Skip to main content

The battle over Ukraine: Towards a new geopolitical game

By Ulrich Speck, visiting fellow at Carnegie Europe, Special to CNN
updated 9:39 AM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
Newlyweds Mikhail and Margarita Nakonechniy kiss in front of barricades on Independence Square in a gesture of support for pro-Europe activists in Kiev, Ukraine, on Saturday, December 21. Protesters have poured into the streets of the Ukrainian capital, angered by their government's move away from the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Newlyweds Mikhail and Margarita Nakonechniy kiss in front of barricades on Independence Square in a gesture of support for pro-Europe activists in Kiev, Ukraine, on Saturday, December 21. Protesters have poured into the streets of the Ukrainian capital, angered by their government's move away from the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
HIDE CAPTION
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
Ukraine protests
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thousands have been protesting in Kiev after the Ukrainian government rejected an EU deal
  • The deal would have made Ukraine's political sphere more democratic, Ulrich Speck says
  • But he says it was not in the president's own interests to sign and move away from Russia
  • Germany has shown it is not afraid to confront Russia over Eastern Europe, Speck says

Editor's note: Ulrich Speck is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. Follow @uli_speck on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Ultimately, it's about power.

When Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich suspended an agreement with the European Union (EU) on November 21, his personal considerations would certainly have been a driving factor.

Ulrich Speck
Ulrich Speck

Signing the agreement would not only have brought Ukraine much closer to its Western neighbors. It would also have made its political sphere more democratic and competitive and its economy more transparent -- outcomes that would have been unlikely to fit with Yanukovich's personal interests.

Read more: Russia calls for stability and order

What the EU did in the past with its enlargement policy, and what it is trying now to replicate with its "Eastern Partnership", is to use its economic power as a tool to push neighboring countries towards liberal democracy.

The more these countries -- among them Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia -- move towards rule of law, democracy and a market economy, the more access they have to the EU market, and the easier it is for their people to travel and work in the EU.

Ukraine's Prime Minister calls for peace
Estonian president talks Ukraine crisis
Ukraine protest organizer relates demands
Fighting for Ukraine

But the project to transform Ukraine's political and economic structures is unlikely to please Yanukovich. Allegations that his party had rigged voting in 2004 triggered the "Orange Revolution," forcing him from office and giving power to his political opponents, including Yulia Tymoshenko, who became prime minister.

Soon after Yanukovich was elected president in 2010, Tymoshenko was jailed after being found guilty of abuse of office, in a case many believe was politically motivated. In its negotiations, the EU had been demanding that Yanukovich free Tymoshenko.

Ukraine is seen as a deeply corrupt country, ranked number 144 out of 177 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. This environment provides a breeding ground for arbitrary rule by powerful clans. A rapprochement with the EU would, at least on longer term, put pressure on that rule.

Another reason to put the agreement with the EU on hold seems to have been the Russia factor.

Read more: Opinion -- why Ukraine's future lies with the EU

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to bring the Ukraine into his sphere of influence through integration into a Moscow-led customs union which in the future shall be transformed into a fully-fledged "Eurasian Union." In the past few months, the Kremlin has put considerable pressure on Ukraine to move over to this camp.

But for Yanukovich, an alliance with Russia would be a double-edged sword. While Putin is likely to give the Ukrainian leader a free hand to consolidate his power base, he would also want control over key economic and political decisions. In a close alliance, Ukraine would lose core elements of sovereignty.

If Yanukovich were to hand his country over to Moscow, he would very likely be met with another revolution.

Since the Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine's political class has been aware that it needs to stay in tune with popular opinion. And a clear majority wants to go West.

People see a prosperous, well-governed EU next to their borders -- in sharp contrast with their own economic and political misery. That's why they are on the streets now, in Kiev and elsewhere.

Yanukovich, however, is likely to try to keep Ukraine in the middle -- going neither West nor East. He wants to keep the status quo, where he feels safe. But the economic crisis is getting worse, and he needs help. Without a rapprochement, neither the EU nor Russia will invest substantially in his regime.

Read more: Opinion -- beware Russia's power play

And there is a new factor which may bring additional dynamism into the game. Germany, now seen by many as the leading power in Europe, has recently put its weight behind the Eastern Partnership -- which had mainly been driven by Poland and Sweden in the past.

In a speech on November 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel flatly rejected Russia's claims over the region. Eastern European countries, she said, "must decide themselves on their future direction." "Third parties" -- ie Russia -- "cannot have the right to veto," she said.

Berlin would urge the EU to counter Russian pressure on Eastern Europe, "be it in the form of additional sales opportunities for products from our partner countries, which for instance may not be exported to Russia, or in the form of assistance to diversify their energy supply," Merkel said.

This is quite a turnaround in German policies towards Russia. It is the first time Merkel has spoken to Moscow with the assertive attitude of the leader of a great power. And she was doing what great powers usually do: pushing back other great powers and offering protection to smaller powers.

In other words, Merkel took a first step towards a geopolitical competition with Russia over Eastern Europe -- effectively ending years of cozy bilateral relations with Moscow.

Merkel has picked up the gauntlet thrown by Putin at her and the EU. But it is still unclear to what extent she will follow-up her rhetoric and push the EU towards making more substantial offers to Ukraine -- especially after the hopes of signing an agreement at the Vilnius summit have been disappointed.

But she has shown a Germany that no longer afraid to confront Russia over Eastern Europe.

This is starting to look like an entirely new game.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ulrich Speck.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT