The root cause of Ukraine’s recent regime change is a result of a geopolitical battle fought between the European Union and Russia. The internal conflict in Ukraine is a consequence of chronic corruption, impoverishment and an ethnic division that was polarized by nationalist parties and public figures with the use of propaganda run campaigns.
On the geopolitical level, the European Union and Russia have been seeking to integrate Ukraine as an essential trading partner by offering Ukraine the opportunity to join and merge into their respective economic blocs. Russia and a few former Soviet republics are in the process of instituting a Eurasian Customs Union (ECU), a system equivalent to the European Union, in which Ukraine is envisioned as a key actor.
On the other side of the spectrum, the EU has been working with the Ukrainian government on an Association Agreement (AA). The AA is a broad treaty that would require Ukraine to implement democratic and human rights norms, increase cooperation among various industries, open its energy sector and facilitate security cooperation. The main component of the AA is the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), similar to our own North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area requires parties to give up trade tariffs. Under it, the annual savings for the EU and Ukraine combined will be roughly 750 million euros a year, of which the EU will receive a greater portion of the savings. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s dilemma came from EU and Russia’s unwillingness to form trilateral agreements whereby Ukraine could foster close ties with both powers.
Bringing Ukraine closer to the EU is not limited solely on the interest of gaining economic benefits from such a partnership. It appears that the EU wishes to integrate Ukraine in order to limit the expansion the ECU. The ECU has a well-structured legal framework which will enable Russia and its partners to have greater influence over international trade and politics. The stronger the ECU, the more power and leverage it will have to dictate diplomatic and economic terms in the future.
Ukraine is pivotal to strengthening the ECU economically and institutionally. That may explain why the EU, with the help of the United States, are fighting hard to isolate Russia and win over Ukraine. Last year, Russia managed to briefly win by offering massive financial incentives. The incentives kept Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovich, from signing the Association Agreement, which triggered the Ukrainian revolution last November.
Infuriated by Yanukovich’s decision, people marched to the streets and began demanding for less political corruption and greater independence from Russia’s sphere of influence. Many Ukrainians were (and still are) suffering from economic hardship, widespread corruption, and poverty. People were hopeful that closer integration with the EU will lead to an overall improvement of their economic, political, and human rights condition. Yanukovich’s refusal to sign the AA opened the opportunity for a political battle that fueled an ethnic blame game.
Europe and the United States were quick to react and began supporting the anti-government rallies in Kiev. The unfortunate part of the picture is that ultra-nationalist groups, such as the xenophobic wing C14 from the political party Svoboda, participated in the anti-Yanukovich movement and pushed the protest toward a more aggressive and violent direction. Furthermore, after the regime change, the new government did not establish a sense of confidence among the ethnic Russians in Ukraine. One of the first steps of the new government was to remove the Russian language as one of the official languages of Ukraine. Kiev replaced regional governors with preferred individuals, and some members of the anti-Russian Svoboda Party were taking up key political, bureaucratic, and security positions.
These key steps were perceived as an anti-Russian move, and it is the primary reason we have been witnessing rebellions in eastern Ukraine. When a new regime comes into power, the key political positions will be responsible for distributing resources and passing laws. While the previous regime under Yanukovich was widely supported by the Russian electorate, the new regime is primarily run by ethnic Ukrainians and some individuals from within Kiev have been waging an anti-Russia propaganda war. Unlike in Crimea, no evidence has been provided that the rebels are part of a Russian government force. However, Ukrainian media is labeling rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk as terrorists and are claiming that Russia is running the show in eastern Ukraine.
The new president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, appeared to search for diplomatic solutions. As of recently, Poroshenko has declared a unilateral ceasefire with the rebels and has promised to protect ethnic Russians, allow for the regions to have greater autonomy, run regional elections, and provide amnesty if the rebels lay down their arms. Moreover, Poroshenko fired a few members from the Svoboda Party who were in key government positions. However, the ceasefire was shortlived. The negotiations between Ukraine, EU, and Russia did not include the rebel factions. Without the representation of all parties in the conflict one cannot expect any fruitful agreement.
The rebels have been losing territory and are now concentrated in the cities of Lugansk and Donetsk. If the war continues, the next stage of combat will take place in an urban environment, where most of the burden will be placed on the remaining civilians in Donetsk and Lugansk.