Western Diplomats Are Going to Disappoint Ukraine’s Protesters

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Andrew Kravchenko / Reuters

U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland distributes bread to protesters at Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, on Dec. 11, 2013

The hand of U.S. diplomacy swept down over Ukraine this week with an odd bit of American largesse — a plastic bag of bread. Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, bore the bag on Wednesday into the crowd of protesters camped out in the middle of the capital, Kiev. As her circle of bodyguards parted, Nuland held it out to an elderly demonstrator in a big blue parka. “Good to see you!” the diplomat chirped. “We’re here from America. Would you like some bread?” Smiling politely, the woman demurred, took a step backward and waved the generosity away.

It was not exactly the kind of help Ukraine needs right now. Over the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have swarmed the streets of Kiev, demanding that their government begin integrating with the West. What sparked their protests was the state’s decision last month to turn instead toward Russia, backing away from a trade and cooperation deal with the E.U. Since then, top Western diplomats have come out to show their support for the demonstrators. First came German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who toured the epicenter of the protests with Ukraine’s opposition leaders, including the heavyweight-boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. Then came Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, and finally Nuland arrived with her loaves of soft power.

But apart from these gestures, it is far from clear whether the West is willing or able to pull Ukraine out of its ongoing crisis. “It’s a false promise,” says Stephen Szabo, the head of the Transatlantic Academy, a policy-research center based in Washington. “It’s going to lead to disillusionment in Ukraine.”

In the coming months, Ukraine faces some of the toughest economic times in its history, and the West’s proposed rescue package comes with some very painful strings attached. An emergency loan worth $17 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a global lender backed mostly by the U.S. and Europe, would force drastic reforms on the Ukrainian economy. By accepting the loan, the government would commit to devaluing its currency, slashing its budget and cutting subsidies on the price of natural gas for all but its poorest citizens. That would lead to a sharp spike in the cost of basic goods, including the bread that Nuland brought to the square on Wednesday.

For President Viktor Yanukovych, who is up for re-election in just over a year, these measures would amount to political suicide. On his watch, the economy has already fallen into a yearlong recession, pushed down by weak demand in Europe for Ukrainian exports, and in August, Russia made matters worse by cutting off trade with Ukraine as punishment for its drift toward the West. Squeezed from all sides, Yanukovych then turned away at the last minute from the E.U. integration deal, thus putting all aid from the IMF on hold.

On Thursday, as the pro-E.U. protests showed no sign of easing in Kiev, his government seemed to make another U-turn. It sent a delegation to Brussels to resume cooperation talks with the E.U., whose commissioner for integration, Stefan Fuele, said afterward that the E.U. would provide “more and more” assistance to top up the aid from the IMF. Fuele did not, however, provide any specific figures. So it remains to be seen whether Europe’s generosity can match Ukrainian needs. To save the country from defaulting on its debts, the government says it requires more than $20 billion just to pay off its immediate obligations, including at least $2 billion owed to Russia for natural-gas supplies. Over the next seven years, Ukraine would need more than $200 billion to fund the reforms the E.U. is demanding, according to Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. And there is no way the E.U. would pony up anywhere near that kind of money, especially considering Ukraine’s reputation for corruption. “It’s a black hole,” says Stefan Meister, a Ukraine expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If you put money into it, half of it ends up in secret accounts somewhere in Switzerland.”

No one understands that better than Russia, which has so far thought better than to offer Ukraine any kind of rescue package. “It’s about the wisdom of Russia,” says Dmitri Trenin, who heads the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “The wisdom of Russia will be tested by Russia staying on the sidelines.” But for the West, he says, it’s too late for that. The diplomats joining the protests in Kiev have already signaled to the Ukrainian people that the West is coming to the rescue, Trenin says, “so something will have to be done.” But because of the enormity of Ukraine’s financial needs, the West cannot possibly do enough. So as the economy falls apart in the coming months, “the European Union will have to bear the brunt of resentment in Ukraine.”

But could the West have acted any differently? Could they have simply ignored the protests? Since the onset of the European financial crisis, talk of E.U. members pulling out of the bloc have become a lot more common than countries wanting to join. So these demonstrations gave the E.U. a badly needed ego boost. “The Europeans have been kind of inward looking, even somewhat cynical about European membership and European values,” says William Taylor, the former U.S. ambassador in Ukraine. So when they looked over at the crowds in Kiev waving E.U. flags, the Europeans realized that “these guys really put a high premium on the things we have,” Taylor says. “And hey, maybe we should take inspiration from these Ukrainians.”

But taking inspiration and posing for pictures is one thing. Offering membership and financial bailouts is another. So far, no one is inviting Ukraine to join the E.U., which has had enough trouble in the past few years absorbing the troubled economies of Romania and Bulgaria. This week, the rotating presidency of the E.U. went from Lithuania, which has championed Ukraine’s integration with Europe, to the debt-wracked nation of Greece, which has little patience for charity cases other than its own. So in the next few months, just as Ukraine edges toward financial ruin, the concern of its Western neighbors will likely fade away.