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Tug of War in Ukraine Reflects a New International Trend

Mar 05 , 2014

The disorder in Ukraine has witnessed another sharp turn in events. Before the ink on the agreement mediated by the European Union dried, the opposition suddenly seized power with the opposition party-dominated parliament approving a resolution to release jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and remove President Viktor Yanukovych from office. Yanukovych fled to Russia and is now a “wanted” man. The new round of tug of war involving forces both within and without Ukraine over the future of that country now seems to have reached an initial stage. The color revolution in Ukraine was initially successful, with a forceful intervention by the West, but its prospects remain uncertain since there is still an east-west divide and Russian resistance to the “coup d’etat”. As such, the possibility of twists and turns or even civil war in Ukraine cannot be discounted.

The drastic change in the Ukrainian political situation is actually a new color revolution driven by both internal and external factors.

Internally, there are incessant internal frictions between the ruling party and the opposition, between the government and the public, and between the eastern and western parts of the country. In particular, western Ukraine has been close to Europe, while eastern Ukraine has been pro-Russia. Whether Ukraine should align with the western or eastern neighbor has been a source of differences and intensified contradictions between the two sides. Late last November, the Ukrainian authority suspended drafting of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, causing strong dissatisfaction and opposition in the public, which responded with massive anti-government demonstrations.

Externally, Europe and America engaged in major interventions. The external parties are Europe and America at one end of the rope and Russia at the other end. Since the disorder started, the West has repeatedly threatened the former regime with sanctions while supporting the opposition. The leaked phone call between US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and the US Ambassador to Ukraine is clear proof. As a matter of fact, Ukraine has been the main field of contention between the two sides. With rounds of color revolutions, the country has indeed been one of chaos and difficulties.

The new color revolution has been intensified by contradictions between Russia and the West. The two sides have engaged in both geopolitical and ideological competition in Ukraine, and the West has tried hard to undermine the Russian position, which will have a solid impact on today’s international landscape and major power relations.

First, the new color revolution in Ukraine is part of the West’s continued effort of peaceful evolution vis-a-vis the former Soviet region. The West worries about Putin’s effort to rejuvenate Russia and push for a Eurasian Union since coming back to office in 2012. The recent absence of American and European leaders from the Sochi Olympics, a disguised boycott, can be seen as corroborative evidence of such Western concern. The US and European reaction to the Ukrainian regime change is also in sharp contrast to that of Russia. The Wall Street Journal described the change in Ukraine “a major reversal” for Russia. A senior Russian government advisor accused the West of engineering a coup d’etat and described the re-play of the 2004 Orange Revolution as “a major defeat” for Russia. Alexey Pushkov, Chairman of the Russian State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that NATO would be closer to the Russian border if all external barriers were gone. Many people in the Russian government believe that “the West is planning the same revolution in Russia” and that the regime change in Ukraine is only a prelude to a major war in post-Soviet times.

Second, there will be a further battle of wits. The successful intervention has given the West much content and the EU, though still in debt crisis, seems especially complacent. In an editorial claiming that the future of Ukraine will depend on three sets of actors, the Financial Times cheered in a victorious tone that “twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe again echoes to the sound and fury of revolution” and that “more than any single moment since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the revolution that began in Kiev heralds the hour of Europe”. The editorial mentioned Ukraine’s full-fledged EU membership, warned Putin that “his gambit of turning Ukraine into a Russian satellite is unworkable” and boasted the greater attractiveness of the EU and the “universal values” of “democracy, freedom and decent governance” it represents. The Wall Street Journal has also taken great pleasure in Russia’s misfortune, arguing that if Ukraine establishes an economic union with the EU, the 3-century imperial project of Russia will end in failure and Russia will have to play a smaller role in the world order. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice repeatedly warned Russia not to send troops into Ukraine to restore a pro-Russian government and expressed US support of the Ukrainian opposition’s proposition of an election soon. On the other hand, Russia strongly questioned the legitimacy of the transitional authorities in Ukraine, and severely criticized Western countries of partiality. The opposition between the two sides is so sharp that some media talked about a regional standoff caused by the change in Ukraine.

China should take stock of the current situation and plan and operate major power relationships accordingly, in order to expand its room of strategic maneuvers. Russia, Europe and the US are all important members of today’s international order in which there is one superpower and multiple powers. In the gaming between the three, US and Europe have joined hands against Russia. While observing the evolution of Russia-West relations with a cool head, and maintaining economic cooperation and trade with Ukraine, China should also bear in mind that both China and Russia are confronted with Western pressures. China should therefor steadily promote strategic collaboration with Russia and jointly counter Western interference.

Chen Xiangyang, Researcher & Deputy Director, Institute of World Political Studies, CICIR.

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