Nightmare Scenario Underway in Ukraine

As the Ukrainian security forces are moving to clear Kiev’s ‘Maidan’ protest camp again, after an unsuccessful attempt last night, the events are unfolding quickly and with the characteristically scary dynamics of an autocratic regime acting under pressure:

Ukraine’s state security service said it was launching an “anti-terrorist operation” across the country after the seizure of administrative buildings and arms and ammunition depots by “extremist groups.”

Labeling the opposition as ‘terrorists’ is a common rhetorical device used by authoritarian governments under duress. But we should make no mistake – the current situation is not just an outcome of the divisions existing within Ukrainian society but also a result of Vladimir Putin’s long standing and sinister meddling in Ukraine.

For Mr. Putin, the current situation is both a source of fear and an opportunity. The fear stems from the possibility of Ukraine setting a precedent of a bottom-up, civil society-driven initiative displacing a Moscow-sponsored leadership in a country with strong cultural and historical ties to Russia. The opportunity lies in leveraging the current unrest and the ethnic divisions it has uncovered to strengthen Russia’s influence over the country’s politics. The Russian government already provided Mr. Yanukovych with cash in December 2013; this week, another bond purchase worth $2 billion was announced, conditional on the government successfully tackling the opposition.

The international response is too timid given the magnitude of the problem and its proximity to the European Union’s borders. Targeted EU sanctions, such as the asset freezes and travel bans directed at Ukrainian officials, which are likely to be adopted tomorrow, seem fully justified–although they come very late. Still, care needs to be exercised so that they hurt the regime and not ordinary citizens.

More importantly, European leaders need to clearly articulate the long-term alternative that they are offering to Ukraine lest it remain the Kremlin’s client state. The roadmap to full EU membership ought to have an accelerated timeline, incentivizing Ukrainian policymakers to adopt open political and economic institutions.

The EU’s engagement with the country needs to come with tangible benefits for Ukrainians. Those would include most fundamentally a removal of trade and regulatory barriers, as well as immigration restrictions, making Ukrainians a de facto part of the common European market now rather than at an uncertain point in the future.