Look at a map
Ukrainian politics can’t change geography. The country is part of Europe, and it has a 1,400 miles border with Russia. The demonstrators demanding the resignation of president Viktor Yanukovich insist on the former fact. He was mindful of the latter when he turned away from a deal that would have brought Ukraine closer to the European Union. But the country can deny neither its European nature nor its Russian neighbour.
The EU is right to try to lure Ukraine, but by ignoring Russia’s concerns it failed a basic lesson of diplomacy. True to his paranoid vision of the world, Russian president Vladimir Putin bullied and blackmailed his way into the Ukraine-EU talks by acting on his threat to slap trade sanctions on its former satellite, and promising lower gas prices if Kiev chose the path of wisdom.
The prospect of short-term relief, compared with the promise of longer-term benefits from the European deal, may have been at the core of Yanukovich’s decision to stay close to Moscow, but it will do nothing to pull Ukraine out of its self-manufactured slump. The economy will barely avoid recession this year, and the fixed exchange rate policy has depleted foreign reserves to about two month’s worth of imports. The current account deficit will reach 8 percent of gross domestic product while the fiscal shortfall stands at 4.5 percent of GDP. The government has been blind to, if not complicit with, the country’s Russian-style corruption. It is resisting even the minimum reforms suggested by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Cheaper Russian gas may help in the short term, but it will do nothing for the derelict and heavily subsidised energy sector. And Russia, facing problems of its own, doesn’t have the capacity to bail out its neighbour.
The story of Ukraine and the European Union isn’t over. The door hasn’t been closed forever. But Russia, Ukraine and Europe need to start an adult conversation – and the EU must somehow accept that Ukraine’s love may not be exclusive.