Ukraine’s February Revolution: What Next?

Q1: Is this a new Cold War?

A1: The standoff in Ukraine has unfortunately taken on a competitive East-West dynamic, but any durable solution is going to have to involve both the West and Russia. As we saw with the phone call between Presidents Obama and Putin at the height of the crisis, neither side wants—or benefits from—an escalation of the violence and instability in Ukraine. While it is going to be up to the Ukrainians themselves to decide how to manage their relationships with neighbors, Ukraine will always maintain close economic, political, and cultural ties to Russia. That said, Russia’s own actions going forward will do much to determine whether there can be a durable and peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Q2: What is the biggest challenge Ukraine faces in the short-term?

A2: Ukraine’s economy remains on the verge of collapse. The country has less than $20 billion in hard currency reserves, enough to cover maybe two months of imports and not enough to service the debt obligations it will face this year. Meanwhile, the mix of political instability and economic risk are driving down the value of the hryvnia, raising the cost of imports and exacerbating the debt crisis. Remember that it is Ukrainian economic vulnerabilities that are at the root of this crisis. Whatever political force assumes power, they will have to take politically unpopular measures to put the economy on a sustainable footing, and to do it with a virtually empty piggy bank. The U.S. role is going to have to focus heavily on this issue.

Q3: What happens next?

A3: The Rada has scheduled new presidential elections for late May, under the restored 2004 constitution that restores the balance of power between president and parliament. It will be important for all the major political forces in Ukraine to participate in the upcoming elections and to accept the legitimacy of their results, regardless of who wins. Ukraine remains a deeply divided country, and free and fair elections remain the only mechanism for managing that divide peacefully. We know that some of the groups that played a major role in the uprising in Kyiv and elsewhere have shown a worrying proclivity for violence and extremism; they represent a threat to the future of the country, as potentially do holdouts from the old regime.
Q4: Will Ukraine split apart?

Though the uprising has exposed deep fissures between east and west of Ukraine, the country is unlikely to fragment, which would be a disaster not just for Ukraine, but for Russia, Europe, and the entire region. Though most citizens of eastern Ukraine speak Russian as a first language, they continue to identify with the Ukrainian state and think of themselves as Ukrainians. The situation in Crimea is more dangerous, however. This is the only region of Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority, and there is a significant Crimean Tatar population—Crimea is the least Ukrainian part of Ukraine. There are political forces there that would desire to join Russia and /or be independent.

The last two decades have seen Ukrainian identity and patriotism really take root across the country. In this connection, it is striking that the culmination of the uprising against Yanukovych saw both the smashing of Lenin statues across eastern Ukraine and the Party of Regions congress strongly denouncing separatism. Though people in both east and west increasingly see themselves as Ukrainians, the political chasm between east and west remains deep, which is one reason Ukraine needs a democratic political system that can manage the competing priorities of east and west.
Q5: What should the U.S. do now?

The United States has largely deferred to the Europeans throughout this crisis, while maintaining a line to Yanukovych through Vice President Biden. Going forward, the United States should ensure that it remains on the same page as its European partners, including contributing additional financial assistance as part of a transitional package. While coordinating with Brussels is important, the United States has deferred too much responsibility to the EU and the IMF, especially on the issue of fixing Ukraine’s economy and ensuring that resources are available to assist the transition. As in early 1992 in Russia, there is a short window of opportunity for U.S. assistance to make a real difference. By failing to respond adequately to the needs and requests of the Yeltsin/Gaidar government in early 1992, the United States contributed to the breakdown of Russia’s democratic experiment. Washington needs to move quickly and with considerable strategic foresight to ensure that it does not repeat that mistake in Ukraine today.

Another area the United States should focus on is making sure that Moscow remains very much in the loop, while trying to bridge the divide between Russia and the EU that has broken out over Ukraine in the past couple of years and urging Russia to play a constructive role in de-escalating the crisis. As he did effectively last Friday, President Obama must be ready to continue to directly engage President Putin on occasion to ensure our mutual understanding remains on track and to build trust.  This is not because Vice President Biden or Secretary Kerry are inadequate in any way; it is simply recognition of the fact that only the U.S. President can engage the Russian President directly and that the Russian system is just a bit more centralized than ours.

Andrew Kuchins is the director of the Russia & Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jeff Mankoff is a fellow and deputy director of the Russia & Eurasia program at CSIS.

Critical Questions
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Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Andrew C. Kuchins