Will Ukraine swing back to Russia’s orbit?

By Toni Michel & Wang Pinrui Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/17 19:13:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the presidential palace in Kiev during the Maidan revolution in February 2014 and a provisional, pro-Western government took over, many believed it was a historic rupture and represented the dissolution of Ukraine's historic attachment to its great eastern neighbor. They thought that Ukraine would never again be dependent on and at the mercy of Russia.

However, there is another, quite plausible interpretation of the events three years ago. It is not the first time that Ukraine has "switched sides" between Russia and the West. In fact, Ukrainian history since independence can be interpreted as a swinging pendulum, with Kiev switching allegiances repeatedly between the two big blocks.

While Ukraine's first two presidents, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, were oriented toward Russia, the Orange Revolution of 2004 brought in president Viktor Yushchenko who pursued a distinctly pro-Western course.

In 2010, Yanukovych was elected and brought the country back into Russia's sphere until the 2014 revolution ushered in President Petro Poroshenko, who now officially pursues EU and NATO integration. Can we thus expect that in a few years' time, a new pendulum swing will again fundamentally change Ukraine's course?

There are a number of factors which support such a hypothesis. First consider what has happened to the average Ukrainian since the country turned toward the West. According to the World Bank, GDP per capita has fallen by 50 percent since 2013, to a little over $2,000. Prices are rising and two-thirds of Ukrainians now describe the economic situation as "very bad." And since Ukraine's economy has traditionally been oriented East, the cutting of many economic ties to Russia will have heavy ramifications for a long time to come.

Second, the moral and ideological crisis in the West means that the EU is looking inward and is not actively working toward Ukrainian membership in the foreseeable future while the presidency of Donald Trump appears to signal US withdrawal from the world and a transactional approach toward Russia.

Third, Ukrainian society remains deeply polarized, with only a little more than a third saying that Ukraine's EU integration is the only correct course. Furthermore, some radical groups on the extreme right are heavily armed to fight separatists in the Donbas. In the future, these groups could easily turn against the Ukrainian state should they feel marginalized. All this could lead to further destabilization in the future.

It is thus clear that there is enough discontent to expect protest votes against the current government and elites. A pro-Russian candidate could theoretically tap into those attitudes in Ukrainian society and swing the pendulum back toward Russia.

On the other hand, though, there are some factors that speak for the hypothesis that the swinging pendulum of Ukraine's orientation has stopped and that the Western direction is permanent.

First and foremost, in simple electoral math, the loss of Crimea and the Donbas means that millions of voters who traditionally supported pro-Russian candidates and parties will no longer participate in Ukrainian national politics, strengthening the political power of the pro-Western regions.

Ukraine's extremely active civil society is also working to support the current direction of the country and push European-style economic and bureaucratic reforms. Additionally, Russian military involvement in Crimea and the Donbas seems to have solved the underlying dilemma of Ukrainian statehood, namely the lack of a coherent national identity. It appears that the perception of an external enemy has brought a traditionally divided Ukrainian society together.

In this context, the continued resilience of many eastern Ukrainian cities with large Russian-speaking populations like Charkov, Mariupol or even Odessa against attempted subversion and separatist movements is remarkable. While many have long feared a widening of the pro-Russian separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine to these cities, their loyalty to Kiev has actually not wavered.

So, what does all this mean for Ukraine's future? It seems clear that preconditions in the country have been sustainably changed so that a simple "traditional" swing-back toward a staunch pro-Russian direction appears unlikely. At the same time, Ukraine will probably not be able to follow the example set by Poland or the Czech Republic, marching straight toward and eventually into the EU.

For the foreseeable future, Ukraine thus seems trapped. To the west is the EU in crisis, with little appetite to integrate and subsidize another weak economy. To the east, a hostile Russia will try to derail Ukraine's current pro-European path. It seems possible that in the future, after a longer period of stagnation and poverty, a fatigue with the West and liberal economics could set in.

Thus, even if Ukraine seems to have left behind its traditional pendulum swings for good, what replaces this old "continuum of change" remains to be seen.

Toni Michel is an analyst of post-Soviet affairs. Wang Pinrui is an observer of global affairs. Jiang Yuan, an international affairs analyst and specialist on China, contributed to this article. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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