The unrest in Ukraine, which recently flared into violence, is dividing the country and intensifying long-standing tensions between Russia and the West. Public protests started in December 2013 over President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon a deal with the European Union in favour of aid and natural gas agreements with Russia. The protesters, who for weeks were peaceful and even returned equipment to the police after water cannon was used to disperse crowds in the capital, Kiev, have seized government offices across the country, including the Justice Ministry. Their demands include an end to corruption and self-enrichment by the ruling political elite, and at least four people have died as security forces opened fire. Mr. Yanukovych has softened his position by putting an amnesty for protesters through Parliament and by offering the prime ministership and deputy prime ministership to the respective opposition leaders, Arseny Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko. But the opposition parties are furious that the amnesty requires the protesters to vacate the occupied buildings, and the offer of political posts has been rejected.
Mr. Yanukovych has now taken a time-out by going on “sick leave,” but his cosmetic measures are bound to fail because Ukraine is a prize in a geostrategic tussle between Russia and the West. To start with, the President’s policies since his election in 2010 have troubled a substantial section of Ukraine’s 46 million people, especially those in the western regions, who support accession to the EU. Eastern Ukrainians, however, prefer closer links with Russia. Secondly, the EU deal was tied to an IMF bailout that would require public-spending cuts and higher gas prices. Thirdly, NATO and Ukraine have held joint exercises, which they have progressively enlarged, though Parliament cancelled the 2009 manoeuvres. The EU association agreement proposes deeper Ukraine-NATO links, though only 30 per cent of Ukrainians favour NATO membership; such proposals fuel support for aggressively ethno-nationalist far-right coalitions such as Prawy Sektor (Right Sector). Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has blocked the Kiev-EU agreement with €15 billion in aid, cheaper gas supplies, and trade deals. While Moscow sees NATO as trying to encircle Russia, the Atlantic alliance has repeatedly tried to invent new roles for itself since the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation collapsed in 1991, and both NATO and the IMF have in effect tried to hijack the EU’s relations with Ukraine; neither Ukrainians nor the EU must allow themselves to be traduced thus, and Ukraine’s future direction must be decided solely by Ukrainians.