The Geopolitics of the Ukraine Crisis

The Geopolitics of the Ukraine Crisis

Ukraine has recently experienced the most dramatic days in European history since the fall of the communist regimes. After unprecedented violence in the streets of Kiev, the situation is still uncertain. President Viktor Yanukovich has left behind him a power vacuum that will potentially reshape the balance of power in the region between Russia and the European Union.

As governmental forces disappeared from the streets of Kiev, several key questions remain: Who can claim legitimate authority? Is there a future for a united Ukraine? How will the current evolution impact Russian and European presence and control over their shared neighbourhood?

The immediate political next steps have been swiftly and overwhelmingly agreed on by the Parliament: A return to the 2004 Constitution that reaffirms the authority of the Parliament (the Verkhovna Rada) over the president and new presidential elections in May. If this ensures a return to a well-known institutional framework established 10 years ago, it doesn’t ensure long-term stability by any means.

None of the opposition parties can claim to legitimately represent the popular uprising by itself. “Fatherland”, a coalition of parties behind former president Yulia Tymoshenko has traditionally been at the forefront of the contestation to Yanukovich.

However, the party was rejected by the population during the 2010 elections and the return of Tymoshenko – a polarising figure in Ukraine – on the forefront of the political stage comes with its fair share of liabilities in the attempt to reunite the country. “Fatherland” is also flanked by two other opposition parties who took a central part during the popular revolt on the Maidan: “Svoboda” and the “Democratic Alliance for Reform”.

“Svoboda”, a nationalist party led by Oleh Tiahnybok, was at the frontline of the resistance to Yanukovich’s Special Forces (the Berkuts) during the last weeks of the contestation and its momentum culminated when police forces from Lviv (the birthplace of “Svoboda”) joined the movement. Similarly, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who heads the Democratic Alliance for Reform, emerged as a key opposition leader and gained credibility over the last weeks.

It remains unclear how each opposition force will manage to govern the country in coalition until the next elections or with which legitimacy since more than a hundred parliamentary members supporting Yanukovich did not take part in the most recent votes.

On the bright side, recent attempts by the recently deposed president to divide the opposition by proposing governmental positions to Yatsenyuk and Klitschko were unsuccessful. This tends to show the capacity and will of opposition leaders to work together during the conflict. Yet, now that the conflict seems to have tipped in favour of the opposition, agreeing on a common political platform including “Svoboda” will be another challenge.

From instability to Geopolitical Fractures

The political instability in Kiev is limited however in comparison with the ever-growing rift between the Eastern and Western parts of Ukraine. The country is deeply divided between two regions which have very few in common. One is resolutely turned towards the European Union and advocates for a liberal market economy. Its majority Christian Catholic and well-educated population speaks Ukrainian and has always supported opposition.

Ukraine is a central card in Putin’s hand to revitalise the Russian strategy, hoping to renew with its status of leading geopolitical power in Europe and Asia.

On the other side of the country, Crimea and the Eastern provinces still firmly back the former president. The population there is, in majority, orthodox, speaks Russian and looks confidently towards Moscow for the stability and economic security of the Ukraine.

The division of the country is nothing new. The Western part of Ukraine has long been under Polish control while the Eastern part was governed by Russia. The very existence of Ukraine as a unitary country has been contested throughout modern history, as shown by the treaty of Riga in 1921 dismantling the country, and the emergence of a common Ukrainian identity only gained momentum in the 19th century.

The result is that while half of the country cheered over the destitution of the president, the other half still calls for a return of Yanukovich and protection from the Kremlin against fascist forces.

This division also answers a wider geopolitical fracture between the European Union and Russia. Ukraine is a central card in Putin’s hand to revitalise the Russian strategy, hoping to renew with its status of leading geopolitical power in Europe and Asia.

If Ukraine drifts towards Europe, the political project of Eurasian Union defended by Putin will be strongly challenged. More importantly, Ukraine also controls most of the transit of Russian gas towards the West and thus Putin’s energy grasp over the European Union. Putin has suffered a salient geopolitical defeat underestimating the European Union capacity to intervene.

Indeed, the current evolution in Ukraine has shown that the European Union could finally lead an effective common foreign policy. After the stammering and hesitations and the incapacity to agree on an ambitious European support to Ukraine, the visit to Kiev of the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland has been essential in stopping the violence and in drafting a truth agreement between both parties to the conflict. By agreeing on common sanctions towards Ukrainian oligarchs, the EU isolated Yanukovich from its domestic support.

As a conclusion, if the future of Ukraine remains uncertain both in terms of the sustainability of its political transition and its capacity to remain united, what this crisis has demonstrated is that when united, the European Union is able to be an effective foreign policy actor and stand in front of Russia.

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