a Eurasian Customs Union with its neighbors that would facilitate multilateral trade integration.

The union would be built upon the foundation of Russia’s current customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. But while Armenia – dependent as it is on Moscow economically and for its security – has already indicated that it plans to follow this path, Ukraine still hangs in the balance.

The problem facing countries like Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and even Ukraine is that rather than being a partnership between equals, the union would almost certainly be dominated by Moscow and its security interests.

“The economic stakes are very low,” says Yanni Kotsonis, associate professor of Russian and Slavic History at New York University. “You’d think that Russia would join into a world system, but they tend to be economically nationalistic and protective and they haven’t been very good at entering into global economy.”

“They also haven’t understood the difference between exercising hegemony over a region and simply militarily and economically dominating a region.”

But even as it pushes its agenda in the region, some believe that Moscow’s muscular diplomatic approach may end up backfiring. “These tactics are going to have a very negative impact on Russia’s relationship with Europe, its main trading partner,” Weiss says. “It fosters the idea that Russian policy is irresponsible and disruptive.”

Many Ukrainians appear to agree. According to the Wall Street Journal, a poll last month found that 45 percent supported the EU association agreement, while only 14 percent backed the Eurasian Customs Union. Such views have prompted thousands of Ukrainians to take to the streets in protest over the refusal of President Viktor Yanukovych, who has close ties with Moscow, to sign up to the EU-backed deal.

“There’s a new generation of Ukrainians who were born and grew up in independent Ukraine, they are not looking at Russia and saying they want to be like Russia,” Kim says. “They are looking at Europe, saying: we want to have this prosperity, this rule of law, this meritocracy.”

A diplomat from the European Union said Thursday that Yanukovych had indicated he intended to sign the deal. Yet whatever happens next, Kim suggests that Ukraine’s government is not the only one that has had a significant stake in the outcome.

“Putin is thinking strategically,” he says. “He understands that if Russia definitively loses Ukraine then there’s no more buffer zone with the West.”

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Topics: Ukraine

soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. Quinton

    It looks the Ukrainians are walking into a steel trap. This will be another triumph for the U.S., the UK and France. This will be a shining example of how history repeats itself. Does anyone here know what happened to China during the 19th century or the Boxer Rebellion in 1900? This appears to be what's now in store for Ukraine. Then again, I guess that most people here have no knowledge of China's recent history and will prove it by making idiotic comments applauding this move by Ukraine toward the EU!

    December 12, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Reply
    • Alex279

      You do not have to look too far, to China or elsewhere, or to gig into the past.

      Look an neighboring Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Latvia... Did not we saw civil unrest recently regarding the skyrocketing prices for monthly electricity bills?

      December 12, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • ying yang

      We also remember what Russia did to Ukraine, I think Ukraine should just be independent and not pick sides :S

      December 12, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Reply
      • Alex279

        This would be the best solution: an independent state with neutral foreign policy and with self-sustained economy. A kind of Finland or Sweden.

        Unfortunately, for Eastern European mentality independence is not a goal by itself, but is merely a commodity for sale. All these countries who became independent from Soviet Union, did so only temporarily to join EU and NATO with some gains and some losses, whatever the deal they negotiated. Ukraine stood independent longer than all the others, but it is going to end soon.

        December 12, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • Hank Singelschucher

      The 19th century China proves as much about the present-day Ukraine as sausage looks like a bowl of rice

      December 12, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Hank, I strongly suggest that you take a look at what went on in China with the foreigners during the 19th century. Led by the British, the Western powers plundered the country and impoverished the people which by 1900 spawned the Boxer Rebellion. This is what's in store for Ukraine, if the EU gets it's way!

        December 12, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • Ivan

      Hmm? If there's a trap in the EU agreement, then Putin is an idiot at geopolitical strategy.

      See, if there was a trap, the spring is of rusty iron and there's already a pry bar nearby to pull Ukraine out. If an outcome like what happened in 19th Century China were to happen in Ukraine, when the Boxer Rebellion-equivalent hit, the Russian Army would simply walk in on the side of the anti-Western rebels, being cheered as liberators, and Ukraine would become part of Russia again. Russia and Ukraine would be reunited and the West exposed as villains.

      So, if we assume Putin has even half the brains he needed to rise through the ranks of the KGB and then get into his current position, we know there's no trap here for Ukraine.

