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Severing Russian Ties May Not Fix Ukraine

Olivia Niland |
March 4, 2014 | 8:32 p.m. PST

Ukranian politics have seized people's attention across the globe, including these protesters in Germany. (via Flickr, Creative Commons)
Ukranian politics have seized people's attention across the globe, including these protesters in Germany. (via Flickr, Creative Commons)
It's an increasingly familiar story; political unrest becomes an uprising, regimes are toppled and temporary governments installed, all in the name of democracy.

Egypt and Libya were home to such a series of events, and now, just as the world turns its eyes from the Sochi Olympics, so too is Ukraine. 

Protestors took to the nation's capital, Kiev, following the decision by since-ousted President to Viktor Yanukovych to scrap trade deals between Ukraine and the rest of Europe. This agreement would likely have weakened Russia's hold over the country. A temporary, and admittedly unstable, government has since been installed, and Eastern European and Western alliances now seem to be at a stand-off over the future of Crimea and the country of Ukraine as a whole. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry promised to "stand by the Ukranian people," upon visiting to Kiev this week, suggesting American involvement is likely to fly in the face of Putin's interests. But even as many call for the democratization of Ukraine at all costs, some say that severing Ukraine's ties from Russia may not be the best solution—or even feasible. 

"A lot of people don't realize that Russia has kept Ukraine afloat," said Robert English, Director of the USC School of International Relations and expert on Russian politics, noting the $15 billion bailout package Russia has offered Ukraine. "And Ukraine isn't even remotely ready to join the European Union; the EU won't have them, not without massive reforms. And no one in the West is going to pony up billions for reform because that money will just disappear."

As much as Ukraine may crave its independence from Russia, English said the countries are co-dependent and likely to stay that way.

"The country of Ukraine is an economic basket-case," said English. "The EU is broke, it can barely manage to keep countries like Greece or Spain above water, so we're kind of dependent on Russia to keep Ukraine from descending into total collapse and facing default in the near future. If Ukraine were to cut ties with Russia, people would be back out in the streets in six months or nine months, but this time they're going to be protesting the interim government for cutting pensions and heating oil, and no one wants to inherit that kind of country."

Just as Ukraine is dependent on Russia, so too is the United States, according to English. Ongoing negotiations between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be particularly delicate. 

"We still need Russia if we're going to make any progress in Syria, or pressure the Iranians," said English. "The more pressure we put on Russia, the more pain they might reflect back on us. Congress wants a firm response, they don't want to seem weak, but we just don't have the leverage."

The United States' leverage against Russia could include such actions as threatening to cancel the upcoming GA summit in Sochi, or reducing what little economic cooperation currently exists between the two countries, but the US, and European countries which depend on resource-rich Russia for fuel, will likely have to opt for bargaining, rather than threatening. 

"The situation doesn't leave much choice but to compromise with Russia," said English. "We have to get them to stop pulling Ukraine in opposite directions, because this will only hurt Russia in the long run."

Also important, according to English, is creating greater autonomy between the two countries. This will allow Russian citizens residing in Ukraine to not feel isolated or threatened, and create a delicate balance for Ukraine to gain its sovereignty and remain in Russia's good graces. 

"The best case scenario would be if Obama and Putin start talking privately and working toward a compromise," said English. "You can't do it openly because the political passions in each party are so high and neither Obama nor Putin want to be seen as deal-making. But there needs to be a mutually agreed upon future for Ukraine, with NATO off the table, which will be a big concession from the West."

NATO and the EU, said English, are counterproductive arguments given the fact that Ukraine is likely still decades out from joining either, and discussions of such possibilities will only turn the Russian government's favor against Ukraine. 

"You don't just join the EU overnight," said English. "If we cut Russia off from everything and NATO comes galloping in, there's a strong possibility of violence, and it's miraculous that it hasn't happened already.

"We saw this happen in Georgia back in 2008; all it takes is one person to be killed accidentally, some kind of provocation from either country," said English. "One little spark could cause an outbreak of violence, and that's what really worries me now."

Reach Staff Reporter Olivia Niland hereFollow Olivia Niland on Twitter @olivianiland.



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