GUEST CONTRIBUTOR AT SAIS WASHINGTON
The unfolding situation in Ukraine has quickly become the most pressing issue on the European continent. With an interim government in power in Kyiv, growing unrest and separatism in the Crimea, and Russian actions growing more proactive by the hour, the situation calls for caution on all sides, especially from the European Union. Given the complexity and fluidity of Ukraine’s situation, the EU is best served by remaining distant yet attentive to the progression of events.
It is thus prudent for the EU not to engage the Euromaidan (“Eurosquare”) movement in Ukraine now, but rather act as a mediating force when necessary. Despite the fact that the failed association agreement between the EU and Ukraine sparked the protest, the nature of the Ukrainian crisis has taken on a much more complex meaning. For the EU to embrace the protesters would be to support a camp they might not fully understand or agree with ideologically.
The protesters on the Maidan were not a singular group of like-minded romantics, as they are often portrayed in the media. They are perhaps the most pluralist movement in Ukraine at the moment, and were only united in ousting Yanukovych. Among them are democrats, nationalists, the far-right and even young hooligans who were out to just throw a brick or two. To engage with the protestors, the EU could inadvertently give its support to nationalists.
The EU also must be cautious when approaching the opposition. Many of the new leaders in the interim government have been accused of corruption in the past. They also staff a government that ousted a democratically elected leader.This author is no Yanukovych apologist, but the former president’s absence does not imply stability, nor is it necessarily a productive context on which EU engagement would yield fruit.
Engagement with the opposition or protesters would have an impact on EU relations with Russia. Ukraine is high on Putin’s thermometer rating as evidenced by the more than 100,000 troops presently on the Crimean border. The EU has already successfully negotiated the cease-fire of a previous Russian intervention in Georgia during 2008, but any such negotiating power would be jeopardized by a strong EU position in favor of the protesters and interim government, one that a sizable part of the Ukrainian population does not recognize.
The best policy for the EU is to watch attentively until the May elections and then quickly engage the duly elected government, which will most likely be the opposition. The EU will be in a position to help the Ukrainian economy by returning stability to their currency and moving forward with negotiations on the association agreement. The hallmark of the EU’s foreign policy is caution. Antagonism would represent a tone not yet seen in their affairs and could potentially damage the EU’s image.