      On the other hand, if Ukraine turns westward and the result is greater prosperity than in Russia. Because while there's enough cultural difference to shrug it off and say "Well, maybe that works in England or Germany, but it won't work in Russia", there's no way to sell "Well, maybe that works in Lesser Russia, but it won't work in Greater Russia." That will greatly empower his liberal opponents

      Which, of course, would be bad for Putin, which means, if he's smart, he'd oppose the EU agreement. And, hey, he does.

      So, either there's a trap and Putin is more brain-dead than Lenin's corpse, or Putin is a smart guy and knows that the EU agreement is likely to be good for Ukraine. Which alternative do you think is more likely?

      December 14, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Reply
    • Ukrainian

      Quinton, I don’t care less if there would be triumph for any other nation as a result of Ukraine’s moving closer to the EU – this will be primarily a triumph for the Ukrainian people. If it happens (or rather when it happens) this will be an escape from the trap set by the Russian empire for the past four centuries. We do not expect economic assistance from the EU, the Ukrainian people expect that the proximity to the EU will help us to obtain dignity and achieve self-respect, which Russia wanted to destroy for centuries by famine, executions and humiliation of Ukrainians. The Ukrainian people demand the rule of law, less corruption and fair rules of the game in our country.

      December 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  2. Alex279

    This has nothing to do with Cold War. This is about 100% about money. Economy of Ukraine is very lousy state with not enough money to pay for social obligations - salaries for teachers, doctors, etc.. - everybody who works for state, as well as pensions. The standard practice for the last ten years was to borrow money - from International Monetary Fund, from EU, and from Russia - and plug holes in state budget. Every Ukrainian leader since 1991 did that. Kravchuk did. Kuchma did. Yuschenko did. Yulia Timoshenko did it most. Now Yanukovich is trying to do.

    Then guess what? If you borrow, borrow, borrow, then the creditors are reluctant to give you more unless they get some assurances that one day they will get something back. So they attach conditions.

    IMF set condition that Ukraine stops subsidizing gas prices for population. Yanukovich does not agree because he does not face social unrest and face Maidan. So negotiations with IMF went nowhere.

    EU sets conditions: free Yulia Timishenko, embrace gay rights (and tell your retarded popes of the 1000-year-old Orthodox Christian Church to stop condemning sodomy - sodomy is good for people). But most importantly, EU actually offers only under 1B Euro in five years.

    Russia/Putn (but actually Gazprom/Miller) has money, but sets its own conditions: they want control over the pipeline.

    So what?

    Everything has its price.

    20B Euros and Yulia Timoshenko is free as a bird in the sky (but privately, and off record, 10B is good enough, and even 5B can do it if Yanukovich and his friends can stash away some chunk of it).

    Gay right? 3B and the Popes will start singing that sodomy is good.

    People on Maidan are actually reducing negotiating leverage of Yanukovich, so they are nothing more than a useful id...ts. Besides, it is not even Maidan yet. It is Maidanek. Imagine what kind of Maidan Yanukovich will face if his own coal miners from Donetsk will go on strike for not receiving their pay.

    December 12, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Reply
    • Alex279

      In any case Ukrainian people are famous for the art of protesting and expressing itself. Google for "blyadek and blyadko"

      December 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Reply
      • Hank Singelschucher

        I just did. Google showed Alex pics

        December 12, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • vamd

      " People on Maidan are actually reducing negotiating leverage of Yanukovich "

      I can't tell what this man is negotiating for, if he is negotiating [in-credible allegiance for national interest]. Interesting opportunity: EU has not declared its agreements exclusive, only RU did & may back half way easier than all the way – very narrow road to walk on indeed ... but then, what's the rush !

      December 14, 2013 at 11:03 am | Reply
  3. Dejan

    @Alex279
    Quote: "Sodomy is good for people".
    Wow, you Alex are mentally retarded individual, and you belong to heavy secured psychiatric ward.
    Make sure I don't see you near school, or playground with kids, because I will crush your degenerate skull.

    December 12, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • paofpa

      Do you still support the Death Penalty for such acts?

