What’s at Stake in Ukraine?

February 21, 2014

Protestor in Kiev, Ukraine. [Sasha Maksymenko, 1/25/14]

Protestor in Kiev, Ukraine. [Sasha Maksymenko, 1/25/14]

The protests and crackdown in Ukraine have captured the world’s attention. The violence has resulted in scores dead and much devastation in the historic and beautiful city of Kiev. There is a shaky agreement in place, as of this morning, that calls for early presidential elections in December, a return to the constitution of 2004 that sharply limited the president’s powers, and establishment within 10 days of a “government of national trust.” While these are positive developments, the dynamics on the ground are changing rapidly and there are real concerns that the world has not seen the end of the crisis. While the U.S. has limited leverage in addressing this situation, there are tools available, including sanctions on officials involved in the crackdown and the possibility of freezing assets, which should be implemented quickly. The U.S. can most effectively impact the situation by working in close coordination with the EU, and should consider joint statements and appearances to show unity on the issue. Developments in Ukraine will have important regional impacts on the future of EU-Russia relations and U.S.-Russia relations and will have longer term security implications for the U.S. as the clash between democratic and authoritarian approaches continue to play out in the post-Soviet era. As the situation progresses, it is useful to take a look at what is at stake; what tools are available for the U.S. and its allies; and what has actually been done to work towards resolution.

What is going on in Ukraine:  

Evolving protests: Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer explains the evolution of the situation: “the original cause of these demonstrations was the decision by President Yanukovych in November to slow down Ukraine’s effort to draw closer to the European Union by an association agreement. But since then, I think it’s grown. You now have people out there who are unhappy about the corruption they have seen, which has grown worse under President Yanukovych’s tenure. They’re unhappy about the authoritarian tendencies they have seen in the government. So you have got a lot of grievances out there that are represented by these people in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, that central square in Kiev.” [Steven Pifer, 2/19/14]

The bigger picture on the future of Ukraine: Martha Brill Olcott of Carnegie explains “The protests in Ukraine can’t be properly understood solely as part of an East-West struggle. They are part of the legacy of the breakup of the Soviet Union, which can no longer be viewed through a ‘post-Soviet’ lens. They must be understood as part of the maturation process of countries that are now nearly a quarter-century old, and whose citizens want to define their own identity and their own future.” [Martha Brill Olcott, 2/20/14]​

What’s at stake? BBC explains the international ramifications of the conflict stating, “Ukraine seems be caught in a modern ‘Great Game’. Vladimir Putin wants to make Russia a global economic player, rivalling China, the US and EU. To that end he is creating a customs union with other countries and sees Ukraine as a vital and natural element in that – not least because of the countries’ deep cultural and historical ties. The EU says assimilation and eventual membership could be worth billions of euros to Ukraine, modernising its economy and giving it access to the single market. It also wants to reverse what it sees as damaging infringements on democracy and human rights in Ukraine. Many Ukrainians in the east, working in heavy industry that supplies Russian markets, are fearful of losing their jobs if Kiev throws in its lot with Brussels. But many in the west want the prosperity and the rule of law they believe the EU would bring. They point out that while Ukraine had a bigger GDP than Poland in 1990, Poland’s economy is now nearly three times larger.” [BBC, 2/21/14]

While the U.S. and EU have some leverage, a sustained resolution to Ukraine’s crisis can only be produced and maintained by Ukrainians. Ambassador Pifer states, “United States and the European Union, I believe, do have some leverage. And that would be through the use of targeted visa and financial sanctions.” However, as Martha Brill Olcott of Carnegie explains, “The only thing that will produce a peaceful outcome is a constitutional change that restores the balance of power between all of Ukraine’s political forces. While Western leaders may try to nudge the Ukrainians toward this, it must be done by the Ukrainians themselves.” [Steven Pifer, 2/19/14. Martha Brill Olcott, 2/20/14]

Throughout the crisis, the U.S. has utilized the limited tools available, with additional options remaining if circumstances change:

The United States issues sanctions on Ukrainian government, preceding similar moves by the EU: Jamila Trindle of Foreign Policy reports, “With events on the ground in Ukraine changing almost by the hour, the Obama administration and its allies began imposing a limited set of punitive measures and laying the groundwork for a more extensive campaign. On Wednesday, the State Department barred 20 Ukrainians from getting American visas. A senior State Department official wouldn’t name the people, but said it included ‘the full chain of command’ of Ukrainian government and security personnel involved in the crackdown that left 26 people dead and hundreds injured earlier this week. The official stressed that the United States and the EU were prepared to take further measures if the situation in Ukraine doesn’t improve.” [Jamila Trindle, 2/19/14]

Vice President Joe Biden Calls President Yanukovych: Deutsche Welle reports, “US Vice President Joe Biden warned Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during a phone call that Washington would not hesitate to impose [additional] sanctions against government officials responsible for violence against civilian protesters. ‘He called upon President Yanukovych to immediately pull back all security forces – police, snipers, military and paramilitary units, and irregular forces.’” [Deutsche Welle, 2/21/14]

Military leaders attempt to reach Ukrainian government: USA Today reports, that Secretary of Defense “Hagel spoke with [Ukrainian Minister of Defense] Lebedev on Dec. 13 and ‘warned Minister Lebedev not to use the armed forces of Ukraine against the civilian population in any fashion,’ according to a statement issued then by Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog…Other Pentagon leaders, including Gen. Philip Breedlove, the head of the U.S. European Command, have attempted to reach the Ukrainian military without success, said Col. Ed Thomas, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Hagel has since attempted to call the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense as the situation worsened but “The Ukrainian defense minister won’t take Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s calls; in fact, no one at the defense ministry will even answer the phone,” according to Stars and Stripes. [USA Today, 2/20/14. Stars and Stripes, 2/20/14]

Depending upon what happens following the recent deal, additional options are available if circumstances require.
Steven Pifer of Brookings has explained the benefits of targeted visa freezes – which have already been implemented – and targeted financial sanctions “against individual Ukrainians with two objectives. First, to make clear that those responsible for violence, particularly those in government, will be held accountable for their actions by being denied the ability to travel to the West or bank their money there. Second, to pressure those in the inner circle around Yanukovych in the hopes that they will push him to end the violence and seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The inner circle should understand that, if it is not part of the solution, it also will not be allowed to travel or bank in the West. [Steven Pifer, 2/19/14]

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