Open Europe Blog

Ukraine’s future is in the balance. It could move closer towards the EU, Russia or both at the same time. It could remain a unified state, split in two or conceivably be invaded by Russia. Here are some of the scenarios which we’ve ranked according to their probability.

Closer ties with the EU – Ukraine was due to sign an association agreement with the EU, the cancellation of which caused the crisis in the first place. With a new government and Ukraine on the brink of financial default Ukraine will be looking for EU help and finance. Full EU membership, and certainly NATO membership, will remain off the table but the original trade agreement looks likely to be signed.
Partial reconciliation with Russia – It is highly unlikely that the new government will wish to move closer to Russia, and will not wish to join Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union (itself incompatible with the EU deal). That said Ukraine cannot ignore Russia – it is dependent on it for its energy, it has substantial debts with Moscow and it is its largest trading. There is also the question of the large Russian minority and Russian speaking minority that would strongly oppose Ukraine distancing itself from its Eastern neighbour. Much depends on the pragmatism of the new Ukrainian government, the Russians (President Putin in particular) and the EU – ultimately it is in the interests of all sides to ensure stable political and economic relations. 

Remain a unified state – 
Although the ethnic/linguistic divides are stark (see below) the split is not as straightforward as it looks. There are ethnic Russians (in the Crimea), ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian as well as other minorities. The revolution was undoubtedly triggered by Yanukovich’s decision to opt for closer ties with Russia and not the EU but widespread discontent fuelled by corruption and bad governance were crucial in bringing things to a head. As long as the new government is inclusive, remains on good terms with Russia and avoids antagonising the Russian minority too much the state should hold together.

Divided – but how?
Disintegration – If the new Ukrainian Government – backed with financial support from the EU – decides to ignore the concerns of Russian speakers in the East it risks provoking an insurrection in these regions. The ex-President is still at large and could be a focus for areas wary of coming under the control of the protest movement that they did not support. The most dangerous flash point is in the Crimea, which only joined Ukraine in a transfer organised by the Ukrainian Soviet supremo Khrushchev. Crimean Secession seems unlikely for now but it’s worth remembering the Russian Black Sea fleet is based here.

Invasion by Russia – There is a danger that if Russia feels frozen out of the Ukraine all together it could act as it did in Georgia in 2008 and seek to intervene in support of a proxy interest. In this case, if the new government were to threaten Russian interests or ethnic Russians in the Crimea, it could prove a pretext for Russian intervention. Russia could back secessionists or act in its own interest and annex the Crimea. Russia would pay a heavy price (Ukrainian military action and western retaliation on its fragile economy) so for as long as its interests are secure this remains an extreme scenario.

The stakes are high for the European Union. Ukraine has many links to EU states – parts of its territory have been part of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania and further back Lithuania – but the EU should be careful. Russia has an equal claim to close relations with Ukraine and any mutually exclusive deal with the EU will raise tensions. The new government and the EU should of course establish good relations, but Russia needs to be a part of the process and so too does the large Russian speaking population in Ukraine – the EU risks confrontation if they are not included in the process.
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