      December 13, 2013 at 11:39 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    The reason why many Ukrainians want their country to sign the association agreement is that, by doing so, Ukraine would have to play by EU rules and obey EU laws. They are fed up with corruption and cronyism in the country. Janukovich had fallen out with the mega-rich oligarchs, because he concentrated not only power but also wealth in the hands of his family – turning the oligarchs against him, who now are on the opposition side.
    His 40-year-old son Oleksandr and young businessmen from Donetsk, Yanukovych's eastern home region, hold all the key economic positions in the government as well as the powerful post of interior minister.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:52 am | Reply
  5. WERTWERTWWERTWERTERT523452345

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    December 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Reply
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    December 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Reply
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    RTYERTYERTYERYERYERTY

    December 13, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  8. WERTWERTWWERTWERTERT523452345

    ERTWWRETWERTWERTERTWERTWERTWERTWERTWERTNSA MIRAR COJE PUTAS NORTE AMERICANAS NOSOTROS ORDENAR A LA PUTA ESPOSA DE CLINTO LLAMAR PARA CERRAR LOS SATELITES.WERTWERT

    NO ROTAR TANTO LOS IPs DE NANO PARTICULAS POR QUE LOS HAKEAN SATELITES CHINOS CUADRADOS CON EL REY DE ESPAÑA Y CHINA.WERTWERT

    PAGA NUESTRO DINERO PEDASO DE NARCOTRAFICANTE.WERTWERT
    IMPETIGA NO TE GUSTA QUE TE DIGAN REPTILITA PUTA.WERTWERT

    ATREVETE A HABLAR MARICO DEL ARIA51 YA SABES PARA DONDE VAS TE ACUERDAS DE FEMA.WERTWERTWERT
    RTWERTWERT
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    December 13, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  9. WERTWERTWWERTWERTERT523452345

    ERTWERTWERTWERTWERTWERTWERTNSA MIRAR COJE PUTAS NORTE AMERICANAS NOSOTROS ORDENAR A LA PUTA ESPOSA DE CLINTO LLAMAR PARA CERRAR LOS SATELITES.WERTWERT

    NO ROTAR TANTO LOS IPs DE NANO PARTICULAS POR QUE LOS HAKEAN SATELITES CHINOS CUADRADOS CON EL REY DE ESPAÑA Y CHINA.WERTWERT

    PAGA NUESTRO DINERO PEDASO DE NARCOTRAFICANTE.WERTWERT
    IMPETIGA NO TE GUSTA QUE TE DIGAN REPTILITA PUTA.WERTWERT

    ATREVETE A HABLAR MARICO DEL ARIA51 YA SABES PARA DONDE VAS TE ACUERDAS DE FEMA.WERTWERTWERT
    RTWERTWERT
    CUANTAS NANOPARTICULAS POR NEURONA.
    ESTA ES LA TAREA.
    RTYERTYERTYERTYERTYER
    NOSOTROS SOMOS TAN PASIFICOS.RTYWRTYERTYERTY
    WERTWERTWERTWERTWERTWER

    December 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  10. WERTWERTWWERTWERTERT523452345

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    December 13, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  11. WERTWERTWWERTWERTERT523452345

    ERTWERTWERTWERTWERTWERTWERTNSA MIRAR COJE PUTAS NORTE AMERICANAS NOSOTROS ORDENAR A LA PUTA ESPOSA DE CLINTO LLAMAR PARA CERRAR LOS SATELITES.WERTWERT

    NO ROTAR TANTO LOS IPs DE NANO PARTICULAS POR QUE LOS HAKEAN SATELITES CHINOS CUADRADOS CON EL REY DE ESPAÑA Y CHINA.WERTWERT

    PAGA NUESTRO DINERO PEDASO DE NARCOTRAFICANTE.WERTWERT
    IMPETIGA NO TE GUSTA QUE TE DIGAN REPTILITA PUTA.WERTWERT

    ATREVETE A HABLAR MARICO DEL ARIA51 YA SABES PARA DONDE VAS TE ACUERDAS DE FEMA.WERTWERTWERT
    RTWERTWERT
    CUANTAS NANOPARTICULAS POR NEURONA.
    ESTA ES LA TAREA.
    RTYERTYERTYERTYERTYER
    NOSOTROS SOMOS TAN PASIFICOS.
    ERTWERTWERTWERTWERT

    December 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  12. Boris Trachenko

    Great job, Kavitha!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  13. DONGSZKIE

    why would a leader allowed to be blackmailed by one country.?

    December 13, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  14. Irena

    Hello,
    An interesting book which will give a real insight into Ukraine is called, Among the Ukrainians. I recommend it to all who want to better understand the country.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Thank you, Irena. I totally agree. People need to learn the history of Ukraine before they spew their ignorance of that country on this web page. Judging by the ignorant posts I've read here, not too many of these bloggers ever took the trouble to learn!

      December 14, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Reply

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