Pity, if you can, Viktor Yanukovich, the bumbling president of Ukraine. He'll be in trouble no matter what he does or where he steers his long-suffering country.
The big question has been whether or not he will sign an association agreement with the European Union at the end of this week. Doing so will put Ukraine on a European path that leads away from Russia. The alternative is to join the Russian customs union along with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Most Ukrainians prefer Europe. They have learned, over the centuries, that Russia is not a reliable partner.
Ukraine Can't Go it Alone
I hate to use clichés, but Ukraine really is at a crossroads. If it enters into association with Europe, the short-term costs will be high: Putin will blast Ukraine with everything he's got. Russia will press Ukraine to pay its $1 billion gas bill, and might cut supplies off in winter. Ukraine's exports will stop at the border. Thousands will be out of work. There will be no financial relief to the cash-strapped government.
Europe will also force Yanukovich to release his nemesis, Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's most famous political prisoner (it's her birthday today, by the way). Once unleashed, she won't rest until she's tasted blood. And with Europe looking over Yanukovich's shoulder, the 2015 presidential elections will be much harder to rig. With rising public dissatisfaction, a bitter enemy on the loose, and a powerful, hostile neighbor, Yanukovich will have a hard time staying on his feet. No wonder he's unenthusiastic about a partnership with the West.
Grim as the European path may look to Yanukovich, joining Russia's lopsided customs union will be worse. In the short-term, Yanukovich and the general public will reap rewards: the outrageous gas prices Ukraine pays today will drop and Ukrainian goods will be welcome in the Russian market. Yanukovich will also get Russian cash. But there's a catch: the assistance comes with Putin's leash. It may be a long one, at first, but in time Putin will pull Ukraine closer and closer to Soviet Union 2.0. The only position for Ukraine in a customs union with Russia is on its knees.
The size of the mass protests on November 24 took Yanukovich by surprise. Over 100,000 people showed up with little planning and no clear leadership. It was a real mass uprising, fueled by dashed expectations. Until November 11, Ukraine's leadership openly favored association with Europe with the enthusiastic support of the majority of its people. But after Putin summoned Yanukovich to secret meetings in Moscow, everything changed. Abruptly, relations with Russia became the top priority.
What changed? Most likely a combination of threats and cash from Putin. Europe didn't put much money on the table, and it came with a lot of strings. "We're not little children," said Yanukovich. "We won't come for candy." Putin understands what attracts Yanukovich with much greater clarity: hard cash and protection. End of story.
But the story on the street isn't over. The protests are picking up steam as the Vilnius Summit approaches. Similar protests are taking place in every Ukrainian city and around the world. The message is clear: Ukraine belongs in Europe.
But Yanukovich and his government do not care about Europe.
Long Live the Kleptocracy
Yanukovich doesn't care about Russia either. The only thing that matters to him is keeping the infrastructure for his kleptocracy intact. That means he has to ignore the IMF's conditions, keep Yulia in jail, and do what it takes to keep power after 2015 election (note that I did not say "win"). The reason he hasn't appeared to act rationally is because until now, he didn't know which path—Europe or Russia—would better enable him to stay in power. The balance has decisively shifted in Russia's favor.
Europe is partly to blame. European leaders (except Poland's) failed to understand that Yanukovich is operating on a Brezhnev-era operating system. His mind relies on the Reptilian Brain, which cares only about immediate survival. The higher functions, which process concepts like human rights, fair markets, and democracy, don't work at that level.
Europe didn't understand that EU association is not the end Yanukovich strives for. Both Europe and Russia only serve as means to an end. And Russia is more likely to deliver what he wants.
Where Goest Thou, Ukraine?
In the next couple days we will know what will happen with Europe. Yanukovich will keep everyone on edge by going to the Vilnius Summit. My hopes are high but my forecast is bleak. I do not believe Yanukovich will sign the agreement with Europe. Yanukovich can't afford to anger a powerful enemy next door while battling Tymoshenko to the death at home. Instead, he will sign up with Russia for short-term financial relief and will start laying the groundwork for 2015.
I think his approach will only buy him a little time. There will be ongoing tension through the next presidential election. In 2015, Ukrainians will reject him en masse. He will turn to Russia for support, but after playing with him for a while they'll cut him loose and replace him with someone easier to work with. If the oligarchs sense the President can't protect them, they'll dump him in a flash.
What happens next depends on the Ukrainian people. Will they be angry enough to change history, as they did during the Orange Revolution? Or will they settle, again, for years of Russian rule?